Sunday, 11 April 2021

The Way of the Samurai

AuthorEiji Yoshikawa (Hidetsugu Yoshikawa)
First Published: In serialised form between 1935 - 1939
Pages: 301 (984 in total)
Ebook Publisher: Kodansha International
Ebook Date: Aug. 2012

Musashi is the title of a Japanese historical epic novel written by Eiji Yoshikawa that relates the tale of the life of legendary 17th century swordsman Musashi Miyamoto. In real life, Musashi himself was the author of the famous book on swordsmanship, The Book of Five Rings as well as The Path of Loneliness. He is regarded as a Sword-Saint (Kensei) in Japan, and was the survivor of sixty-one duels. His is renown for adopting the style of simultaneously wielding both a katana and the wakizashi, something unheard of in the 17th century. 

Musashi the novel, was originally published in serialised form between 1935 and 1939 in the newspaper Asahi Shimbun. Since then it has been translated and appears in both a single volume edition as well as being divided into separate paperback titles. It is commonly advertised as the "Japanese Gone with the Wind". For my review, although it is now available in single volume in eBook format, I have decided to read the paperback editions (purely because they have been sitting on my bookshelf for over twenty years waiting for the right time to be read). Although the tale of Musashi in it single volume form, is split into seven "books", the paperback titles do not confirm to the precise same structure. for instance, Book One in the single volume version consists of Chapters 1 to 12 - but my paperback copy published by Corgi in the UK in 1990 ends with Chapter 15 "Hannya Plain"; all of Book One "Earth" and half of Book Two "Water". Books One and Two are quite short in comparison to later Books, so these feels in keeping with the rest of the Corgi editions which consist of seven titles.

Eiji Yoshikawa was born in the Kanagawa Prefecture of Japan in 1892. The collapse of his fathers business, meant that he had to abandon his own education before completing Primary schooling ad start working as boy at the tender age of only eleven years old. Following various degrees of success at different jobs, Yoshikawa eventually found himself winning first prize in a novel-writing competition at the age of 22. By the time he was 29 he had joined the staff of a newspaper, and soon began to contribute serialised stories for publication. This success led to him to begin work on the life of Musashi.

Most of Yoshikawa's work is influenced by classical Japanese work. He liked to retell these stories with his own unique style, often bringing a more contemporary feel to them. Among his other work are reinterpretations of The Tale of the Heike and The Water Margin. Publishing house Kodansha have issued a massive 80 volume set of his works, many of which are not available in the English language.

The first book in the paperback set of Musashi is called The Way of the Samurai, and begins on the abandoned battlefield of Sekigahara, following the confrontatation between Ieyasu Tokugawa and Ishida Mitsunari on October 21, 1600. A young Takezo (who will eventually become Musashi) and his young friend Matahachi lay recovering among the dead and wounded, their side defeated by the Tokugawa forces, who are now raiding through the devastation beheading fallen samurai and helping themselves to the spoils of war.

Takazo helps his friend to escape the scene of their defeat and they eventually find themselves coming across a small-holding. The house is the property of Osugi and Oko, widowed mother and daughter, who make thier living by growing herbs and ransacking the corpses of samurai, selling the pilfered armour and weapons to a local bandit so as not to be evicted from the homestead.

As the women help Takezo and Matahachi recover from their wounds, both mental as well as physical, it is Matahachi who begins to succomb to the womenly advances of the widow Osugi. A raid by the bandits is heroically defended by Takezo, using only his ferocious anger and a wooden sword - but despite this show of skill, the following morning finds him alone and deserted by his childhood friend and the two devious women. Takezo decides to make his way back to his home village, to inform Matahachi's mother that he is still alive, and to also tell Matahachi's fiance, Otsu, that she has been spurned by her betrothed.

In order to return to the town of Miyamoto, Takezo has to break through the regional border that has been imposed by the government. He is a survivor of Sekigahara and does not wish to be imprisoned or worse. This is a serious crime, and results in a manhunt being launched to capture him. Even the locals within Miyamoto are conscripted in the efforts to capture him. 

Meanwhile, Otsu, who lives within the temple and befriends Bhuddist priest, Takuan, is being courted by Matahachi's mother to leave the temple and come to live with her. Otsu knows this will mean that she will become nothing more than a slave to the old women, and still holds out hope that Matahachi will return to marry her so they can live in peace.

As Takezo makes his way back home, it becomes apparent that all of these events will make it difficult for him to peacefully approach his friends and family with his news...

The Way of the Samurai is a highly entertaining opening for the tale of Musashi. It is clear why the western world compares it favourably with Gone with the Wind. There is a large cast of characters, all of whom have significant parts to play, often making recurring appearances and having unexpected meetings with each other over the months and years of the story. There are some truly unforgettable scenes - for instance Takezo being strung up in a tree for days in order to contemplate his past misdemeanours, present situation and future self.

By the end of the first book, Takezo will have transformed into Musashi Miyamoto. But also, all of the key players in this Japanese samurai drama will have been set up, and will have thier own stories sufficiently fleshed out to make the reader want to see where this is gloing to lead. In terms of action, although there are a number of battles and duels, Yoshikawa doesn't spend too much time on them. They are often, as they most likely were in real life, fast and furious with devastating consequences. The fact that Takezo is only armed with a wooden sword means there isn't going to be any severed limbs or heads here - but he can still be quite deadly as his prowess and skill improves over time.

As you would expect, there prose can be a bit hit and miss with translated works. To be fair, this edition is quite good. However, and this may be completely down to the original source, the first few chapters read quite childlike in thier struture. I was a bit dissapointed but perservered, and was glad I did as things improve after a while. You also have to take into account that this is a work from the 1930's, and is telling a tale set in the 17th centrury.

As a first installment, I feel The Way of the Samurai hit all the right spots to introduce the key players and set the scene. Takezo/Musashi goes through a rather dramatic change in his developement - one which I hope will further '/~?kq`

iking histirical fiction

that time in Japanese history.tender 
interpretations of The Tale of Hieke
Mention the name "Agatha Christie" to anyone, and even if they are not books fans, there is a good chance they will have heard of her creation, the Beligian detective, Hercule Poirot or one of the novels that he takes part in, such as Murder on the Orient Express, or Death on the Nile. Such is power and sucess of Christies books that she is still regarded as the Queen of Crime or the Mistress of Mystery. Critically speaking she is bullet-proof. As recently as the year 2000 (nearly 25 years after her death) she was crowned "Best Writer of the Century" and the Hercule Poirot books "Best Series of the Century" at the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention.

Thirteen years later, a staggering six hundred members of the Crime Writers' Association chose her novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd as "the best whodunit ... ever written", and again voted her the "best crime writer"; considering this is coming from an assocaition of professional novelists it is difficult to ignore. And it's no surprise that all of this praise is accompanied by massive commercial success, her books are hot property, not least when it comes to movie and television adaptations. Christie has been lauded as the second most financially successful crime writer of all time in the United Kingdom, sitting firmly behind James Bond author Ian Fleming. Estimated earnings are considered somewhere in the region of £100 million. The Christie estate continues to prosper into the 2020's with projects almost unhindered by the passage of time and tastes. Many of her stories manage to maintain such a grip that they are often produced as period pieces, retaining the settings and historical trappings of thier original publication dates.

Hercule Poirot was the star of Agatha Christie's first published novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1920. It introduced the world to the short rotund Belgian dandy and his "little grey cells", Inspector Japp and Poirot's companion, Captain Arthur Hastings. Follow

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