Saturday, October 2, 2010

Musashi Readalong - Part 1

Readalong hosted by Jenners at Life...With Books.

Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa - translated from the Japanese by Charles S. Terry.
With a foreword by Edwin O. Reischauer.
First published 1971.

The Classic samurai novel about the real exploits of the most famous swordsman.

The 970p volume is separated into seven different books and we're reading one for each 9 day period of the readalong.

Book 1 - Earth

Opening line - " Takezo lay among the corpses. There were thousands of them. 'The whole world's gone crazy," he thought dimly. " A man might as well be a dead leaf, floating in the autumn breeze."

Japan, 1600 ---- Lured to the great Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 by the hope of becoming a samurai–without really knowing what it meant–Takezo regains consciousness after the battle to find himself lying defeated, dazed and wounded among thousands of the dead and dying. On his way home, he commits a rash act, becomes a fugitive and brings life in his own village to a standstill–until he is captured by a weaponless Zen monk, Takuan.

While initially feeling sympathy for the predicament of eighteen-year-old Takezo, and his friend Matahachi , it becomes apparent as the story tells of his growing up, that he is a bit of a hoodlum. Raised by a strict and abusive father he becomes the village bully , an undisciplined and violent young man who only has himself to blame for the situation he finds himself in.

The lovely Otsu, seeing in Musashi her ideal of manliness, frees him from his tortuous punishment, but he is recaptured and imprisoned. During three years of solitary confinement, he delves into the classics of Japan and China. When he is freed he is a changed person and determined to follow the true 'Way of the Warrior'. He is given a new name and will from now on be known as Miyamoto Musashi.

Loving the historical background! never overpowers the adventure and action but it's rich with details of the lives of the people, the clothes, the food, the work of the villagers and life in the monastery. Much of the descriptive prose relates to nature which provides a nice contrast to the everyday activity - " Takuan felt that he himself had turned into flowing water, splashing through a ravine, playing in the shallows. When the high notes sounded, he felt his spirit wafted into the sky to gambol with the clouds."

Great characters - their individuality really comes alive through their words and actions. Some of the dialogue is very amusing and it's the only time I realise I'm reading a translation. Many of the characters are real people like one of my favourites, Takuan the monk - 'a famous Zen monk, calligrapher, painter, poet and teamaster who founded a monastery in Edo, but is best remembered for having left his name to a popular Japanese pickle."

The women!! One of my concerns about reading this book was that it would be all 'boys stuff' and imagined if there were female characters they'd be timid, submissive little kimonoed ladies tottering several paces behind their menfolk. Not so - I first noted the mention of how Tazedo's mother had left her husband and son and gone off and married someone else which seemed unusual for the times. But then there is also...
  • Oko and her daughter Akemi - on their journey home the boys take refuge in the home of this widow who makes a living by sending her daughter out to rob corpses.
  • Otsu - Matahachi's betrothed, raised in the monastery, she can read and write and is the one who frees Tazedo.
  • Osugi - a most formidable lady, the 60-year-old mother of Matahachi and 'the real head of the family'. When she discovers Tazedo has escaped she determines to chase him down - herself. "Having already donned suitable attire for a manhunt, she slipped the short sword in her obi...."
You don't mess with these ladies - all of them are perfectly capable of thinking and acting for themselves.

Wonderfully entertaining and interesting - I'm enjoying it immensely!


  1. This sounds interesting, I do like the opening sentence.


  2. I love love love your write-up! Perfection! I struggled with my own because I read the first book so early and then kind of lost the thread of it. I didn't realize it would be such an "easy" read.

    I agree with you ... the women are just as strong as the men (if not more so). You don't want to mess with Osugi.

    Can't wait to read the next book!

  3. Thanks Jenners - there is so much happening I found it hard to keep to a short synopsis.

    Marce - it is a great opening with several layers of meaning.