Sunday, March 21, 2010

History Channel does Musashi Biography

No, that's not a modern, suave Miyamoto Musashi, but Mark "Twinkle Toes" Dacascos, the host of the History Channel's most recent deification of Miyamoto Musashi, a program simply titled, Samurai.
I sat down to watch the program this afternoon. As usual when cramming that much history into a single television program, there's good and bad. The bad can be summed up by saying that there are a handful of sweeping historical mistakes of facts, and -- of course -- they continue the deification of Musashi as the epitome of what it meant to be a samurai. Really, he wasn't. He was a great swordsman, but he was always equal parts unlucky and unwilling to take up the true essence of the samurai's life: service. While he remains a renowned and towering figure among the Japanese within the arena of martial arts, other contemporaries are more highly regarded for upholding Bushido. The West's love affair with his story has more to do with his parallels with the archetypes of the questing knight or cool gunslinger.
Let me focus on the good: They tell the entire story of Musashi's life. Generally, the American treatment of Musashi concludes with his duel on Ganryu Island, an event so overclouded by mythology that historical debate about what happened is usually cast aside in favor of the legend. I've given up trying to sort out fact from fiction about the event because the sources in English are all but useless. But one extreme view is that it was total propaganda, and Musashi's opponent, Sasaki Kojiro, never existed!
Anyway, this biography made a sincere effort to follow Musashi after he stepped off the island and onto his time among the Hosokawa clan, writing the Go Rin no Sho, and eventual death. Along the entire journey, we are treated to some spectacular scenery of Japan as we follow Dacascos following Musashi. It was a gorgeous production. We are also treated to some terrible anime dramatizing Musashi's duels. However, the anime sequences do allow the production to do something unusual for a work like this: showcase the brutality of single combat in Feudal Japan. The sequence showing Musashi's first duel at the age of 13 is particularly unflinching. Far from gratuitous, we can sense Musashi's initial callousness, and growing unease as he faces these violent encounters.
Given Mark Dacascos' experience in martial arts, I would've liked to see more on display. He visits a kenjutsu dojo in Miyamoto village and trains there briefly, a la Human Weapon or Fight Quest. In a wrap-up montage, we are tantalized by a snippet of him thanking a Westerner in a white gi and saying "I barely survived..." What was this dojo that he visited? How vigorous was the training? Even if Dacascos came off looking "bad" -- maybe especially if he found a session difficult -- I would've liked to see that. We are also treated to a brief (maybe 30 second) segment on the myriad of weapons used by samurai. Interestingly, it appears the found a ninjutsu school to demonstrate the shuriken, jutte, and other exotic tools.
If you're interested in Musashi, it's worth watching for the travelogue. If you're more interested in the martial arts aspect, it's a disappointment.

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