MUSASHI by Eiji Yoshikawa


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Originally written as a late-1930s Japanese newspaper serial and then published in 26,000-page book form (a much-filmed bestseller), this episodic Samurai epic, ca. 1600-1610, has now been edited down to a 1000-page English translation; Edwin O. Reischauer's introduction tells us that it's more authentic then Shgun and calls it ""the Gone with the Wind of Japan."" Perhaps. But the version here, unfortunately, reads more like the Batman and Robin of Japan: a slow-moving, repetitive comic strip that incongruously mixes implausible, fable-like plotting with the dialogue of American action-pulps. Yoshikawa's hero is young Takez, a ne'er-do-well who, with chum Matahachi, winds up on the losing side in the 1600 battle of Sekigahara; the two become fugitives, hiding out with aging courtesan Ok, slaughtering some bandits (""All right, you bastards, watch this""); and Matahachi, though betrothed to Ots back home, lustfully stays with Ok and daughter Akemi. Takez returns to their village, however--where he's taken prisoner by ironic, hypnotic priest Takuan, who puts him in isolated spiritual training for three years and gives him a new name. So reborn ""Musashi"" then enters the world as a self-taught, unorthodox, two-handed swordsman--forever pursued by flute-playing Ots (who swears undying love) and by Matahachi's grotesquely feisty mother Osugi (who swears undying vengeance). Musashi goes to Kyoto, enraging the Yoshioka School with his triumphant challenges to duel; he acquires a loyal disciple, Jtar; he survives attacks by Osugi and other enemies; he becomes briefly infatuated with top courtesan Yoshino. But, thanks to assorted spiritual advisors, Musashi realizes that he must aspire to more than swordplay: he strives for self-discipline (avoiding Ots, who's kidnapped by Matahachi); he seeks the ""all-embracing Way of the Sword""; he discovers nature; he befriends a peasant village; he continues his challenges in Kyoto and Edo, leading up to a showdown with super-Samurai Sasaki Kojir). And meanwhile (in disjointed, often-confusing episodes) Matahachi tums over a new leaf as priest and husband to much-raped Akemi; Jtar is kidnapped by a shrine-robber with an anti-Shgun assassination plan; and Osugi, after nearly killing Ots, repents. Coincidental meetings galore, a modicum of routine swordplay, a few chunks of now-familiar Samurai philosophy, and nonstop chatter riddled with jarring, unintentionally hilarious slang (from ""yeah"" and ""lousy"" to ""cut the small talk""): probably of greater interest overall to students of Japanese culture than to Samurai-fiction fans--who've been spoiled by ShOgun and other less ""authentic"" but more readable and atmospheric Way-of-the-Sword sagas.

Pub Date: Aug. 19th, 1981
Publisher: Harper & Row