The Book of Five Rings

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Miyamoto Musashi in his prime, wielding two bokutō.

A 2-d chambara featuring the adventures of Lord Musashi during the long struggle of the Restoration, when the Nisei returned to the home islands and drove out the Mongol dynasty.

The hundreds of episodes were often shown in no particular order.

A ring of ruffians – not even samurai, though their nervous hands held blades aplenty, but bandits and honorless men – circled the lone sword master. A strong wind was blowing, rustling the leaves of ancient trees, bending their creaking limbs. Lord Musashi had nothing in his hands save a length of willow-wood.

They were doomed, though he had nothing but the clothes on his back.

Musashi sitting under a bridge, in the rain, with twenty or thirty other rootless men, listening to them complain about the weather, the lack of food, the cold. And marking they were all missing the same mon from their haori, and the underlying colors were all of a kind.

Wind was rattling the bamboo, making the surface of the stream flowing past at Musashi’s feet sparkle with tiny wavelets. A series of mossy boulders made an uneasy path to the far side. Kiyohara was poised on the largest of them, his nodachi slung insolently across his massive shoulders. ‘Come then,’ the brigand shouted, ‘unsheath your famous blade, King of Swordsmen!’ Behind him, on the far bank, the sally drew a raucous laugh from the dozens of ronin gathered there.

Musashi was trudging through mud, in the rain, his head bowed beneath a peasant’s bowl-like straw hat, a simple bokutō over his shoulder, when the gates of the castle swung wide. Perforce, he stopped, moving to the side of the road, and watched in interest as a great column of samurai rode out, their armor gleaming wetly and their spear points bare to the sky. Weary, he squatted as they thundered past, wrapped in silken cloaks, their faces hidden behind armored masks. At the last, the banner man rode out and though his uma-jirushi hung heavy in the pelting rain, Musashi could not avoid seeing the Tokugawa mon. Thus knowing the evil lord remained within the castle, his heart was gladdened – for victory or death over the Mongol overlords was close at hand.

Winter rain was pouring down, setting the mountainside streams to rushing, white-frothed torrents. Musashi was climbing the pass under Mount Murou, a plain wooden stave in each hand. A bitterly cold wind howled, nipping at his face, etching white streaks on the wolf-skin he wore as a cape. The old blind man clinging to his back was cursing endlessly, complaining about every jounce and jolt in the road as the swordsman climbed, step by step, his feet bleeding in the straw sandals, towards the summit of the pass. If he missed a step, the old man would strike the side of Musashi’s head with a begging bowl and shout – ‘donkey!’ – over the hiss of the wind.

At the summit of the pass, where Toudai temple had once stood, there was a ring of shattered pillars and broken stones. Here the icy wind was howling like a demon, and the chill cut through Musashi’s cloak like a knife. Arrayed across the road, their own furs white and almost invisible against the blowing snow, stood a line of men with drawn blades. In his ear, Musashi heard the blind man sniff once, then twice. ‘Ah, idiot donkey – why have you angered the shugenja? Now we shall be late…’

Dishes rattled in the kitchen of the little noodle shop. Musashi was hungry – starved would be a better word, he thought – and was busy shoveling udon into his mouth, feeling the first hot rush of chicken broth like the wind from Nirvana, with a pair of chopsticks. The yakuza, four of them, entered with unusual swiftness, their faces blank as Nōgaku masks, and before even he could react, their leader had snatched up his bokutō and hurled the wooden staff away, out into the night-shrouded street.

‘This is the one,’ the gangster barked, his own katana rasping from a cheap bamboo sheath. His arms bulged with muscle, gorgeously colored tattoos peeking from beneath both kimono sleeves.

Musashi looked up, expressing dumb astonishment and curled his left hand around the bowl of soup. ‘The one, what?’

Haiiiii!’ The other three yakuza drew their swords with a great flourish, kicking mats and tables aside.

Musashi turned slowly to face them, rising with the bowl in one hand, the chopsticks between his middle fingers in the other. ‘Pardon?’

