Miyamoto Musashi was known by several names through his life - Shinmen Takezo, Miyamoto Bennosuke or Niten Doraku. Among other things he was a swordsman known for his doubled bladed swordsmanship, and a philosopher famous for his books - The Book of Five Rings and The Path of Aloneness. Mushashi's birth date, parentage and early life are difficult to verify and shrouded in speculation. Musashi's father Munisai claimed descent from the Fujiwara clan of Japanese regents, and was a hereditary vassal to Lord Shinmen who fought alongside the Toyotomi clan against the victorious Tokugawa in the fateful battle of Sekigahara in 1600. The speculation about Musashi's origins begins with the confusion surrounding Munisai's death. Musashi's father played a role in his early introduction to martial arts, and his uncles were responsible for his introduction to reading, writing and Buddhism. It is in this early life that the first in David Kirk's Musashi trilogy - Child of Vengeance is set.
Child of Vengeance narrates Musashi's early years as spent mostly in confusion, loneliness and pain, till he finds meaning in honouring his parent's deaths. The story begins with Munisai - the commander of Lord Shinmen's foot soldiers, a spartan, stoic man; he is a favourite of his lord who has bestowed upon Munisai his own name of Shinmen. Munisai's credentials are established having won a war for his lord.
Samurai ideals of honour, ritual, feudalism, martial skill, death poems and most of all - seppuku, are brought in early. The manner of a good death is established and plays an important part of the story - the practice of a having a second to provide a clean death, of leaving a death poem, of dignifying your end in the eyes of your captors and the impact an honourable end carry for future generations.
Bennosuke's uncle Durinbo - a Buddhist monk - completes the introduction to his early influence. His teachings on Buddhism is the only kindness Bennosuke knows at the time. Child of Vengeance is not a tale of the Mushashi's flawless youth. It is a narrative of failures and shortcomings separate from the legend of the undefeated swordsman. It is also about the rooted, fundamental nature of a father-son relationship, which starts out with a distant, almost absent father and a shy boy vying incessantly for his father's approval; and goes through some difficult realities before settling to a relationship grounded in unspoken affection.
The origin story then pivots to a clash of cultures - the traditional Munisai against the scion Hayato - one grounded and practical, the other removed and theoretical. Hayato maneuver events and Munisai is shamed before his lord. He is allowed to commit seppuku, but the wily scion does not permit Munisai dignity in death. Bennosuke's journey should begin from here but it is where his misery returns. He fumbles and blunders through several attempts to get close to and assassinate Hayato. His Buddhist learning and martial training do not prepare Musashi for a lonely itinerant life in rural Japan, but he learns to survive and think for himself as he forges a path to Sekigahara to avenge his father.
Child of Vengeance ends with the battle of Sekigahara soon after which Ieyasu Tokugawa has himself proclaimed shogun. This brings Japan into the period of its third and final shogunate and ends decades of internal warfare. The struggle to consolidate power began with the samurai warlord Oda Nobunaga who began the process but was assassinated. His ablest general Toyotomi Hideyoshi assumes power in the void but is denied the title of shogun because of his peasant birth. Hideyoshi's death was followed by more instability till the battle of Sekigahara. These political battles at the top of the food chain translated to bloodshed on the ground. The period preceding the battle was a crucible for the samurai; their swords were practical rather than ceremonial, their duties were unscheduled and often violent, rather than bureaucratic and administrative; and the martial arts were known as martial skill.
Munisai spent his life in warfare, and Musashi's formative years were spent in this reality. The period following the battle which brought over two centuries of peace to Japan were known for the flourishing of the arts. True martial skill of the samurai became the exception. It was in this period of peace that Musashi became a legend. He eschewed the arts in favour of the practical and discarded what didn't work irrespective of aesthetics. He didn't let concepts of fair play come in the way of winning a duel, and made the most of psychological warfare to unnerve his adversaries. These were innovations in the the traditional ways of the samurai, which prized honour about victory.
Seppuku - ritual suicide - was a privilege granted to deserving samurai, and a final chance at dignity. There was a 'second' to decapitate the samurai before the dying man would cry out in shame. The robe the samurai wore was fitted to restrict any involuntary and unsightly thrashing once the samurai's blade had begun the disembowelment. There was a death poem that was prepared long in advance, and read out to the witnesses if the samurai permitted. The body would then be returned to the family only if the death was dignified, else it could be left to the vultures who followed armies from the skies in promise of a feast irrespective of the victor.
The plot centers around Musashi and those that impact and influence him, it is not multilayered like James Clavell's Shogun, nor as politically focused. It would be unwise to compare the two. What stays with you after this book has ended is how imperfect and unlikely a protagonist Musashi was as a young man, the character of Munisai with all his flaws and failures, and the portrayals of seppuku.
Miyamoto Musashi's origin story.