Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Miyamoto Musashi, A Life in Arms

A review of William De Lange's account of the life of Miyamoto Musashi.

Of all Japanese swordsmen, Miyamoto Musashi is the best known, and his life story has been told in one form or another any number of times, both in print and on the screen. Many of these retellings have been coloured by Yoshikawa Eiji’s fictional account, a blend of fact, creative interpretation and fiction, which continues to exert its influence, and this is despite the years that have passed and the increased availability of documentary evidence of various aspects of Musashi’s life.

Much more of this is available in Japanese than in English, although in the past ten years or so, there have been a couple of notable works in English which sought to dig deeper into his life, and although both of these took some trouble to use historical sources, the Yoshikawa story was floating there as a shadow in the background – a kind of template from which to begin.

Perhaps this is not surprising as the story is so well-known, and Yoshikawa himself researched the subject quite deeply… of course, as a novelist, he was more interested in the story than in strict historical accuracy, but in tying together the available accounts, favouring those that fitted his story while ignoring those that didn’t, he created a work that has become common background knowledge and a starting point for almost everyone in the field.

A new biography, Miyamoto Musashi, A Life in Arms by William de Lange, comes at Musashi’s life from a different perspective. Based directly on historical documents, it gives us us quite a different picture of Musashi’s life. De Lange has already published two volumes giving translations of two of the principal source documents on Musashi’s life,(reviews here and here) but this is something different. Drawing on these, as well as numerous other sources, he builds up a new version of the swordsman’s story, enlarging here, filling in there, and covering much ground that will be totally new for many.

In any work of this kind, much must be left to the judgement and imagination of the writer, and de Lange handles the details and conflicting storylines drawn from these sources with assurance, weaving them together to form a narrative that is both fresh yet also faintly familiar. Parts of the story do, indeed, form some part of the familiar tale – Musashi’s visit to Kyoto and the duels with the Yoshioka family, the visit to the spear wielding monks of Hozoin and the duel with Sasaki Kojiro – but it adds detail to these and fleshes out Musashi’s time after this in far greater detail than most accounts – I found the information on his time in the Akashi/Himeji region and his relationship with various small lords of the area particularly interesting, showing the degree of fame and influence he had obtained at a reasonably young age, and also lending ammunition to the opinion that he was fighting on the side of the Tokugawa forces both in 1600 and 1615 (although more direct evidence of this is also presented) as all these daimyo were firmly in the Tokugawa camp.
Meiji Period portrait of Musashi prepared
for battle. Shimada Bijutsukan, Kumamoto
The story that emerges is, in many ways, more nuanced than previous tellings. We see Musashi as a man in some demand, a swordsman who has built a reputation, partly through his service on the battlefield and the connections he made in military campaigns, but who remains determined to retain his independence. Building on his connections, including his father, with whom he stayed close until the latter’s death, he became well-known and sought after, teaching and providing a variety of other services in the military line, including looking after the heir to Lord Ogasawara during the Shimabara campaign. He was well respected, that much is certain, and mixed with the high and mighty, but like a well-respected academic who refuses tenure, he never entered permanent service.

It is the part of the biographer to offer his/her own views and insights into the motivations of his subject, although it is understood that these are, to some extent, interpretation, not fact. In this case, de Lange was working from documents that provided little or no direct indication of Musashi’s inner life, and so he has had to apply his own interpretation more liberally than would be necessary  for many other subjects. Some of these are quite insightful and provide a fresh and interesting take on the subject. He deals in some depth with Musashi’s relationship with his father, and speculates that Musashi’s refusal to become a feudal vassal owes much to the effect this state had on his father, who was ordered to execute one of his own students for a minor lapse in protocol. The subsequent sense of shame and guilt, he suggests, overshadowed the rest of his life, and engendered in Musashi a determination not to make himself beholden to any such authority himself.

At other times, although perhaps necessary for the sake of the narrative, the mixture of facts drawn from historical documents and feelings placed in the mind of the protagonist can be a little jarring, and momentarily calls into question the line between the two. Those familiar with the author’s previous books will be aware that there are plenty of contradictions between these (and other, later) accounts, and although the author has generally steered a good course between them, in this account he chooses those which suit the narrative, rather than arguing the case for his choice; if you are familiar with some of these other possibilities, their omission can, at times, seem rather glaring, but what the book sacrifices in terms of completeness, it gains in clarity. This is a minor point, however, and the well-referenced text generally clarifies the sources of most of the information.

Given the choice to rely so heavily on historical accounts. it is not surprising that the book sometimes feels a little sparse, despite its 159 pages of text and another 95 of back matter – it is not the author’s place to embroider the evidence too heavily – but that is a small price to pay for a book that lays out this hard-to-come-by information so clearly. It is certainly a valuable book, and one that has grown on me with subsequent readings. True, there are one or two places where I would question the author’s interpretation, but that does not lessen it’s value, and I would whole-heartedly recommend it to anyone with more than a passing interest in the area.