Jonathan Clements digs beneath the surface of Mizuho Nishikubo’s Musashi.
Musashi: The Dream of the Last Samurai is an anime like no other – a mixture of animated combat, live-action footage of ancient battle sites, and computer-graphic hypertexts telling the history of mounted knights across Eurasia. Beyond that, it zooms in on the life and legend of Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645), author of the military manual The Book of Five Rings, who took part in the last battles of Japan’s civil war era and lived out his days as a duellist and hermit.
Director Mizuho Nishikubo throws in graphic demonstrations of sword techniques and notes on the history of the samurai, from the brawlers of the middle ages to the military ideals of the 20th century. The script is by Mamoru Oshii, the director of Sky Crawlers, a sometime martial artist himself, now also revealed as an exceptionally well-read armchair historian. The film’s narrator looks suspiciously like a cartoon version of its celebrity screenwriter – aided at times by his hapless doll-like assistant and, for reasons that defy explanation, an incontinent robot pig. His story comes accompanied by a whirl of musical styles, including old-school Japanese songs that relate the deeds of Musashi in a clash of samisen and electric guitar.
For Oshii, it’s all about the money, which makes all noblemen worth more alive for the ransom, and the geography, which makes Chinese weapons and tactics practically useless in mountainous Japan. These factors combine to create the unique appearance of Japan’s own mounted warriors: a class to which, according to Oshii, Musashi aspired in vain.
Oshii’s vision is deeply personal – a class-based, left-wing approach to samurai history that glares unswervingly at issues of wealth and power in medieval Japan. For Oshii, Musashi was haunted all his life by a thwarted desire to become one of the horsemen he so admired. Born as Japan’s violent centuries of civil war came to a close, but still too early to take advantage of the peaceful samurai life of the Tokugawa period, Oshii’s Musashi is caught between the careers of a thug and artist. According to Oshii, Musashi developed his famous two-sword technique in imitation of the way he would fight if he ever had a horse, discovering in the process that it worked well against unmounted opponents.
Oshii delves impressively deep into matters of historiography – the history of history itself. The two-sword technique never really caught on (although there is a story that one of the last pupils of Musashi’s school was the “pirate king” Coxinga) despite Musashi’s own attempts to highlight its value. Oshii puzzles over why Musashi himself never bragged about the battle that made him most famous, and offers a scathing analysis of the uses of samurai legends for state propaganda in the 20th century.