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Review: ‘The Book of Five Rings: A Graphic Novel’

The Book of Five Rings
‘The Book of Five Rings’
❖To see the adaptor’s response to this review, click here. To read my rebuttal, click here.

The “Go Rin no Sho (The Book of Five Rings)” is a treatise on swordsmanship and strategy written by the renowned Japanese warrior Miyamoto Musashi. Founder of the sword school that uses both the long and short swords simultaneously, Musashi remains famous to this day for having won more than 60 duels and for penning this widely studied meditation shortly before his death around 1645.

Among the few English translations, William Scott Wilson’s remains closest to the original martial spirit of the book. Wilson’s translation has now been adapted by Sean Michael Wilson into graphic novel form, with illustrations by Chie Kutsuwada and published by Shambhala.

While this thin volume could be a cute addition to any collection of books on martial arts, Eastern history or philosophy, Sean Michael Wilson may have done the “Book of Five Rings” a disservice by adapting it in graphic novel form.

Musashi’s book is organized into four chapters named for elements and a final one called “void” or “emptiness.” In them he distills a lifetime of knowledge and firsthand experience — from instruction on sword grip and technique to notes on rhythm, use of location, the relationship between individual and mass combat and the mentality needed to fight — into something anyone can read, if not fully grasp, in a day. The pragmatic is interspersed with the esoteric, often coupled with admonitions to practice and “investigate this thoroughly.”

The full text is like a diamond of compressed insight, almost bereft of narrative structure, to which Sean Michael Wilson has seen fit to apply a chisel.* Selections from the text stand alongside monochrome artwork, interwoven with several anecdotes from Musashi’s life, taken not from the “Book of Five Rings” but likely from William Scott Wilson’s “The Lone Samurai: The Life of Miyamoto Musashi.”

The “Book of Five Rings: A Graphic Novel” could be recommended to young people as an introduction to Musashi, or to the exhaustive collector who needs it all, but it is no substitute for the original. In daring to do away with some of the pith, and stretching the remainder over a narrative frame, the adaptor risks tampering with the wisdom of a man who seems to have intended, as the translator notes in the book’s afterword, for each line of his manual to be carefully mulled and put into practice.

Tyler Rothmar is on Twitter @TylerRothmar.

*In other words, the original text is significantly reduced; the adaptor has redacted it.