Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A Graphic Approach to Musashi and Demons: Shambhala’s “The Book of Five Rings” and “The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts”

While manga treatments of famous works of Japanese literature are common in Japan, they’re virtually unknown in the West. Part of this is due to the long-standing prejudice in Western societies that ‘comics’ are nothing more than entertainment for children. Over the past 25 years or so, the graphic novel has changed that way of thinking. While they often provide the adventures of our favorite super-heroes, they’ve also provided a venue for talented writers and artists to craft serious stories aimed squarely at adults. As the square bound graphic novel has become accepted reading matter for adults, works that one would never have imagined appearing in comics form have appeared-among those two recent black-and-white releases from Shambhala Publications. Today we’ll be examining how the ‘graphic approach’ has worked out for Musashi Miyamoto’s “The Book of Five Rings” and Chozanshi Issai’s “The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts”.

Most readers will already be familiar with swordsman Musashi Miyamoto and his famed Edo period sword treatise “The Book of Five Rings” (“Go Rin No Sho”). Using the format of the traditional five Japanese elements of earth, wind, water, fire, and emptiness (often expressed as the void or the sky), Musashi presents the thoughts behind his style of martial arts and also how they can be applied in life to virtually any situation. The ‘Earth’ chapter gives an overview of the martial arts and weaponry in general. Musashi explains the techniques and philosophy of his style, ‘Niten Ichi-ryu’ (‘two heavens as one’, the famous two swords style), in ‘Water’. Warfare (as opposed to dueling) is the subject of ‘Fire’. The shortcomings of other sword styles as Musashi sees them are presented in ‘Wind’. The proper frame of mind for learning comprises the final chapter, ‘Emptiness’. We’ll give some thoughts on Musashi’s work itself before we look at how it is affected by being put into comics form.

While Musashi claims that he “…neither borrowed the ancient words of Buddhism or Confucianism”, he did indeed borrow heavily from their concepts-Buddhism in particular, using the idea of ‘attachment’ as its core. Over and over he stresses that one should strive to make their mind free of attachments-in effect, to be able to adapt quickly and easily to any situation. Whether it’s your opponent, his weapon, his style, the environment, one should never dwell on one aspect but rather open your mind and take everything in. The esoteric Buddhist ideal of ‘enlightenment’ coming from one’s own efforts (rather than being contingent on a holy being) is reflected by Musashi’s exhortations to “See everything for yourself” and “you should investigate this thoroughly”. 

The text also tells us much about the realities and practical nature of the samurai. Musashi doesn’t fill his work with glowing words about honor and bushido-it stresses that the entire point of combat is not to fight honorably but to win, using whatever means possible. Far from considering guns a ‘coward’s weapon’, Musashi proclaims them the ultimate weapon for a castle defense and on an open battlefield before closing with the enemy. He stresses that every weapon has its benefits and drawbacks and one should learn to master them all. The role of the sword in peacetime Edo is stressed when Musashi proclaims “it is by virtue of the sword that both society and oneself are put in order”. As warfare and its weapons disappeared from the life of the samurai, they increasingly began to infuse their sword training with concepts borrowed from Buddhism and Confucianism to enrich their spiritual life and change their focus to civilian administration (the idea of turning away from the ‘death-giving sword’ to the ‘life-giving sword’, the subject of an upcoming review we’ll be doing). This spiritual aspect was a very real part of Edo period sword training as explained by historian Karl Friday in an interview he did with the SA. Surprisingly, Musashi has contempt for most formal martial arts, denigrating them as promoting ‘style over substance’, being overly concerned with making themselves saleable and raking in money, and limiting their students to a single technique (sounds a lot like he was speaking of many modern martial arts schools, doesn’t it?). 

“The Book of Five Rings” is far from the only sword treatise penned by an itinerant swordsman during the Edo period, but it’s certainly the most famous, aided immensely by Musashi becoming famous through his exposure in Yoshikawa’s Eiji’s 1930’s novel ’Musashi’. One often hears of it being used by Japanese sararimen to find success in business as well as life. Is there any justification for this? Insofar as Musashi points out that the concepts behind his philosophy can be applied to any job or career, sure. Hard work, constant practice, a hands on style, an aggressive (but not careless) attitude, and above all, adaptability to changing circumstances will help to make one successful in virtually any endeavor. These values are certainly not limited to the martial arts, nor are the Buddhist and Confucian concepts behind them. However, we suppose it’s as good a place to learn them as any-and as shown here, you can even use the sword techniques to impress the chicks

