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The Lone Samurai    by William Scott Wilson order for
Lone Samurai
by William Scott Wilson
Order:  USA  Can
Kodansha International, 2004 (2004)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Samurai swordsman Miyamoto Musashi was a legend in his own time (the 17th century) and remains one to this day in Japan (where 43 films about him have been released since 1908). Beginning at age 13, Musashi fought (and won) over 60 duels before he was 30. He spent the next 3 decades travelling, training, and teaching. I found William Scott Wilson's Musashi biography (the first published in English) totally fascinating. It begins with research sources, a map of Japan flagging places mentioned in the book, and a timeline. An Afterword describes Wilson's trips to the island of Musashi's most famous fight and to Reigan Cave, where the swordsman spent some of his last days. Appendices discuss the development of this living legend, through oral storytelling, Kabuki, literature and movies.

The first surprise is the fact that this revered hero was an eccentric loner in a country whose culture emphasizes conformity - which makes me wonder about Western perceptions of the Japanese psyche. The second is that this famous swordsman (who had no formal training in any of the disciplines he mastered) rarely used a real sword, and usually faced his opponents' real weapons with a 'bokuto', a wooden sword. And this man, generally perceived as a rough character, also became one of the most respected calligraphers and painters of his time (some impressive pictures of his art are included in the book, under the name 'Niten'), as well as a renowned garden designer and author. In all the arts, of both war and peace, Musashi valued 'observation and intuition' and excelled in both.

Musashi lived most of his life as a 'shugyosha', an ascetic traveler (somewhat reminiscent of knights of old England or Wild West gunslingers, wandering their territories and challenging peers to battle, in order to hone skills and reputations). His participation on the losing side of the pivotal Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 kept him out of the political mainstream thereafter. His comet-like rise to personal fame began in 1604 when, at the age of twenty-one, Musashi brought down a respected school of swordsmanship in Kyoto. His most well-known encounter ('the most famous one-on-one fight in Japanese history') was the defeat of the 'Demon of the Western Provinces' on an island called Mukaijima. In this and his other duels, Musashi defeated his opponents through applied psychology as much as with martials skills.

Wilson introduces us to associates who influenced Musashi, both artists of the Kyoto Renaissance, and Zen Buddhist priests. He describes the qualities of the two apprentice/heirs that the great man trained, and the Edo courtesan, Kumoi, with whom he briefly dallied. He discusses the blow that Musashi took from the death of his friend and eventual patron, Lord Tadatoshi. And he lets us see Musashi the man through the subjects of the exquisite art that he produced in his later years, as well as via a summary and explanation of his final masterpiece, The Book of Five Rings. This emphasizes 'never-ending discipline', taking the initiative, and doing the unexpected. On his deathbed, Musashi left his disciples twenty-one maxims, 'The Way of Walking Alone', including 'Consider yourself lightly; consider the world deeply.'

This is an intuitive biography of one of the world's great men - an extraordinary, highly intuitive individual, who mastered a range of arts, including the martial, by first mastering himself. There's a lot to be learned from reading (and re-reading) The Lone Samurai.

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