Director’s Commentary: the Book of Five Rings

Published On September 21, 2012 | By Joe Gordon | Comics

Paying a return visit to the Director’s Commentary slot is Our Man in Japan, Sean Michael Wilson. Among his various projects Sean has been working with Chie Kutsuwada on adapting a Japanese – and indeed a world – classic, The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi, which has been translated into numerous languages over the last century and seen by many around the world not just as an insight into a changing historical period in Japan, or a view of the Samurai way of life but as a philosophy that still has lessons for modern life. Sean’s kindly taken some time to talk us through a little of the process of adapting this classic by Musashi-san to the manga form (click the pics for the larger versions):

I live in Japan, as is now well known. But to people’s surprise I don’t live in Tokyo. I live way down in the warm southern area of Japan in a town called ‘Kumamoto’. In a previous interview in Scotland I called it ‘the Aberdeen of Japan’, or to put it in English terms, perhaps it’s ‘the Bristol of Japan’. By which I mean it’s a large local centre, but far off from the metropolis, so feels a bit isolated to some. When I go up to Tokyo the manga colleagues I meet there often react like this: upon giving them my business card, (which almost everyone has in Japan), they bow dutifully, read the card and then their eyes open wide in surprise ‘Eh?? Kumamoto? Why do you live there?’. And then, to joke about it I react by telling them in the local Kumamoto slang ‘Tokyo sukan-node’ (Because I don’t like Tokyo’). To get an idea of how odd that is imagine a Japanese manga artist living in Aberdeen and traveling down to London to meet a publisher, and the Japanese guy greeting the editor in an Aderdeenshire accent: ‘Fit like the day, loon?’

By coincidence all the Japanese themed books that I’ve done have had Kumamoto mentioned in them somehow. I’ve not chosen that, it just comes up and it’s starting to become a synchronistic pattern. And the latest book I have out is no exception – in fact this time the whole book is SET in Kumamoto. Because it was here, in the 1640’s, that the famous swordsman and ronin, Miyamoto Musashi, wrote the classic text THE BOOK OF FIVE RINGS. This is probably THE most influential treatise on the practice and philosophy of the Japanese martial arts. Musashi was, to be frank, rock hard. He fought in 60 duels and never lost a single one. His ability with the two-sword technique was legendary and has inspired countless films, manga and actual martial artists today.

(Musashi’s two sword fighting style; click for the larger version)

For example, the Jedi two light sabre type battles basically originate in Musashi (Jedi derives I believe from the Japanese word ‘jiddai’, meaning era). And not only that but the philosophical and ascetic tendencies of the Jedi are also heavily influenced by Musashi, and other such martial artists of the time. After beating all comers in his solo adventures all around Japan he later settled in Kumamoto, to practice painting, calligraphy, poetry. All with the same zen focus as he had applied to combat. So, a true artist-warrior. The Book of Five Rings was written quite literally in a small cave in the hills – that I can see from my window as I write this – at the request of the local clan Lord who wanted a record of Musashi’s ideals regarding the true martial arts. And this, now, is our manga version of it. What a build up!

You might think therefore that, method actor like, I plunged myself into martial arts training in order to ready myself for writing this manga version. Well, I didn’t, so lets nip that in the bud. Ok, so I tried – I took classes in Kendo sword fighting technique. But I gave up – it was just too bloody difficult for me. It requires a deep commitment of time and mind, neither of which I can give now. But at least I got to recognize that commitment and respect the people who do learn.

But I took adapting this classic into manga seriously – and we’ve achieved it, I think. The art is by Chie Kutsuwada, who just to complete the circle of working with a British writer living in Japan is a Japanese artist living in Britain. The question with most of these adaptations of classical Japanese text that I’ve done is how to make them visual when a lot of the original has no visuals in it and no actual stories. What I chose to do was to mix the aspects that go into the practice and philosophy of the martial arts with telling aspects of Musashi’s own story. We also pushed the boat out more than our previous book together, HAGAKURE, by having more abstract type visualization of the martial arts philosophy. I think Chie’s done a good job of making these come alive and a lot of research went into getting the visuals right too. I’m especially pleased with the way we worked in the concept of ‘emptiness’ into the visual design of the closing section.

Another thing I did was my own version of Alan Moore psychogeography. I went to a small Buddhist temple near to where Musashi’s house was 350 years ago a performed a magickal ritual there, for the sake of our manga version of the book. It’s a temple that he probably visited himself so echoes of him and that time may yet be there, if such stuff applies at all. And I have Musashi visit it in the manga itself (see image below). In any case I felt good after doing this, I felt more connected to my subject – and perhaps that’s the main point?

(“Musashi visiting the temple near where he lived and which I use as my ‘manga shrine’.“)

(The real temple – notice the tough looking NIO guardians on either side of the entrance. You have to ask these big snarling lads nicely if you can come in. But, then, I’ve come across worse bouncers while out on the razzle in Soho.)

Oh, and the five rings don’t mean the Olympics, they mean earth, water, fire, wind and emptiness. Which may sound like a 70’s soul band to you, but are symbols at the root of this 17thC brand of soul and swordsmanship. It’s out this month in Diamond’s September Previews catalogue, from Shambhala Publications. This is their first manga but they’ve been publishing books on eastern philosophy and literature since 1969. The other book I’m doing with them will out next spring, ‘THE DEMON’S SERMON’ with art by Michiru Morikawa. And before that I have my third book with the big publisher Kodansha coming out, a manga version of another classic Japanese story, ‘THE 47 RONIN’, art by Akiko Shimojima. It’s all good.

FPI would like to thank Sean for taking the time to talk us through a little of his latest work. You can keep up with Sean at his blog here; the manga version of The Book of Five Rings is due for publication by Shambala in November and is available for pre-order now.

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About The Author

Joe Gordon

Joe Gordon is’s chief blogger, which he set up in 2005. Previously, he was professional bookseller for over 12 years as well as a lifelong reader and reviewer, especially of comics and science fiction works.

One Response to Director’s Commentary: the Book of Five Rings

  1. Matt Badham says:

    Ooh, that looks nice. Must have a read of that later.

    (Yes, I have recovered from the tantrum I had in your comments section a few weeks ago.)

    Cheers for posting it, Sean and Joe.

    Matt B