Miyamoto Musashi is often considered to be the greatest swordsmen of all time. He developed his own style of swordsmanship and wrote The Book of Five Rings. This novel tells a fictional account of his growth both in character and in his swordsmanship, but beyond examining Musashi and his journey towards his legacy, Musashi also showcases a whole cast of characters who are trying to do what they think is right against the backdrop of a Japan that has just started a new era. Many characters are on the fringe of society (including Musashi) and the novel explores the societal backlash experienced by these characters, how far they are willing to go for what they believe in and how it doesn’t matter who you want to become in the world, but why you do the things that you do.
Musashi’s goals are essentially becoming one with the sword, and his devotion to this goal looks almost religious in nature; he alienates himself from societal obligation and materialistic desires so he can truly focus on what he believes to be his life purpose. This devotion results in both admiration and rage from the people he encounters. While most are impressed by how hardworking and sincere he is, his lack of respect towards those of higher status gets him ostracized by several communities and results in several people trying to kill him. None of this proves to be a crutch to him; allies are able to help with “materialistic” needs while enemies provide a training ground to improve and develop his survival skills and swordsmanship. The biggest crutch of his is always shown to be his inner struggles as opposed to any danger/opposition from others. This is especially pronounced when other characters are shown in this novel, who are clearly foils not only to Musashi, but to each other. The other characters in the novel serve not only to make Musashi seem like an outlier in his devotion to his goals, but also to portray how different kinds of people overcome their own personal demons. It’s not an unbiased portrayal however; it is very clear who you are meant to like and not like. When Musashi kills, he is humanized for his actions because his intentions are portrayed as legitimate, when other male figures kill, it’s horrible because they are after the wrong things. These characters are not simply evil archetypes, but people who have chosen to deal negatively with what life has handed them, or simply don’t know any better due to their circumstances and the norms of their society. They are not portrayed to be morally ambiguous characters, but when you step away from the book and think about them for what they are, you can see why they act the way that they do. It’s also worth noting that almost every character is shown to grow into a much better person.
Yoshikawa does an excellent job of describing the socio-political climate of Japan at the time. Given the political change and Musashi’s nomadic lifestyle, you can see the lives of several different kinds of working class people during this era, as well as how culture and politics affect these people, their ambitions and attitudes. He is also amazing at describing scenes that would translate so well to a movie (which does exist, FYI).
Apart from character development and an action driven plot, there’s even a bit of angst-filled romance in this novel. The romance doesn’t ever distract from the main story, but is a means of exploring the character development of the love interest Otsu. Otsu’s goal in this novel is to be with Musashi, which may seem like an aggravating goal of the main female love interest, but this goal results in Otsu standing up for what she believes in and gaining control over her life. Both Otsu and Musashi are relentless in their goals but Musashi’s goals atleast improve his mental and physical well-being, while Otsu’s goal do the opposite. I don’t know if this is meant to be “romantic” or actually meant to show how following your dreams is not always the best idea. Many other characters revolve around Musashi as well, whether its’s killing him for dishonouring their family, or trying to be his discipline, Musashi makes a strong presence on the people he meets and yet very few make a strong impression on him. He has no problem discarding people in his life and others seem to have no problem with his false promises and abandonment. His lack of concern for others and their feelings is never shown to be a bad thing; rather other people are petty for trying to take his mind off of his swordsmanship and are only redeemed when they are happy for him advancing in his career. I don’t mean to make this sound like a novel where the characterization is poor, but quite the opposite; I think Yoshikawa does a great job of creating people who you can argue for or against, while also making it apparent who he thinks we should or shouldn’t cheer for. While Musashi may seem too good to be true, I think Yoshikawa gives him quite a lot of bad traits that are apparent once you take a closer look. I never noticed his weaker traits until I sat down to write this review.
At the end of the day, I think Musashi has something to offer for several types of readers: it’s historical fiction, it has a huge cast of great characters, there is an angst-filled romance and there is a lot of action.
If the size intimidates you, I’d recommend checking out the manga adaption instead, although be warned that the author seems to have abandoned the series as a volume hasn’t been released since April 2015.
This novel is part of my No Book Left Behind Project