Miyamoto Musashi (1584?-1645) was probably the most famous Japanese swordsman in history, particularly outside Japan.
Musashi was born Shinmen Takezo, the son of a low-ranking samurai. He fought and won his first duel at the age of 13, and by the age of 16 he left his home village to wander Japan and develop his fighting skills. After being on the losing side of the Battle of Sekigahara, he eventually made his way to Kyoto, where he began a series of duels with that city's Yoshioka school.
Musashi was reportedly victorious in at least 60 duels during his lifetime, and by some accounts went undefeated. In one duel, Musashi is said to have been ambushed by most of the Yoshioka school's students at once, and defeated them all. Another duel prompted him to develop a Dual Wielding sword style, known as Niten Ichi-ryu ("Two Heavens As One" style). However, his most famous duel was with Sasaki Kojiro, whom Musashi killed with a single blow with a bokken (wooden sword) that he carved from an oar on the boat ride to the island where the duel took place (the day of which he overslept and arrived over an hour late).note There is considerable debate about the details of this duel. Some scholars even dispute that it ever occurred at all, and think that Musashi simply murdered Kojiro for political reasons.
After his duel with Sasaki Kojiro, Musashi retired from dueling and for a time became a strategist for hire. After several more years of wandering, he was given a ministerial position and became a Warrior Poet, as well as an accomplished calligrapher and painter. It was also during this period that he wrote his famous Book of Five Rings. After his death in 1645, he was often considered a Kensei ("sword-saint").
Musashi is well known for his strategic brilliance. One of his most famous strategies (which could even be considered his trademark) was his tendency to show up rather late to scheduled duels in order to upset his opponents, resulting them in not being able to fight at their best. In his final duel with Kojiro, it is speculated by some people that Musashi exhibited almost Xanatos-level planning, timing his arrival so that he was not only late (infuriating Kojiro and taking the edge off his skill) but also so that upon finishing his duel he would be leaving as the tide was going out, thus enabling him to make a swift escape from Kojiro's followers and supporters who might have chased after him to avenge Kojiro's defeat.
Contrary to popular belief, Musashi did not die in a great battle. He died peacefully of thoracic cancer at his home at the age of 65.
Interestingly, some accounts describe him as a rather unkempt man (these claimed he didn't bathe often due to not wanting to be vulnerable) whose looks didn't age well, and the classic depiction of him with nearly blue hair might be a reference to hair dye. However, considering how hard it would be to maintain a position as a samurai and never look presentable means that this is probably a myth.
Compare Yagyu Jubei.
References to Musashi appear in the following works:
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Anime and Manga
Getter Robo — One of the heroes is named Musashi Tomoe and he's a talented martial artist.
Though given the name of the other Getter-3 pilot, Benkei Kurama, it's likely that his name was intended as a reference to the warrior-monk Benkei Musashibou.
Pokémon — In the original Japanese version, Jessie and James are named Musashi and Kojiro, with Musashi being Jessie.
Also, Jessie/Musashi's mother (who was also a Team Rocket agent) is named Miyamoto, according to the CD drama version of Mewtwo's Birth.
Samurai Champloo — An old man claims to be Musashi in one episode, well over 200 years after Musashi died. He was fairly obviously jesting, however. Also worth noting is Jin's design, which slightly resembles Musashi's.
Shura No Toki — Musashi is a major character in the first Story Arc of the series, and mentioned in the second.
Yaiba — A really old, really short Musashi is Yaiba's mentor.
Urusei Yatsura — One entire episode is devoted to sending up the Musashi story.
In an episode of Full Metal Panic!, Tessa challenges Mao to an Arm Slave duel. Because she is a complete klutz and needs all the help she can get, she shows up late to the duel; Mao's irritation leads Kurz, who is spectating, to ask if she's ever heard of Musashi.
Gintama has a Musashi-like person, an balding old man dressed in a blue jacket, yellow cap, white fundoshi and practically nothing else. He lives in a cart which he calls "My Sweet Home". Prone to saying fairly decent things on occasion such as "we eat when we can".
Then, of course, there's the infamous Musashi Gundoh... where a young Musashi fights demons using two pistols.
Eyeshield 21: The Devilbat's kicker is nicknamed Musashi and his rival is a man named Sasaki.
Vagabond, a manga adaptation of the Yoshikawa novel by Takehiko Inoue (also author and artist of Slam Dunk), albeit with notable differences in characters' backgrounds, events and personalities.
The most striking character change would be that this Sasaki Kojirou is deaf, mute, and has a generally childish attitude... not to mention has had his "adoptive mother" kick multiple girls out of his bed. (Despite this, when she breaks up the first Musashi vs. Kojirou encounter — over Kojirou trying to bisect Musashi's snowman with a tree branch — due to dinner time, he's happy to give her a piggyback ride back into the house.)
