It was with considerable relief that I read the first book of Eiji Yoshikawa’s epic Musashi. It proved to be highly readable and interesting. In fact, I finished Book 1 in a single sitting. After all, when you’ve convinced a handful of people to read a 970-page book about a Japanese swordsman with you, you want it to be a good experience. (Unlike, say, The Brothers Karamazov Readalong, which has been hellish from the start.)
The Story So Far
Wow! Talk about your opening lines:
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 on the autumn breeze.”
Our hero (known as Takezo at the start of the book) is lying on the plain of Sekigahara on the “fifteenth of the ninth month of 1600.” His side has lost a battle, and Takezo fears he is the only one alive. Luckily, his best friend Matahachi has also survived. Reunited but injured, the two friends struggle to find their way home to the village of Miyamoto. They seek refuge in a house belonging to a mother (Oko) and daughter (Akemi). The two friends move into the house to recuperate and recover their strength. However, Oko’s refusal to kowtow to Temma—the professional looter who controls the local territory and murdered Oko’s husband—leads to trouble. One morning, when Takezo awakens, he finds the house empty—Oko, Akemi and Matahachi have fled and left him behind.
Angry and saddened at his friend’s betrayal, Takezo slowly makes his way home. He dreads telling Matahachi’s mother and fiancee of his abandonment. He also knows he won’t be greeted with open arms by the villagers. You see, Takezo is a bully who has difficulty controlling his temper. Abandoned by his mother and raised by his distant and cold samurai father, Takezo lacks discipline and refinement, which makes him unpopular and feared. Yet he has nowhere else to go, and he longs to see his beloved sister, Ogin.
At the village, we meet Otsu (Matahachi’s fiancee), Osugi (Matahachi’s strong-willed mother), and Takuan (an eccentric monk). When Takezo is sighted in the local temple, chaos ensues. Blaming him for her son’s death, Osugi instigates a manhunt for Takezo in the mountains. Ogin is taken prisoner to serve as bait. Yet Takezo manages to evade everyone for days. Finally, Takuan asks the local samurai to give him and Otsu three days to capture Takezo. His only condition? If he brings him back, Takuan can decide Takezo’s fate.
Otsu and Takuan live in the mountains for three days and finally attract Takezo to their camp fire. When he brings Takezo back to the village, Takuan has him lashed to a tree for punishment. Takezo and Otsu bond over their mutual loss of Matahachi, while Takuan attempts to teach Takezo self-discipline. One night during a storm, Otsu frees Takezo and they escape. But Takezo must free his sister so Otsu makes Takezo promise to meet her by the Hanada Bridge “whether it takes a hundred days or a thousand.” When she finds out that Takezo has escaped, Osugi sets off in pursuit.
After failing to free his sister, Takezo runs into Takuan, who hands him over the lord of the local castle. Takezo is locked up in a haunted room where light never shines. His only companions are mountains of books. Takezo stays in the room for three years and emerges a different man. Takuan—pleased with the new man that Takezo has become—suggests that Takezo be freed and given a new name. Takezo is rechristened Miyamoto Musashi. As he leaves the village, he crosses Hanada Bridge where—lo and behold—Otsu is waiting. She’s been waiting for 970 days and reminds Musashi of his promise to take her with him when he leaves. He reluctantly agrees—but when Otsu goes to gather her things, she returns to find Musashi gone and note saying “Forgive me. Forgive me.”
- After being so intimidated by this book, I feel slightly ridiculous now. The writing is amazingly accessible. I got caught up in the story from the start, and the pages flew by. One thing I noticed was that the writing seemed more simplistic than I expected. Not that I’m complaining! I just thought it would be more difficult reading. However, the hardest thing about the book is its sheer weight. It isn’t a book that can be read lying down (you’d knock yourself unconscious if you dropped it.)
- I’m reading my dad’s copy of the book and found a quote he highlighted. Because one of my reasons for reading this book is to connect with my dad, I thought I’d share it.
Loneliness, she mused, is like hunger; it isn’t outside but inside oneself. To be lonely, she thought, is to sense that one lacks something, something vitally necessary, but what she knew not.
- I loved how, in just a few hundred pages, Yoshikawa establishes Musashi’s origins, personality and his journey to becoming a better man. As with all the best hero stories, our hero starts out flawed and unformed. Under Takuan’s “tough love,” Muasashi starts down the path that will make him the great man he will become. I, for one, am glad to be on this journey with him.
If you’re participating in the Musashi Readalong and wrote a post for Book I, please link it up below. My next Musashi post on Book II: Water will be posted on October 11th. Happy reading!