What’s Happening In The Story
As Book II opens, we get a brief glimpse of Matahachi’s life since he fled with Oko and Akemi and abandoned Musashi. He is not happy, fulfilled or productive. In fact, when he hears that Musashi is in Kyoto visiting the Yoshioka School, he sends a message to his old friend that praises Musashi’s growing reputation as a swordsman while bemoaning his own lack of accomplishment and shame. He vows to improve himself and meet Musashi again in the future.
Since abandoning Otsu at the bridge, Musashi has been roaming the country—honing his sword skills and studying people and nature. Determined to become the greatest swordsman of all time, Musashi has been visiting various martial arts schools and asking for challenge matches—a practice that often ends with the deaths of those foolish enough to accept. (At one point, he manages to dispatch a group of ronin in a spectacular battle scene that describes what Musashi feels like while in battle. This was a particularly interesting section to read—though fortunately there were no visuals.)
Yet despite repeatedly proving his strength and swordsmanship, Musashi also realizes he still has much to learn. An encounter with an old priest named Nikkan is particularly troubling to him, and he ponders the cryptic advice Nikkan gives him:
That you’re too strong is the only thing I have to teach you. If you continue to pride yourself on your strength, you won’t live to be thirty. Why, you might have killed yourself today. Think about that, and decide how to conduct yourself in the future.
During his travels, Musashi picks up an apprentice—a headstrong boy named Jotaro. Although Jotaro often causes more trouble than he is worth, Musashi sees much of himself in the boy and vows to do right by him. For his part, Jotaro has a knack for getting in scrapes, but his loyalty and devotion to Musashi cannot be questioned.
Toward the end of the book, Musashi and Jotaro end up at the castle where Otsu happens to be staying. Since Musashi abandoned her at the bridge, Otsu has scoured the country looking for him—following any possible leads she can. After almost encountering each other several times (a bit of comedy on Yoshikawa’s part I think), Musashi finally recognizes Otsu from her flute playing. He realizes he loves her:
He was miserable, yet there was something in him that couldn’t surrender to these feelings, something that told him it was wrong. He was two different men, one longing to call out to Otsu, the other telling him he was a fool. He couldn’t be sure which was his real self. Staring from behind a tree, lost in indecision, he seemed to see two paths ahead, one of light and another of darkness.
Yet Book II ends the same as Book I—with Musashi once again running away from Otsu.
As Otsu and Jotatro take off to find Musashi, Takuan makes a brief appearance and tries to convince Otsu to give up her love for Musashi, warning her about this one-sided love affair. This discussion led to one of my favorite passages in the book so far:
Otsu was getting angry again. She might as well have been talking to thin air, she though, for Takuan had never been in love. It was impossible for anyone who’d never been in love to understand how she felt. For her to try to explain her feelings to him was like trying to explain Zen Buddhism to an imbecile. But just as there was truth in Zen, whether an imbecile could understand it or not, there were people who would die for love, whether Takuan could understand it or not. To a woman at least, love was a far more serious matter than the troublesome riddles of a Zen priest. When one was swayed by a love that meant life or death, what difference did it make what the clapping of one hand sounded like? Biting her lips, Otsu vowed to say no more.
Will Musashi finally stop running and talk to Otsu?
Will Jotaro catch up with his master?
I suppose we’ll find out in the next book!
Some Brief Thoughts
Although I struggled at times with some of the Japanese names, the book remains readable and involving. I was glad to see the characters we met in the first book make appearances again—even if only for a moment or two. (Even Osugi shows up … still in hot pursuit of Musashi.) I enjoyed the addition of Jotaro and look forward to seeing how he develops. Yoshikawa also has a neat little trick of setting up scenes and characters without telling you everything up front, but then, when he reveals the specifics, you’re delighted to realize who the beautiful woman on the road is (Otsu) or the drunken man in the back room (Matahachi).
I also enjoyed how Yoshikawa has Musashi and Otsu almost cross paths several times but keep making choices that take them in different directions. I also think the descriptions of Musashi during battles were particularly well-written and involving. Yoshikawa’s descriptions were both poetic and immediate—putting you right inside Musashi’s mind. If I may be so bold, I found it a bit thrilling. It is almost enough to make me want to take up martial arts or swordfighting!
If you’re participating in the Musashi Readalong and wrote a post for Book II, please link it up below. I very much enjoyed reading everyone’s posts for Book I. I thought we all brought something different to the table, and I was gratified to find that you’re finding this book as engaging as I am. My next Musashi post on Book III: Fire will be posted on October 11th. Happy reading!