Monday, 8 April 2013

The Real Musashi: The Bukoden

I have been sitting on this book, waiting for the time to give it the review it deserves, and even so, I will have to skimp a little.

It is the second in the series by William Lange, the first being The Bushu Denraiki, which I reviewed here.

A complementary volume, "Miyamoto Musashi: a life in arms" which looks to go into the life of Musashi in more depth, from a variety of original sources is due out soon, so perhaps this is timely. 

Like The Bushu Denraiki, this volume consists of a translation of one of the main source documents concerned with the life of Miyamoto Musashi, together with copious notes and explanations.

Both the Bushu Denraiki (1727) and the Bukoden (1755) were later rewritten ­– as the Heiho Senshi Denki (1782) and the Nitenki (1776) respectively, by a former pupil (in the case of the former) and the son (for the latter) of the original authors. It is these 2nd generation works that tended to be drawn on by later generations of writers, especially the Nitenki. Both the Bushu Denraiki and the Bukoden were compiled from handed-down accounts of those who had known or had contact with Musashi, and thus provide a fascinating picture that goes beyond the well known anecdotes that many of us are already familiar with.

Both of them have strong connections with the followers of Musashi’s style of swordsmanship, and although they are not technical works, they are particularly recommended for those who are studying Niten Ichi-ryu, as examples of historical documents relating to their study.

Matsui Toyoyuki (1704-1771) head of the Matsui
clan at the time the Bukoden was written. (Courtesy
of Yatsuhiro Museum, Kumamoto).

The Bukoden was written by Toyoda Masanaga, who was a senior retainer of the Nagaoka (Matsui) family, who were vassals of the Hosokawa, an important daimyo family based in Kumamoto and with whom Musashi spent the last years of his life as a guest. The Nagaoka family had direct dealings with Musashi both during his early years (as sponsor for his duel with Sasaki Kojiro) and later on, and were assigned to care for him in the very last months of his life. To this day the Matsui Collection has some very impressive examples of Musashi’s artwork (I wrote about it here) as well as much else, and Toyoda Masanaga was fencing instructor to the family in Nito Ichi Ryu, Musashi’s style.

Given that he was based in Kumamoto, Masanaga’s account has more detail on the later period of Musashi’s life, complementing the Bushu Denraiki (which tends to be stronger on the earlier period), and Masanaga had access to his father’s collection of oral traditions, writings, letters and artwork. His father had also been sword instructor to the Nagaoka and had compiled his own technical treatise many years earlier.
The Shadow of Musashi's father - a painting
by Inoue Takehiko.

Much of the content of The Bukoden will be more familiar to readers than was the case with The Bushu Denraiki, and there are few surprises in the general outline it gives of Musahi’s life. The anecdotes it includes are interesting, and several were completely new to me. One interesting story told how Lord Hosokawa’s attendants had, at the instigation of their lord, planned to slam a pair of sliding doors on Musashi as he bowed prior to entering the anteroom to the lord’s chambers. Musashi had placed his fan in the grooves the doors ran in and so the doors were jammed open, earning Lord Hosokawa’s praise. The same story is also told of Araki Murashige, who had earned the wrath of Oda Nobunaga, and it is possible this same story was handed down and the names changed. In this version, it was planned as a trick or a test, but in the Araki version, the intent is murderous. As well as the nature of the attack and the response, there is another connection between the two,– Musashi’s father appears to have had a close connection with the founder of the Araki Ryu (Araki Murashige’s father), and it may even be that this precaution was passed down within Musashi’s father’s teachings.

Where de Lange shines is the detail he puts into the background notes. This is a valuable resource especially where it fleshes out minor characters referred to in the text. However, the nature of this kind of material can make it somewhat hard going, and this is not helped when details are repeated or material is included which has only a passing relevance to the text (relating to the Bushu Denraiki , for example) and I think some tighter editing might have been helpful here. The same goes for the appendices, which include details which seem quite unrelated to the text, in fact.

But these are minor quibbles, and this book is a valuable addition to the field. If you want to know where all those stories of Musashi came from, this is one of the primary sources, and as such, should be on the reading list for all serious Musashi afficianados.