Review by Jeff Broderick copyright © 2004 all rights reserved
The Lone Samurai: The Life of Miyamoto Musashi
by William Scott Wilson
Kodansha International, 287 pp.
Hardcover, $24.00 US
In reading book reviews, particularly those books aimed at a niche audience like martial artists, one quickly realizes that the term “must read” is so overused as to make the phrase almost meaningless. In addition, the tiny number of English-language books published each year on topics related to classical Japanese swordsmanship is so tiny that, for anyone with even a remote interest in the subject, any book is essentially a “must read”. If this book on the life of Miyamoto Musashi were mediocre, it would still find its way onto the shelves of the majority of western budoka, but the fact is that it is well-written, well-researched, and eminently readable, and truly deserves to be granted “must read” status.
“The Lone Samurai” examines the life of Musashi, starting with anecdotes about his childhood, moving through the period up to age 30 during which time he fought over 60 duels without defeat, and culminating in his twilight years in Kyushu, where he turned his mind to the greater philosophies of life, and produced a dazzling array of artistic masterpieces. It goes on to look at the way in which Musashi came to epitomize the very Japanese ideal of the solitary warrior and the search for “The Way”.
The youth of Musashi, before he achieved a measure of fame, is filled with contentious and contradictory information, including arguments concerning his time and place of birth, his true parentage, the source of his skill at swordsmanship, and even the way in which he fought his duels. One sometimes gets the sense, when reading these passages, that it must be impossible to sort out the truth about the real Musashi, but Wilson does a remarkably good job in evoking the spirit of the man, despite a tendency to wax lyrical at times.
Wilson, the well-known translator of Hagakure, The Unfettered Mind, and others, also produced the outstanding translation of Musashi’s famous Book of Five Rings (Go Rin no Sho) which featured both an English and corresponding modern Japanese version. Making that translation must have required a good deal of supplementary research on Musashi himself, which Mr. Wilson has put to good use with this book on the life of Japan’s most famous swordsman. Despite the relative scarcity of reliable information in English on Miyamoto Musashi, it would seem that there is an enormous amount of information in Japanese. Wilson has distilled this down to its essence to provide a factually rich biography.
This book is an extremely welcome resource, considering that the majority of English-language descriptions of Musashi seem to rely heavily on the story of Musashi’s life as fictionalized by Eiji Yoshikawa and perpetuated numerous times in movies, television, and comic books. As is usually the case, the truth of Musashi’s life is even more interesting than the fiction. The book is well-researched while avoiding a dry, scholarly tone, and features a large number of extensive notes, three lengthy appendices (including a surprisingly long list of Musashi film adaptations), a full bibliography, and maps of important locations in Musashi’s life. More illustrations, particularly colour plates of Musashi’s work, would be welcome.
Considering the large number of gaps and contradictions in Musashi’s life story, some speculation and extrapolation is to be expected, and Wilson’s seem mostly reasonable. He balances viewpoints, and avoids the definitive statements seen in other biographies. He also paints an excellent portrait of early-Edo Japan, in a turbulent period of social upheaval, and his occasional forays discussing the art, philosophy, and politics of the period are a welcome way of filling in the background for the casual reader.
Overall, this book is excellent. It manages to bridge the gap between Musashi’s extraordinary life and the musty documents of today, and paints a vivid portrait of a man who embodied the ideal of solitary contemplation, spiritual development, and complete self-reliance. William Scott Wilson is to be commended, and the martial arts community will be eagerly anticipating his next work.