Sean Michael Wilson is the writer responsible for adapting Musashi’s work into graphic novel form (based on William Scott Wilson’s translation). Displaying a great deal of respect for and knowledge of the original work, he has managed to boil it down to its essentials. Some concepts just don’t lend themselves to visual form, but here the text is greatly enriched by the illustrations. It would be interesting to find out how closely Wilson worked with the artist and how much of the symbolism and visualizations came from him. We’re guessing it was the majority. The finished work is multilayered and will yield greater insights with each reading. In fact, it DEMANDS to be reread. Make no mistake, this is no simple comic that can easily be blown through in a few minutes and then forgotten. 

The only complaint from a historical standpoint one might have is that Musashi is usually rendered as a clean, well groomed samurai, not the filthy, unkempt ‘vagabond’ he was for most of his years. However, as he is shown during his time as a vassal of the Hosokawa, one would imagine that he would have been far better tricked out than he was in his years on the road. Otherwise, illustrator Kutsuwada Chie’s artwork is a perfect example of the style being well suited for the work. Her stark, high contrast visuals veer towards the angular and are filled with strong vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines. This lends itself well to conveying Musashi’s highly aggressive and direct approach to life and the philosophy behind it. It also matches the simple, Spartan lifestyle he enjoyed. The synergy between adapter Wilson and the artist is also in evidence as well. One of our favorite sections is in the ‘Emptiness’ chapter. While Musashi carves an unseen image, he summarizes his approach to the martial arts (and by extension, life) and the true meaning of the ‘heart of emptiness’. Panels of emptiness begin to pop into his explanations, increasing in frequency along with the reader’s understanding. Finally, there is nothing left but ‘emptiness’ after Musashi exhorts his reader to “make emptiness the way and see the way as emptiness”. 

We now move on from the practical world of Musashi to a whimsical world of demons and talking animals in “The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts” (“Tengu Geijutson”). The author of this Edo period work was  (the pen name of Niwa Tadaaki), a samurai from Sekiyado han in Shimosa province. Chozanshi, while interested in swordsmanship, was primarily known as a bunjin (what we’d call a ‘man of letters’ in the West). “Demon’s Sermon” is actually somewhat of a compilation of two of his efforts-the title work along with a selection of short stories from his “Inaka Soshi” (The Hayseed Taoist). These stories, despite the book’s title, are far more concerned with Buddhist and Confucian concepts than the techniques and execution of swordsmanship (most of the martial arts discussion takes place between the tengu). 

The story revolves around a young would-be swordsman who ventures into the deep woods to seek the instruction of the tengu, the mythical bird-men of Japan who were said to have instructed the legendary hero Minamoto no Yoshitsune in the ways of warfare. Coming across a group of them holding a discussion in a tree, he settles in to eavesdrop and benefit from their wisdom. The title is somewhat of a misnomer-tengu aren’t demons in the Western sense of the word (that being malevolent beings or spirits from Hell) but more like ‘forest spirits’. Wilson here chooses to break “The Demon’s Sermon” into several parts and use it as a framework to structure the shorter stories. This allows the short stories to reinforce and expand upon the concepts brought up by the tengu, as well as letting the tengu introduce the concepts to be spotlighted in the short stories. An interesting choice by Wilson, it helps to tie the work together as a unified whole rather than a series of stories. Many of the ideas are the same as those looked at by Musashi in “Five Rings”, again showing how Buddhist and Confucian ideals found their way into sword training. The tengu discuss the concept of no-mind or emptiness, using your chi (the energy that flows through everything) correctly, the importance of practice and discipline, and how adaptability and lack of attachment are vital. Humorously, the tengu also find most martial arts schools to be lacking in their instruction with too great an emphasis on rigid technique. 

