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Literature / Musashi

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Featuring awesome swordfights, epic Character Development, melodramatic loves, thrilling escapes, and thoughtful reflections that don't sound like they came out of a Cracker Jack box, Musashi is perhaps the quintessential samurai epic. A long Serial Novel written by Eiji Yoshikawa and published between 1935 and 1939, this novel follows the path of legendary Rōnin Miyamoto Musashi as he slowly transforms from violent thug to Martial Pacifist using the Way of the Sword. It's had several adaptions over the years, the two most notable being the Samurai Trilogy of films starring Toshiro Mifune,note  and the manga Vagabond by Takehiko Inoue.

The story of Musashi's quest to become the greatest swordsman of all time begins, ironically, with him lying among the wounded after the Battle of Sekigahara, which historically marks the beginning of the end for the era of great wars and honorable single combat among Samurai. Musashi, at this time named Takezō, and his childhood friend, Matahachi, with their dreams of military glory crushed, start on the business of evading search parties and trying to make it back to their home village of Miyamoto. Unfortunately, Matahachi falls in with bad company and ditches Takezō. Takezō, now pettily seeing himself as being at war against all mankind, goes on violent rampage in Miyamoto. Luckily for him, when he's eventually captured, it's not by the superior numbers of the law, but through the keen insight of Zen monk Takuan Sōhō.

Takuan, seeing something in Takezō worth saving, finagles him out of a certain death sentence and inspires him to make something of himself. After locking him in a room with a bunch of books for a couple years, Takezō, now named Musashi, sets off into the world to seek mastery of the sword. However, the bullheaded matriarch of Matahachi's family, Osugi, simply will not accept that her son's disappearance is not Musashi's fault and pursues him with the intent of killing him and restoring her family's honor. Also chasing him is the virtuous and pure Otsū, who pines for him and whom he must reluctantly deny if he is to continue his path. On his journey, he also runs into Matahachi, now a pathetic ne'er-do-well; Jōtarō and Iori, kids who become his apprentices; and Akemi who, after getting out from under the thumb of her vile mother, rounds out Musashi's love triangle due to the fact that he's one few people she's met in her life who hasn't abused her in some way.

And even without them, his path is strewn with obstacles. His opponents range from the amiable staff-fighter Gonnosuke to the decadent but still competent Yoshioka School to the vicious chain-and-sickle master Shishido Baiken. But his growing fame is matched by that of Sasaki Kojiro, an amazing but spiritually-stunted prodigy. A rivalry develops between them which they both know must be settled, sooner or later...

This novel contains examples of:

  • Artistic License – History: The novel plays this trope quite a lot, but one of the most egregious is at the very end. During the final duel between Musashi and Kojirō it's implied that Kojirō survived, whereas in history he did not.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Akemi. She knows it, and hates herself for it.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: When Takuan asks Takezō what he's going to do about his sister, who is locked away at Hinagura, Takezō bursts into tears, admitting that he doesn't know.
  • Arrogant Kung-Fu Guy: Kojirō, in spades. He's a boastful, condescending snob and a self-proclaimed genius. Unfortunately for his opponents, he's not wrong.
  • Back-to-Back Badasses: Gonnosuke watches Musashi's back so Musashi can focus on fighting Shishido Baiken.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story. The story is almost entirely a work of fiction, woven around records and legends of the historical Musashi's exploits. Most of the main cast are invented, and even the historical figures who appear are more characters based on or inspired by those people.
  • Big Bad: Sasaki Kojirō becomes this in the latter half of the novel, helping to mastermind the Yoshioka school and Osugi's schemes against Musashi. He also convinces Matahachi to once again turn against Musashi, just after the two have reconciled. Finally, the two settle their old score in the famous duel on the beaches of Ganryū Island.
  • Blood Knight: Musashi and Kojirō have shades of this, but Musashi is mainly focused on becoming a master while Kojiro will often pick a fight for self-aggrandizement or because he gets a sadistic pleasure from winning.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: To a 21st-century modern reader, the world that Yoshikawa immerses them in may seem to run on this. Two of the main points for this is the casual way people deal out violence and the institutionalized sexism which every character has internalized in some way. When Seijūrō rapes Akemi, it's presented as a distastful lapse on his part but not as the Moral Event Horizon that it would be today. Akemi even reflects that he wasn't that horrible a man after Musashi defeats him.