Musashi swung the axe in a light, looping arc – striking the end of the log square center – gravity and the full power of his shoulders splitting the wood from end to end with a sharp crack! He reached down, tossed the two sections aside into a large and growing pile, and then reached for another log.

‘Pardon me, sir,’ came a polite but authoritative voice. Musashi looked over his shoulder, tattered kimono stretching over his muscular arm. An elderly, balding man was standing at the edge of the inn’s wood lot – no, not just a man – someone who had once been a samurai officer. That much was instantly apparent to Musashi from his horseman’s stance, his calm and level gaze. Such men were rare in Japan under Mongol rule – well, rare that they walked the streets and were not in chains, or laboring in some work-gang in shackles.

‘I understand that you are ronin – and needful of employment?’ The stranger tilted his head slightly, indicating the wood-pile.

‘I need to eat, like all men,’ Musashi replied, straightening up. ‘What’s the job?’

‘Tax collectors are going to level their village.’ The samurai gestured politely to two farmers cringing behind him, their faces drawn with hunger, their bodies thin with starvation. ‘As the harvest has been short this year.’

‘You’re going to stand in the Noyan’s way? You are a man of great bravery.’

‘Not the Noyan.’ The elderly samurai essayed a grin. ‘A local gang – no more than bandits, forty or fifty of them – the governor has parted out the collections, being too indolent to do this himself.’

Musashi felt a spark of interest flare in his breast, so he settled his shoulders, picked up the bokutō and bowed politely. ‘Now this I need to see,’ he said, ‘how many of us are there?’

‘Five others,’ said Kambei. ‘Did I mention all the farmers can pay is our meals?’

Musashi’s sandals slid on black sand, the whole slope under his feet breaking free and cascading down towards the beach. Behind him, the jagged crown of Suribachiyama loomed up against a darkening sky, filled with the outriders of the taifun blowing up out of the Western Ocean. This time the trusty bokutō had shattered on whale-bone armor, leaving him with nothing. He tossed the splintered rattan away, keeping his balance with a shift of his hips. The beach itself was hard and flat, the sand gleaming wet as the tide ran out. Heke and his retinue were waiting, weapons drawn, some of the younger men leveling muskets at the ronin.

‘Nowhere to run, Pākehā,’ the chieftain shouted, his tattooed face twisting with anger. ‘Put down your sticks and take up a man’s blade.’

One of the other Maori over handed a bolo at Musashi, which he caught from the air with a twisting motion. The long, flat steel blade felt tremendously heavy in his hands – far heavier than any katana. Then Heke and his men came on at a run, their war-cries booming against the counterpoint of the surf.

The youngest of the Seven Sisters pressed her forehead to the straw matting covering the floor of Musashi’s hut. ‘Please, sensei,’ she begged earnestly, ‘None of us can defeat Möngke; he is a monster, gifted with inhuman powers, surrounded by an army of tens of thousands of men. Osaka castle itself is a maze of fortifications, towers, moats… we’ve tried sneaking in, but he’s suborned the ninja clans as well, and they watch by night while his archers watch by day.’

‘He only has one weakness,’ Eldest said, kneeling beside her irrepressible sibling. ‘He believes himself the finest swordsman in all of Asia – not just Nippon – and if you challenge him, then he will come forth to meet you in single combat, for his pride will admit no other rival.’

‘I no longer travel the sword-saint’s road,’ Musashi croaked, his voice raspy from disuse. He indicated a small stone statue of the Buddha with a seated bow. ‘I no longer seek conflict in the world of men. Ieyasu and I strove to overthrow the Yuan seven years ago, and failed utterly. Now he is dead and I have found sanctuary here on Mount Iwato. Only the Dokkōdō remains.’ He gestured to a series of scrolls sitting on a small side table.

Eldest glanced sidelong at Squeaker’s twin, who was standing in the doorway, keeping watch.

‘What if the Emperor summoned you, called you forth to do battle with the invaders? Would you deny him, foreswear your duty to all Nippon?’

Musashi shook his head sadly. ‘The last Emperor fell at Nara generations ago.’