As for events? When Musashi tries to put the feud with the Yoshioka behind him after killing both the dojo head Seijurou and his younger brother Denshichiro, the new head is not the young Genjirou (in the novel Musashi charged through the Yoshioka ranks in a surprise attack to take out this last head) but rather the "third brother" Ueda Ryohei who plans to have all seventy Yoshioka men jump Musashi at Ichijouji. When Musashi finds out he at first does the smart thing and leaves the capital... only to run back down the mountain, charge into their midst, and he slaughters them all.
In Real Bout High School, Ryoko is challenged to a duel by Azumi, who then shows up late, leading one of the spectators to comment that Azumi is playing the same trick as Musashi.
Sailor Moon, Episode 139: the villain fakes being a great sword fighter, of the “Miyamoto Tarezo” style. When he’s informed that the name is really Miyamoto Musashi, he complains that there should have been furigana, giving the correct reading of the kanji name.
Yu-Gi-Oh!: Ninashi, a member of the Six Samurai, might be a reference to Miyamoto Musashi; a master swordsman well known for his Niten Style (2 sword combat style). Both the name and two swords are reminiscent of Musashi, and his appearance in Six Style - Dual Wield reinforces this reference.
According to one limited series, Wolverine learned to be a Ninja from a master who once confronted Musashi — and both of them backed down, realizing neither could win.
The Book of Five Rings, of course.
Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa. This has been adapted for other media several times, as seen below.
In the Ciaphas Cain, HERO OF THE IMPERIUM!!! novel Duty Calls, Musashi is part of a two for one reference when Cain (a famously skilled swordsman) briefly thinks of his old sword instructor, Miyamoto De Bergerac
An expy of Musashi, Masamoto Takeshi, appears in the Young Samurai series as the founder of the Niten Ichi-Ryū school and Jack's adopted guardian.
Hiroshi Inagaki's "Samurai Trilogy", based on Eiji Yoshikawa's novel and starring Toshiro Mifune as Musashi:
Samurai I - Miyamoto Musashi — Honorary winner of the 1955 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
Samurai II - Duel at Ichijoji Temple.
Samurai III - Showdown at Ganryu Island.
Seven Samurai — Kikuchiyo (also played by Toshiro Mifune) resembles Musashi in his youth, while Kyuuzo resembles Musashi near the end of his dueling career. The Single-Stroke Battle between Kyuuzo and an unnamed opponent early in the film was in fact inspired by one of Musashi's duels.
Live Action TV
Heroes — The character name Takezo Kensei is a Shout-Out to Musashi. (Takezou is an alternate pronunciation of the kanji for Musashi. In the Yoshikawa novel, Shinmen Takezou becomes "Musashi of Miyamoto village," hence the name.)
The NHK taiga (an annual, weekly historical period drama) for 2003 was MUSASHI, a generally faithful adaptation of the Yoshikawa novel.
Music And Sound Effects
"Sun And Steel" — A song by popular British heavy metal band Iron Maiden about Musashi's life.
Samurai Warriors 2 and Warriors Orochi (a crossover with the Dynasty Warriors franchise)- Appropriately, here he was specifically chosen to be THE premiere swordsman of the games he appeared in and true to form, he is universally considered the best in the game for that weapon. His moveset homages the notes he writes about form and technique in his book with little flash and very direct motions save for a leaping strike and his jump attack.
The Last Blade features a zombified version of Musashi as a sub-boss.
In Live A Live's Bakamatsu chapter, the evil Lord Ode Iou summons Musashi's ghost (This being the Bakamatsu era, several centuries after Musashi's death) to fight Oboro, calling him the greatest swordsman of all time. If you fight him instead of avoiding him, he's not only extremely powerful, but he also turns out to be the least evil boss in the chapter. He just wants to fight you to see how strong a ninja you are.
Sengoku Basara treats him with less respect than most other franchises, depicting him as a bratty teenager who, while strong, is incredibly stupid and arrogant, with many foul habits and no fighting technique.
Heishiro Mitsurugi of the Soul Series is based almost entirely on Musashi.
Nightmare's joke weapon in Soul Calibur 2 is a wooden oar with the description "Perhaps it was modified by someone who heard the legend of the Japanese swordsman who won a duel with an oar and decided to try it himself."
Ryu Hayabusa, in the Xbox remake of Ninja Gaiden, can obtain a large wooden oar (complete with glowing kanji runes) named Unlabored Flawlessness as his nigh-impossible-to-get Ultimate Weapon.
Funnily enough you obtain it by upgrading a cheaply bought wooden sword for an enormous price. bit of a role reversal from musashi's famous duel (paddle>sword=sword>paddle).
Hark! A Vagrant gives us a slightly different take on his battle with Kojiro. Fairly accurate, actually, apart from omitting the whole "sharpening the boat oar into a bokken" thing. Essentially, he beat Kojiro in the head with a heavy piece of wood with a wedged end - kind of like the equivalent of whacking him with a baseball bat.