My rating: 4 of 5 stars
[Note: this was previously posted in my martial arts blog, Jissen Budōka.]
This is a concise and well-researched biography of one of Japan’s most famous swordsmen. Miyamoto Musashi, however, wasn’t just a swordsman, he was also a writer, a painter, a sculptor, a Zen Buddhist, a poet, a philosopher, and a strategist. In short, he was a renaissance man. While The Lone Samurai focuses heavily on Musashi’s many duels as a traveling warrior, it also describes his artwork as it paints a portrait of a complex and beguiling character.
Musashi holds a curious allure among figures in Japanese history. The Japanese tend to be strictly bound by societal conventions, and being respectful and well-mannered is valued above all else. Musashi flouted convention whenever it served him. He used irreverence for strategic advantage. He was an astute reader of men. He often showed disrespect in order to get into his opponent’s head. This is most famously exemplified in his Ganryu Island duel with Sasaki Kojiro.
Musashi adopted a life of musha shugyo, or warrior errantry, though he could have been much wealthier and more comfortable had he chosen to be. He enjoyed simplicity, and only owned a few possessions. In his travels, he engaged in over 60 duels, and is usually credited with being undefeated [Note: I’ve heard some dispute the outcome of his second duel with Muso Gonnosuke. Wilson calls it a draw, but I’ve heard it called Musashi’s only defeat as well.] He fought as a samurai in battle at Sekigahara as well, but his adulthood was a relatively peaceful time.
One fascinating, but controversial, claim is that Musashi had no teachers–neither in swordsmanship nor in any of the fine arts he practiced. Musashi said this himself, but some historians dispute it. If true, it really takes being an extraordinary person up a notch. It should be noted that Musashi was only 13 when he had his first duel.
There is much about Musashi that is lost to the ages, but this book does a great job of pulling together what is known and weaving it into a portrait of the man.
There is an extensive series of appendices providing background information, notes, a glossary, and even a collection of pop culture (e.g. movie and novel) depictions of Musashi.
It’s well worth the read if you’re interested in strategy, history, or the biographies of incredible people.