    • Musashi is this to all the other samurai. When he is barred from meeting (and challenging) a great sword master, Musashi promptly declares a battle between himself and the castle the master resides in. This strikes the guards as being melodramatic bordering on laughable, but this is the way Musashi looks at it. He's not looking for a mere contest of technique; he trying to test himself with fights where the fighters use all their spirit and all their ability to try and defeat the other. Whether or not they are two generals or two samurai is irrelevant. The prime example of this is when he "battles" the Yoshioka School. After defeating Seijūrō and Denshichirō, the leadership of the school transfers by hereditary succession to twelve-year-old Genjirō. Musashi is challenged to fight the child, assisted by retainers. In reality, the entire school is going to be there. Musashi stealthily slips past the outlying members until he is within range, whereupon he jumps out, declares the fight started, and, ignoring most of the retainers, slashes his way toward the terrified child and kills him. This act, which could have no effect on the outcome of the fight, shocks and outrages the Yoshiokas and Kojirō. Admittedly, killing Genjirō is a strain on Musashi's way of thinking, with the act still bothering him no matter how many times he reminds himself that he was "justified".
    • However, Musashi tries not to pick fights where the enemy is weaker than him. When he fought Seijūrō, he knew from a glance that he couldn't lose. Realizing that even Seijurō knew, on some level, that he didn't have a chance, Musashi tried to think of a way to call the whole thing off but realized that he couldn't decently do so.
  • Celibate Hero: Musashi, who doesn't enter a relationship (mentioned in the books) until the end, when he finally gives in to dogged nice girl Otsū.
  • Character Development: The Novel. This may have some basis in Real Life. Although he probably never became the samurai ideal he was presented as in the book, at least not until the last years of his life, it is known that Musashi stopped fighting fatal duels after the events of the novel, prefering to beat enemies without hurting them. He also became something of a Renaissance Man, becoming an expert in woodcarving, metalcrafting, and painting.
    • It's not just Musashi, either. Matahachi, Osugi, Akemi, and even Kojirō all manage to become somewhat more respectable people by the end of the novel.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Musashi developed his technique based on what works, giving him an advantage while fighting the Yoshiokas.
  • The Dandy: Kojirō is always dressed in flashy, elegant clothing that makes him look "like a kabuki player", as Jōtarō puts it. This is in contrast with the scruffy, unkempt Musashi.
  • Dead Person Impersonation: Matahachi tries to find that elusive "starting position from which I can become successful" by impersonating Kojirō, whom he thinks is dead. He's not.
  • Defiled Forever: With Akemi, the novel goes to great lengths to show that no, non-virtuous girls (even if they aren't really responsible for their lot in the first place) don't deserve a good life. Also played with with notorious whoremongering Matahachi, who ends up with said defiled Akemi, while Musashi gets virtuous Otsū.
  • Determinator: Musashi. Nothing, not riches nor love nor threats, will stop him from achieving mastery. As he started his quest, he would go to temples and say two prayers. One was for his sister, and the other was: "Please test the lowly Musashi with hardship. Let him become the greatest swordsman in the land, or let him die." This is later said to be the secret to his success:
    On Musashi's upcoming duel with Kojirō:
    Kōetsu: It'll be a test of strength between a man who's a genius, but really somewhat conceited, and an ordinary man who's polished his talents to the utmost, won't it?
    Gonnosuke: I wouldn't call Musashi ordinary.
    Kōetsu: But he is. That's what's extraordinary about him. He's not content with relying on whatever natural gifts he may have. Knowing he's ordinary, he's always trying to improve himself. No one appreciates the agonizing effort he's had to make. Now that his years of training have yielded such spectacular results, everybody's talking about his 'god-given talent.' That's how men who don't try very hard comfort themselves.