The short stories are primarily Buddhist parables told through the eyes of a variety of talking animals. Using animals to illustrate life lessons is a well-known aspect of Western storytelling, and it was the same in Japan. Yose (storytelling) theater was quite popular in the Edo period and many of its stories were exactly like the selections included in “Demon’s Sermon”. Included are Transformation of the Sparrow and the Butterfly, Meeting the Gods of Poverty in a Dream, The Greatest Joys of the Cicada and Its Cast-Off Shell, The Owl’s Understanding, The Centipede Questions the Snake, The Toad’s Way of the Gods, and The Mysterious Technique of the Cat. The animals (for the most part not goofy looking anamorphic creatures but what they look like in nature) delve into matters such as being content with one’s station in life, the impermanent nature of all things, the shortcomings of learned technique, and again, the importance of being able to adapt to changing circumstances. The most well-known story of the bunch is The Mysterious Technique of the Cat. When an exceptionally gifted rat invades the ramshackle home of a ronin, the rodent proves itself to be a superior foe, evading all attempts to capture or kill it. When even the most talented mousers in the area fall to the rat’s vicious attacks, it falls to an enfeebled older cat to confront the rat. It defeats it effortlessly to the amazement of all, leading to pleas from the other cats for an explanation of his amazing technique. And as will be of no surprise to readers of the other stories, he accomplished it by using ‘no technique’. Parables such as this were intended to make somewhat complex Buddhist concepts relatable and understandable to commoners and were a large part of the repertoire of traveling monks and priests. From a sociological standpoint they also were a way for the monks and samurai to make the peasants happy with their social status and not try to better their positions by rebelling against those above them. 

Wilson’s presentation of the stories (again, based on a translation by William Scott Wilson) is excellent. As previously mentioned, the narrative flows smoothly from one tale to the next, and the center point of each is brought out in a subtle and effective manner. There’s a fine line between simplifying things to the point of making them kid’s stories and making them so complex as to defy comprehension, and Wilson navigates it well. The book is warmer, charming, and more endearing than “Five Rings”. How could it not be with all those talking animals? Wilson allows their personalities and foibles to shine through rather than just make them into another ‘Musashi’. As with “Five Rings”, readers will be rewarded with greater insight on each reading. 

“Demon’s Sermon” employs a different illustrator than “Five Rings”, but one that is every bit as suited to the subject matter. Morikawa Michiru’s artwork is softer, more detailed, and employs more elaborate shading. It’s perfect for the Buddhist and Confucian concepts being expounded. It also helps to make the talking animals, insects, and demons in the story to be as natural and acceptable to the reader as the humans. Morikawa excels at infusing her work with subtle symbolism, as when a battle between a rat and a cat forms a classic Taoist taijitu (the ‘yin-yang’ symbol). We also enjoyed how Morikawa gave each of the tengu a distinctly different look, reflecting how the concepts and depictions of tengu in Japanese art varied throughout the centuries. 

Both graphic novels also contain afterwords by William Scott Wilson (the well-known scholar and writer who did the translations of the original Japanese language texts). His comments give well thought-out examinations of the characters of original authors Musashi and Chozanshi, as well as helping clarify and structure some of the points brought out in the texts. While afterwords in books often have little of substance to add, readers should definitely take the time to peruse these. 

Shambhala Publications is to be complimented for their support of this non-traditional format for very traditional and serious texts. There are more graphic novels in the works, and one in particular has caught our interest-a treatment of the 47 Ronin, due out in November. Again featuring Sean Wilson at the helm, it features artwork by Shimojima Akiko and states without reservation that it will be “a historically factual portrait”, “accurate and …compelling”, and featuring characters that are “nuanced and relatable”. This would be a welcome development, particularly in the wake of Dark Horse’s recent botched attempt at presenting the story in comics form. We have to admit to being skeptical that the end result will indeed stick to the historical facts and not mirror the fictional Chushingura version of the Ako ronin. However, based on the excellent job Wilson has done to date, if anyone can pull it off, he can. 

While both books are condensed versions of the originals, the artwork in effect makes them an expanded version, helping to underscore the original text and also to bring out new facets of these classic works. They’ll be of interest to many fields in pre-modern Japanese studies-religious studies, martial arts, philosophy, and culture. Serious and well thought out adaptations, they illustrate how the right creators paired with timeless source material can utilize the comics/manga format to enhance an existing work (rather than simply dumb it down for the purposes of creating disposable entertainment). This ‘graphic approach’ to Musashi and demons will hopefully introduce these classic works to a new audience as well as breathe life into them for the old one. After reading these two works we’ll co-opt one of Musashi’s sentiments and say “You should investigate (these) thoroughly”. 

You can pick “Five Rings” and “Demon’s Sermon” directly from Shambhala or from Amazon via the SA Store

All artwork courtesy and copyright 2012/2103 Shambhala Publications. It may not be reproduced, in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.