‘Not so.’ The third Sister turned in the doorway. ‘The Imperial line is sustained even today. Would the plea of the Son of Heaven move you to action?’

The hermit fell silent, eyes downcast, for a long time. When he looked up, at last, the sunset was gilding the rough-hewn timbers of his hut. ‘It would.’

The third Sister extended his hand. “Then stir yourself, Musashi Miyamoto, Nippon calls you.’

Musashi stands poised on the bridge at Windlodge, goose-feathers brushing the enamel of his cheek-guard, the Iroquois swarming up the levee in a numberless, copper-skinned mass. One of their ohnkanetoten surges through the ranks of charging pike men astride a roan stallion… sun-dogs gleaming from his garishly ornamented plate-mail, his long sword shining silver in the summer light.

At Kurētāko Shrine, Musashi slew sixteen adversaries with only a wooden bokutō when they ambushed him at prayer. Not one of them believed he was truly in danger.

Musashi crouched beneath the battlement of Shimabara castle, his armor in tatters. A huge ringing sound filled his head, as though an enormous gong had been cloven by a giant. Blood was everywhere, streaking the rough-hewn stones. At the edge of his stunned vision, a gaping section of the wall had been torn away by the impact of a Mongol bombard stone. All of the samurai on the parapet had been cast to the ground as jackstraws. He groped fruitlessly for his bokutō, but the weapon was nowhere to be found. Despite the stunned weakness of his limbs, Musashi rose up, finding a katana still scabbarded in the belt of a dead man. By the time he’d reached the steps leading down into the courtyard below, the first of the Mongol spearmen were swarming over the lower curtain wall. The sight of them sent a shock of vigor through his limbs. Here was an enemy within the length of his blade!

Tap-tap-tap went the blind man’s bamboo cane on the side of the road, ticking against the mossy rocks laid at the border. Musashi was dozing, nearly asleep in the shelter of the little shrine. Rain was drumming on the slanted, tiled roof, but his head was dry on a bundle of cloth holding the rice-paper book he’d been so laboriously writing in. He opened one eye half-way as the shuffling mendicant ducked under the eaves. ‘Ah, pardon,’ wheezed a tired voice. ‘Just getting out of the rain.’

‘Welcome, brother,’ Musashi replied, moving his legs out of the way. Both shins were bound in bandages. ‘I’d offer you tea – if I had any – or a rice ball – if I had one. But I’ve neither, so you’re welcome to the dry roof at least.’

The blind man laughed, his stout face creasing into a merry smile. ‘The tamghachi have left this whole province hungry – or so they tell me in the inns, when there is nothing to eat.’ He settled down on a little bench, head bowed over his cane.

Outside, the drumming sound of the rain was supplemented – then replaced – by the rattle of hooves on the metaled road. At first one horse, then a dozen. ‘Hm.’ The blind man dug vigorously at one ear with a blunt finger. ‘Someone is coming in a great hurry. I wonder – could it be the militia? I’ve heard there is a murderer loose – he slew a tax collector some days ago.’

‘Interesting.’ Musashi yawned, hands behind his head. ‘But the militia does not ride war-horses.’

The temple bells were ringing the length and breadth of Kyoto, filling the warm night air with a glad clamoring sound. Uncounted voices were raised, singing a song of welcome and unbridled joy. Musashi nodded to himself, scratching at his stubbled, gray beard, and turned away from the huge mass of people thronging the courtyard. He passed under an orange tree whose branches were filled with chattering, laughing children – all peering wide-eyed at the steps leading up into the hall of Shishinden, hoping for a glimpse of the new Emperor – and then forced his away against the press of citizens flowing into the royal complex from the streets. Once beyond the Imperial precincts, the traffic eased and he sighed with relief. He shrugged his shoulders, loosening his muscles, tucked both arms inside his kimono and found his feet on the great Nara road, heading west. The night sky was clear, showing the moon in quarter-crescent and the stars were twinkling like jewels strewn on black velvet.

Breathing deeply, feeling free for the first time in a decade, the old man started home.


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