Sean Michael Wilson, an Irish writer living and working in Japan, has been on a personal crusade over the last few years to bring graphic novelizations of Japanese history to the West. His first adaptation, in 2012, was The Book of Five Rings, and it was a graphic interpretation of a famous Japanese book that put out some basic philosophies about the art of combat. That book was written by a legendary master swordsman known as Miyamoto Musashi. This newest book is biographical comic about the man himself, as told through the narrative device of an admirer grilling Mushashi’s adopted son about his father’s life.
Like his previous books, Wilson’s take on doing a biographical comic about Japanese history is one focused on accuracy to the exclusion of all else. This means that he refuses to dress up the facts, dialog or pacing of his “story” for narrative enhancement. In that sense, what readers are getting is pretty much an exact historical report of a famous Japanese sword master with no embellishments or exaggeration. And for a certain reader, that is a rare and wonderful thing. For everyone else, however, this means the standard narrative arc of conflicts, rising action, raised stakes, exciting combat and climatic face off with a villain are all entirely absent. Musashi was a master swordsman in real life, which means he was more concerned with ending fights as quickly as possible, rather than an elaborate choreography with blades clashing, and tense, dramatic exchanges about justice, revenge and dead loved ones. Consequently, even though there actually quite a few sword duels within Mushashi the comic, they lasted less than a minute in real time—according to historical record—and only comprise a few panels here.
Clearly, this is not a comic meant for a typical reader that’s merely looking traditional entertainment. In some ways, this bio-comic is better suited to a student, people with reading disorders, or even people with an interest in Japanese medieval history, but little patience for walls of text. Wilson is very respectful of actual history, and refuses to do any guesswork, or present his own theories as fact, so when there is doubt about a particular outcome or event in Mushashi’s life, the comic acknowledges the ambiguity. Again, this strict adherence to historical accuracy is going to be frustrating for people that want a traditional, linear narrative with all the loose ends tied up by the end. None of that happens here.
What does happen is that Sean Michael Wilson presents readers with perhaps the most honest graphic rendering of a historical figure that is almost sacred in the world of Japanese swordplay. It is unsentimental, yet respectful, and above all, it is as real as historical documents can make it out to be. Mushashi was a sophisticated man, stretching his interests and mastery beyond just swordsmanship to the Japanese tea ceremony, architectural design and even calligraphy and painting. The only real deficit he had in his life was a familial one, since he never got close enough to any one woman to marry or start a family, choosing instead to adopt a son, and ensure he had a good life.
Readers must come to this book understanding that it is history, not a story. Anyone that can accept that they are essentially reading a biography with numerous pictures will find an informative, accurate read here. This is educational, not entertaining in the traditional sense. If you’re looking for unadorned historical retellings with a lot of decent artwork to move the story along, then Mushashi will make a fine addition to your library. If you want something with more “Pow” and “Crash,” this isn’t it.