  • Diabolus ex Machina: After the duel at Ichijoji, Musashi and Matahachi meet up and reconcile, with Matahachi appearing to realize how foolish he's been throughout the novel. They separate, and Kojirō suddenly comes out of nowhere, lures Matahachi into a brothel, and convinces him to turn against Musashi.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Kojirō is genuinely disgusted by Musashi's killing of Yoshioka Genjirō, who was only a child at the time. He further criticizes Musashi for challenging the Yoshiokas at all, feeling that it was unfair for Musashi to duel men he so clearly outmatched.
  • Foil: Kojirō, to Musashi. Musashi is a ragged, unkempt country boy who spends most of his time as a vagrant, but is a deeply stoic and spiritual man who is devoted to improving himself in all possible ways. Kojirō is a well-dressed, silver-tongued fop who is at heart a cruel, arrogant sadist. Both men are fearless master swordsmen, but commit terrible acts—Kojirō rapes and tortures Akemi, and Musashi kills twelve year-old Yoshioka Genjirō to win the Duel at Ichijoji—as well as heroic ones: Musashi rescues a village from bandits, while Kojirō saves Matahachi and Osugi from the samurai of the Ono school. By the end of the novel, both men have managed to straighten themselves out somewhat, but in different ways. Musashi seeks out and eventually achieves spiritual insight and enlightenment. Kojirō, meanwhile, gains a position as the Hosokawa Clan's sword instructor that requires him to act in a dignified manner, which eventually becomes more natural to him.
  • Foregone Conclusion: If you've read Musashi's page, either here or on Wikipedia, you know how the story ends.
  • Food Porn: Inverted. Over the course of the 1000 page-novel spanning over several years, people of all classes only get to eat rice, occasionally tofu, and once or twice fish. Yummy!
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: No one really knows anything about Kojirō, except that he once fought with Musashi.
  • Hope Spot: Musashi reunites with Jōtarō and Otsū, allowing the former to resume his training and giving the latter a chance to talk him into being with her. Otsū convinces him that she wouldn't interfere with his training, and Musashi agrees to have a relationship. On top of that, Matahachi meets up with Musashi and is persuaded by him to become a scholar and turn his life around. Of course, it all goes straight to hell.
  • Hysterical Woman: While Seijūrō and Musashi fight, Kojirō attempts to provoke a fight with some Yoshioka swordsmen. Akemi comes out of nowhere and starts shrieking to everyone that he raped her. The whole thing is so random that the swordsmen think Akemi is this.
  • I Shall Taunt You: Musashi, seeing a battle as beginning before the actual fight, does this. He was famous for it in real life.
  • Improbable Weapon User: Baiken's chain and sickle. Musashi had heard of the weapon, and sought out Baiken to learn more about it. Although Baiken's wife showed him a stance during their first meeting, Musashi never saw the weapon in action until he fought Baiken.
  • I'm Standing Right Here: After Musashi's last fight with the Yoshiokas, Kojirō denounces him to a crowd of people. He accuses Musashi of depravity for killing Genjirō and of cowardice for running away. Sure, Musashi was able fend off and kill dozens of Yoshioka swordsman while escaping, Kojirō says to the crowd, but a real swordsman can fight several times his own number, especially when they are as weak as the Yoshioka School. After he finishes making his speech, noted to be a slight exaggeration of what he sincerely believes, he makes to leave and is chilled to notice Musashi smiling at him. Musashi kindly thanks him for his critique and tells him that he won't forget his words. Kojirō, catching the drift, politely tells Musashi that he wouldn't want him to.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Otsū, big time.
  • Jidaigeki: Specifically, the story takes place during the early years of the Edo Period of Japanese history, actually beginning with the aftermath of the Battle of Sekigahara, which marked the tilting of the balance of power in the favor of the Tokugawas. It also takes place before the siege of Osaka Castle, which was essentially the death knell for the Toytomis. In fact the conflict leading up to that final battle runs through some of the subplots in this story (with Matahachi and Jōtarō actually getting swept up in an attempt to assassinate Tokugawa Hidetada). In fact, much of the book's focus is on the transitional nature of the role of the samurai in this particular period, with the end of the Sengoku era meaning that the demand for numerous warriors to serve as soldiers for the many daimyos vying for control has dwindled. As a result, much of the story's focus is on the characters, including Musashi, trying to find new ways to employ the Way of the Sword for different purposes. In particular, Musashi is said to pursue the Way of the Sword as the Way of Governance.
