AUTHOR: Eiji Yoshikawa
GENRE: Historical Fiction, Historical Romance
PUBLISHED: 1935, English translation 1981
PURCHASE LINK: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: Mobilism
The Courage to Face One's Shadow, Eiji Yoshikawa's Musashi.
Musashi is a quaint yet beautiful romance centred around the historical sword-saint of Japan, Miyamoto Musashi. Set shortly after the history-defining Battle of Sekigihara in 1600 which set the stage for the rise of the Tokogawa Shoguns, this fictional biography follows Musashi as an undeveloped but extremely strong itinerant swordsman in his pursuit to become invincible under the sun. It's a Bildungsroman type narrative taking place over approximately a decade, and it showcases Musashi's maturity in a holistic fashion. This being an understanding of the relationship between man, society and nature as he practices the art of Bushido, kills many dozens of men in duels, and gains greater strength.
Each successful duel brings with it a slow realisation that true strength comes not from sword-skill alone but from an understanding of that elusive state of grace called Zen, the intricacies of life that arise out of a consonance with society and nature, and the refined pursuits such as art, sculpture, poetry or the crafts that crystalise an individual's skill and harmony with his materials to produce beauty. These moments are inflection points in the narrative, where appreciation is gained for the subtleties of being. It's also where animal-like savagery is tempered through the development of spirit and intellect, where such achievement is shown to be of at least equal value to the pursuit of swordsmanship.
Musashi's single-minded devotion to physical and especially psychological self-betterment is contrasted by a varied cast of characters who display humanity's basest traits. Due to an abject lack of self-reflection, they remain unaware of or willfully ignore the fact that their situations in life are a product of self-created psychological traps from which they have no desire to escape. They find comfort in familiar afflictions and are more than content to play the victim for the luxury of self-exculpation it affords. The onus for their misfortunes must fall on anyone but themselves. And so, they drift flotsam-like without any real agency, all the while bemoaning the inequities inflicted on them by life.
There is a very Tolstoy-esque quality to the work. It's not just in the comparisons of motivations and mind-states of the large and varied cast, but also in the way Yoshikawa paints grand, panoramic sweeps of society through its many strata in a vein equivalent to that of the Russian author, and with comparably gentle and warm language. There is also kinship between the characters Miyamoto Musashi and, say, someone like Constantin Levin. They both strive for harmony between themselves and society whilst attempting to remain true to their personal moral purpose, even if they must make adjustments and navigate [in Jungian terms at its most superficial] the chaos with which their journey is littered. In classic fashion, it is through discipline and constant vigil against ego that an underlying order is discovered within the havoc of the world, and which finally brings them to unity with themselves.
The work is a wonderful saga full of adventure and duels, but one that also delineates the entire spectrum of man's chained psychological state without losing its light, even occasionally humorous touch. There is a quaint sensibility that infuses the work with charm, and that feeling never dissipates. The descriptions of duels and Musashi's many introspective passages are also brilliantly rendered, often achieving a febrile intensity that holds the imagination in a vice-like grip. What's remarkably done is the gradual shift in focus. The initially childish desire for strength through physicality metamorphoses into a subtler yearning to rid oneself of ingrained behavioural patterns that impede self-awareness. Yet, this latter focus buttresses the former. It's a journey on the path to enlightenment and from a decidedly Bushido perspective. Overlap with aspects of the work between Yoshikawa and Tolstoy has already been mentioned, but a more accurate description would be that Musashi is an offspring of Tolstoy's maturity and Dumas' romance with the manners of Henry James as an occasionally visiting uncle.
Recommended to anyone with a love of adventure. Also for those with an interest in the graceful exploration of perennial themes such as the various facets of man's suffering, and the quest for harmony and personal truth that is part and parcel of all truly great literature.