‘The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts’, S.M. Wilson

Sean Michael Wilson is a person I have already commented on twice recently, in the posts on The Book of Five Rings and Hagakure. ‘The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts’ is the third book on Japanese martial philosophy that Mr Wilson has transcribed as a graphic novel. The major difference in reading this one and the others was that it was my first introduction to Issai Chozanshi’s major work, unlike the other two which I had previously read in long form.

To begin with, I’ll say that I have now listed the full book form of this as one of the next things to read. That is indicative of how much I enjoyed this piece. But, I suppose, the enterprising reader might wonder why this is so…

I think the main reason comes from the form that the stories take. The demon’s discuss martial arts with each other and their discussions are later exemplified in parables where animals lecture each other. The most skilled in the martial arts is an old cat that we only hear about, but his apprentice is another cat. The parable of the cats is probably the one I appreciated most, partly since cats make for a very good story (as Haruki Murakami has also brought out) but in other ways there is a very good lesson in that story — but I’ll leave it up to the reader to look the story up.

In that and many other ways, I think the idea of having Minamoto Yoshitsune learn all of his secrets and skill from the demons in the forests is a very prescient one. It is a form which made me listen more as I looked at the samurai leaning against trees so that he could better overhear the demons. I wanted to hear the words I saw written, as I saw the young Yoshitsune listen…

And that I think is the greatest strength of something like a graphic novel. The philosophic tradition comes through well and it is in many ways more inspiring than the words on their own. The images add life and sense to the words, and even though Issai Chozanshi’s main treatise is no doubt as compelling even if slightly more difficult to comprehend, I think this was a very good introduction!

‘Hagakure: The Code of the Samurai’, S.M. Wilson

In addition to the ‘The Book of Five Rings’ I described yesterday, Sean Michael Wilson has applied the same treatment to two other philosophical Japanese treatises. One of them, ‘Hagakure’, is the one that I shall comment on today. ‘Hagakure’ (by Yamamoto Tsunetomo) is very much a different book to the one Miyamoto Musashi wrote, but I think the graphic novel/manga approach works here as well.

The story is covered in a way which works very well — the teacher, Tsunemoto-dono, describes events that others have passed on to him as well as ones that he has seen in his own long life. The person listening these stories is a young aspiring samurai. In the course of these stories, the two pass through the relevant bits of a nobleman’s education in how people should behave in everyday lives.

Tsunemoto is an interesting person since many things that he says or reflects upon are somewhat contrary to what people thought at the time (insofar as I understand). To bring one example, his thoughts on the 47 ronin story : the ronin did wrong by waiting a few years since the target of their vengeance could have escaped the vengeance by natural death, or something else could have happened. The ronin should have drawn their swords and charged the house of the enemy without regard to anything else.

In many ways, I think the drawings make the words of the old master live with a new vigour. It is a great pity that not all of the stories from the book are made into graphic stories, but I suppose that it is difficult to think of good ways to turn short thoughtful samurai parables into anything different.

I also appreciated the afterword by the translator, William Scott Wilson. The other version of ‘Hagakure’ I have does not include that or anything alike, so it was a surprise for me to read the alternative meaning of the well-known and quote phrase, ‘The Way of the Samurai lies in death.’

Most of all, I think that Mr Wilson has emphasised the interesting parts of the treatise in the best possible way in this graphic novel — their memorability is far better than before. The phrase that has stayed with me is:

It is not particularly difficult. Be determined and advance!

‘The Book of Five Rings’, S.M. Wilson

‘The Book of Five Rings’ is a well-known work by the Japanese swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi. Sean Michael Wilson took this work of art and transformed it into a graphic novel, adapting the teachings of Miyamoto to a very different form of art than the original.

I have to say first and foremost that I thought the idea compelling, and I have enjoyed it thoroughly. My wish is that it could have included more of the original writings, but I may simply be mistaken in the extent in which they have been adapted. Insofar as there is talk of the drawings complementing the story, this book is a gem.

One of the finest moments, I think, is close to the end of the book, just before the Book of Emptiness, where the last few drawings suggest eventualities but no clear results. However, from what the person in the book — the storyteller, Miyamoto Musashi himself — from what this character has told us, the suggestion is not a very difficult one.

In many ways I think it very difficult to describe a graphic novel, especially one based on a philosophical treatise, in sentences contrary to emotions and thoughts. For the pictures are meant to evoke thoughts and images in the mind, and I think that in this they work better than the classic translation by Thomas Cleary (whose translations are also the basis for this work) since the drawings emphasise the words — the suggestions on how to bear oneself become reality in the provided drawings.

And I think that clarity might be the finest bit of this work. The book is definitely worth a try, even though the approach might seem unconventional to begin with.