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Musashi-NHK’s 2003 49 Episode Series Part 1.

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.


Posted by on April 28, 2011 in Movie Reviews


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Zen & Sword and Showdown at Hannyazaka–been having some internet problems lately.

Zen & Sword (1961) and Showdown at Hannyazaka (1962)

“The Way of the warrior does not include other Ways, such as Confucianism, Buddhism, certain traditions, artistic accomplishments and dancing.  But even though these are not part of the Way, if you know the Way broadly you will see it in everything.  Men must polish their particular Way.” Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings, The Ground Book.

Now we are going to look at the first two installments of the five part series on Miyamoto Musashi starring Nakamura Kinnosuke as Musashi.  I must tell you at the outset that these films go into much more detail than the 1954 Mifune series—in fact it takes all of Zen & Sword (1961) and a good part of Showdown at Hannyazaka (1962) to cover the same ground as seen in the 1954 version. 

Zen & Sword (1961) and Showdown at Hannyazaka (1962) introduce us to Takezo, what Musashi used to be before he was locked in an attic for three years.  Again Takezo sides with the Toyotomi at Sekigahara, and as a result finds himself on the losing side of the historic battle.  He and his friend Matahachi (Kimura Isao) manage to escape the slaughter although Matahachi is wounded in the leg.  They stagger across Akemi (Oka Satomi) who makes her living with her mother Oko (Kogure Michiyo) by robbing the corpses from Sekigahara of their armor and anything else of value.  Oko decides to seduce Matahachi, which she does first by skillfully sucking the gangrene from his blood, and then just by  . . .

Back in their home village of Miyamoto, Matahachi’s fiancée Otsu (Irie Wakaba) is questioning just what has happened to Matahachi and Takezo.  Matahachi has a mother that is a real jerk, the old Osugi (Chieko Naniwa) who blames Takezo for every fault of her son and for luring him away and ruining the reputation of their “illustrious” farming family—which in my opinion is merely a delusion of grandeur.

Takezo decides to return when Matahachi elopes with Oko and her daughter and he is not welcomed with open arms to say the least.  The victorious Tokugawa have thrown up checkpoints to catch Sekigahara stragglers, of which Takezo eminently is one, yet he remains determined to deliver the good news of Matahachi’s failure to get himself killed to the villagers.  When Takezo breaks through the checkpoint things take a turn for the worse.  An overzealous local samurai Tanzaemon (Hanazawa Tokubei) presses the farmers into service to capture Takezo and during the ensuing manhunt; Takezo is forced to kill several people, which does not exactly bode well for his public relations.

When things really get out of hand, priest Takuan (Mikuni Rentaro) intervenes and captures the “beast,” and saves his soul in the process of saving his skin.  The wild Takezo surrenders to the Buddhist only to find himself strung up from a tree where he is told to contemplate the meaning of life.  After several days in the tree, Otsu is unable to bear the sight of the poor man dangling and frees him so they can both escape the village.

The transformation of Takezo has now begun, as has the development of love in Otsu for him and vice versa.  We also see Takezo beginning to value life but without any comprehension of what it means to have a worthy existence.  Takuan, having recognized the urge to truly live, takes him to a castle and locks him up in the attic where Takezo is forced to read great works and contemplate his future.  The ghosts of Takezo’s fallen family also appear during his extended stay and implore him to make their existence meaningful by leading a worthy life.  Meanwhile, Otsu is waiting the entire time for Takezo to fulfill his promise to come back for her, even if it takes a “thousand days” and it does.

At this point we flow into Showdown at Hannyazaka which begins when, after spending 3 years of study in solitary, Takezo is brought before the Clan Lord and made an official Samurai.  At the meeting, Takezo receives his new samurai name from the Lord that he will forever be remembered by: Miyamoto Musashi.  As he leaves the castle, Takuan gives Musashi a quick current events summary for the past three years telling him that he is about to join 100,000 other unemployed samurai (ronin) as he travels Japan seeking to develop his sword skill. 

The first stop for Musashi on his quest to master the sword is in the town of Nara near Kyoto to “learn” from the Hozoin Priests about their fabled spear fighting technique.  While visiting the Hozoin Priests, Musashi encounters a group of rogue ronin who have been terrorizing the locals.  Musashi decides to meet this renegade group at Hannyazaka Pass, for a fight to the death.  Little does Musashi know that the spear wielding priests have used him as bait to help rid the town of these criminals by killing them off.  The film ends with Musashi screaming about his role in the battle and the compassion the priests show the butchered ronin by placing prayer rocks on their corpses.

Musashi’s journey to Hozoin is an example of the additional detail the five part series explores since none of these events appear or are even mentioned in the Mifune/Inagaki version of the Musashi story, even though the battle at Hannyazaka Pass is considered one of Musashi’s greatest feats.  The films differ in other ways as well i.e. they are not Mifune centered and allow for the development of the people around Musashi, which plays a material role in his development as a samurai and a human being.  Of the two series discussed so far, I prefer Zen & Sword (1961) and Showdown at Hannyazaka (1962) any day of the week over the Mifune/Inagaki films—though many critics will disagree with me on that call. 

Next time we’ll take a look at the NHK series and compare the telling of Musashi’s tale with the films we have discussed so far and see where that takes us.   


Posted by on April 24, 2011 in Movie Reviews


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