  • Katanas Are Just Better: Surprisingly, played with and averted. In one sequence, it's noted that the nature of a particular scenario makes it very likely that traditional katana will get chipped or broken in a prolonged fight so Musashi avoids using his for very long. Katanas need fairly regular professional maintenance to restore their edges (a plot point hinges on this in one chapter), the main Cool Sword in the story is not even a katana, but a much longer, re-mounted tachi or cavalry sword, which is peculiar because of its very straight blade by Japanese standards, making it more akin to a Western backsword than a katana. Also, Musashi fights many of his duels with a hardwood bokken, or training sword.
  • Martial Pacifist: Musashi at the end. Several of the old masters are too.
  • Mook Chivalry: Averted. All the honorable samurai stuff you read about the Yoshiokas on the Vagabond page? Doesn't happen here.
  • Mundane Utility: In the final third of the novel, Musashi's development shifts from focusing on martial development through duels to focusing on ways to apply the Way of the Sword to situations and settings outside of the battlefield. This is a trait fueled by the transitional nature of the era Musashi lived in, with the Warring States period giving way to the early years of the Tokogawa Shogunate, thus the need for Samurai as foot soldiers fighting for daimyos has dwindled, leading many Samurai to look for alternative means to apply their skills and knowledge (as opposed to just becoming bandits, which many do). Musashi, in particular, at one point experiments with working as a farmer to apply the principles of swordsmanship to mastering one's environment in order to help develop a piece of land in a mountain village. Once they adopt Musashi's ideas, the village ends up prospering.
  • Near-Rape Experience: Yoshino was right. Musashi's long buried feelings toward Otsū suddenly overwhelm him, and he grabs her. He comes back to himself when Otsū resists, and realizes how far he still has to go. Musashi, being Musashi, jumps into a waterfall hoping to regain his discipline. Otsū, being Otsū, forgives him. The scene, in the movie, marks Musashi's transformation from Arrogant Kung-Fu Guy to Martial Pacifist.
  • Not Afraid to Die: One warrior temple actually has challengers sign a disclaimer before fighting them. Musashi thinks it is absurd, as a swordsman should always be prepared to die. He later reflects that it isn't really that hard a thing to do, given that we're all going to die eventually.
  • Pretty Boy: Sasaki Kojirō is described as boyishly handsome, with long hair and bangs.
  • Musashi Is Duel Wielding At You: One of the more popular covers.
  • Screaming Warrior: Definitely.
  • Serial Novel
  • Single-Stroke Battle: Most people only get hit once. As far as major fights go, the only one where both sides only take one swing at each other is the fight between Musashi and Seijūrō.
  • Stock Character: Despite his uncanny psychological insight, Yoshikawa's characters are mostly fleshed-out Japanese archetypes.
  • The Epic: Tells the story of how the legend of Miyamoto Musashi, the greatest swordfighter ever in Japan, was forged.
  • Time Skip: Takezō's transformation into Musashi involves 3 years interned in Himeji Castle learning the classics. It's covered quite briefly.
    • The two years or so of story up to the Yoshioka duel at Ichijoji moves at a solid pace, after which the time-skips get more and more frequent. Several years pass without much happening in the last quarter of the book. (This is perhaps due to the condensed nature of the English translation.)
  • To Be a Master: Musashi's main motivation.
  • Villainous Valor: He may be an arrogant, manipulative sadist, but Sasaki Kojirō is a truly skilled and fearless Master Swordsman. Musashi even notes that Kojirō alone is a more dangerous opponent than the entire Yoshioka school.
  • Villain Protagonist: Due to the Blue-and-Orange Morality and the fact that his single-minded quest for mastery causes pain to third-parties, Musashi is arguably this until he hits his Martial Pacifist stride about two-thirds of the way into the novel.
  • Walking the Earth: As Musashi did in Real Life, and which was a common practice.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Several priests call out Musashi for killing Genjirō.
  • Wooden Katanas Are Even Better: Musashi was the Trope Codifier in Real Life. He uses them a lot in the novel, too, but not all the time.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Musashi.
  • Yamato Nadeshiko: Otsū; Patient, devoted, not a push over and, of course, Japanese.