NHK (Japan’s National Broadcasting Co.) 2003 Series on Musashi—This could be my favorite.
“You must cultivate your wisdom and spirit. Polish your wisdom: learn public justice, distinguish between good and evil, study the Ways of different arts one by one. When you cannot be deceived by men you will have realized the wisdom of strategy.” Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings, The Book of Water.
As we know from previous posts, Musashi is often regarded as the greatest samurai of all time. He was undefeated in over 60 duels and has attained the legendary status of Sword Saint (“kensei”). Aside from being an undefeated swordsman, Musashi was also a painter and calligrapher. It seems like he applied his Way of the Sword to all walks of life.
The 42nd NHK Taiga Drama “Musashi” (Taiga Drama is the name NHK gives to the annual, year-long historical-fiction television series it broadcasts in Japan) is based on the famous biography written by Yoshikawa Eiji, “Musashi,” often considered the “Gone with the Wind of Japan.” Yoshikawa’s novel is one of my favorite novels of all time and I’ve read quite a few novels. So if you get a chance or have some time read it you will not regret it. Anyways, back to the show.
Like the two other series, Musashi’s story begins just after the great Battle of Sekigahara. Musashi joined the battle because he always dreamed of becoming a strong samurai. In this series we learn that his father Shinmen Munisai had abused him when he was a child, constantly berating him as a useless weakling. Such treatment instilled a tough will to become strong and powerful to surpass his father to prove he was no weakling. The NHK series takes several episodes to show that Takezo was fueled by rage, leading a life filled with bloodshed and carnage. However, as the series progresses, at the end of each episode Musashi learns one valuable lesson after another that life is not a matter of brute strength, but also a spiritual path that involves the perfection of his sword techniques contemporaneously with the mind.
The initial episodes follow Musashi as he travels across the country challenging many fighters and their unique styles of fighting as he undergoes the rigorous training to become one with his sword. After each episode the show retraces Musashi’s path through modern day Japan showing the viewer historical markers and other remnants of Musashi’s life. Even better, we start to see Musashi’s unconventional tactics employed to give him an edge in his duels—like showing up two hours late to fights wwhich infuriated his opponents thereby distracting them from the task at hand and more.
Joining Musashi in his travels are his childhood friend Matahachi, his starry-eyed lover Otsu, his disciple/adopted son Jotaro and the sagacious Zen monk Takuan. Here NHK takes some interesting turns from both series we have previously watched; that is, it portrays Matahachi more as a comical character bumbling his way through life. For instance, Matahachi is seen as an inept swordsman, but in the book this is not the case—he is in fact quite competent having fought and survived at Sekigahara. He, like anyone else, just looks bad when standing next to Musashi. It reminded me of reading the original Sherlock Holmes stories describing Dr. Watson as an intelligent man—a physician. However, Watson is usually portrayed as a bumbling fool in most movies and TV episodes.
The first several NHK episodes also begin to raise the political aspect of the story, namely the struggle of power between the Tokugawa and Toyotomi clans. If you have seen the TV miniseries “Shogun” or read James Clavell’s novel, you have heard of Tokugawa Ieyasu. He was the first shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate of Japan and ruled after winning the Battle of Sekigahara creating a dynasty that lasted many many years. One issue persistently raised throughout the series is the samurai way of life v.s. the political life. The inevitable tension between the paths are represented by Musashi and Yagyu Munenori (another famous samurai). Musashi chooses the spiritual reclusive life free of politics to follow his Way of the Sword and true spiritual strength. Yagyu Munenori, on the other hand, leads a Machiavellian political and worldly life serving the shogun to gain power, rank and respect. We will see how these two lifestyles play out during the series.
As the episodes progress, numerous themes and issues emerge but I have no intention of revealing them all in this post. Here we are only going to go as far as our other two movies.
Be that as it may, I really enjoy the NHK series (and in fact have enjoyed every one I have seen). Because NHK has fifty hours to work with instead of six-ten like the films, they can (and do) take their time to try and tell the tale of such an extraordinary life.
Next, we delve into the appropriate film sequels setting the second stage of Musashi’s journey through Japan.