Pile of Shame - Musashi no Kenby Justin Sevakis, Feb 19th 2013
There are few things anime does as well as coming-of-age stories, and although they've never been popular among Western fans, the discipline and universality of sports narratives has long made for some of the most compelling of these tales. It's a natural fit, given the shounen manga formula of a young, plucky protagonist who strives to be the best at something. Despite that, there have only been a handful of truly, absolutely great sports anime over the years. This week, I have a show from the 80s that I consider to be one of the best ever made.
MUSASHI NO KEN (Musashi's Sword)
I'll admit, I started watching Musashi no Ken because of the opening, a clumsily animated and surreal sequence involving kids with kendo swords, butterflies and a Buddha, all set to a completely off-key power-pop song about bein' a boy. I stumbled across it on YouTube one day and was immediately both confused and delighted by it. I had to see the show it came from. The series itself, a 72-episode epic about a boy who's incredibly good at Kendo, left me similarly confused and delighted.
It's not that any aspect of Musashi no Ken is confusing -- far from it, actually. It's a pretty straightforward story of Musashi (named so both after Musashi Miyamoto and as a pun on his birthday: the kanji is for the numbers 6-3-4), who's the prodigal son of two kendo masters. The story starts from Musashi being a preschooler, carries through his bratty childhood years up through a life-defining personal tragedy, and then time-skips to his years in high school. It features everything you'd expect of a sports-themed shounen coming-of-age story, including a childhood friend love interest, an intense rivalry and friendship that drips with homoeroticism, and a severe disruption of the family unit.
But the show's resemblance to others of its genre ends there. The mood and feel of it, its world view and character building, feels very unlike most other anime. I was delighted to see that Musashi has not one, but two parents -- both of them loving and present in his life. Their marriage is a strong one, and both play a major role in the shaping of their son, a ridiculously headstrong, kendo-obsessed, rambunctious ball of energy. Musashi's father Eiichiro, a champion kendo master, works doing blue collar labor to support his family. As anime fathers -- particularly good anime fathers -- are such a rare commodity, I was delighted to watch as he deals with his son's lack of discipline with a firm but steady hand. At the same time, he's not a perfect guy: after one night of drinking too much and getting into fights (forcing a very young Musashi to worry and care for him), he gives up the sauce and renews his focus on the martial art he loves.
Musashi's mother Kayo is even more impressive. A kendo master in her own right, Kayo is obviously nowhere near as physically strong as her husband, but somehow has both the energy to keep up with her spastic son and a will strong enough to eschew social norms and become the family breadwinner when Eiichirou decides to quit his job and become a full-time martial artist. While Musashi's brattiness sometimes forces her to be a disciplinarian, she's incredibly loving. When tragedy strikes later in the show, it's Kayo that becomes the anchor of the family, and who bravely finds new direction for herself and for her loved ones. To me, the series is noteworthy simply for making a mother one of the most inspiring women in anime history.
The unusual realism of Musashi no Ken is perhaps its most conspicuous feature. Right from the first episodes, the series strikes an unusual tone: it refuses to sugar-coat the awful, dangerous and sad aspects of life, but attacks them with a smile, a sense of humor, and a resolute strength that's incredibly inspiring. In literally the first couple of episodes, toddler Musashi is forced to save his new puppy from being attacked by a pack of strays. The ensuing fight is brutal and has lasting consequences: the puppy is blinded in one eye (and remains so for the rest of the series), while Musashi is badly injured. His parents marvel over his strength for someone so young, and his father starts to pray for his recovery with the Shinto tradition of dousing himself with water in the dead of winter. But then his mother whips off her shirt -- in full view of the neighbors -- and shouts excitedly, "I want to pray too!"
Although sad and difficult things happen in the show, the tone is mostly light and comedic. Early on Musashi meets an unbelievably strong girl kendo student called Ranko, who's similarly loud and bratty, and the two immediately become friends... all the while constantly trying to beat the crap out of each other. Musashi finds his first teacher in a much older bully named Oiishi, who just can't figure out why this tiny little kid keeps trying to hit him with a kendo sword.
And then there's Ashura, the son of Eiichiro's greatest rival, a quiet and studious kid who studies kendo reluctantly at the insistence of his father. Musashi's warm upbringing is in sharp contrast with Ashura's father, a man so driven by his passion for kendo that he becomes outright abusive. As with every other tragedy in Musashi no Ken, we see the effects of his abuse clearly and unflinchingly. And yet, there's never any question that Ashura can survive it, that he can recover, and that he might even be Musashi's superior in kendo.
The show paints a strong picture of growing up working class in Japan in the late 70s, a time when Western style capitalism hadn't completely taken over, and when the old and traditional ways of doing things still had dominance over the Japanese way of life. It's odd to feel nostalgic for a country you never experienced, but it's hard not to, watching the show. Set in the idyllic small cities and towns among Iwate Prefecture, the poetry of Kenji Miyazawa is often invoked, giving a strong sense of peace and nature that we seldom think of in anime.
Based on an award-winning manga by Motoka Murakami that ran in Shonen Sunday from 1981 through 1985, Musashi no Ken was animated by a studio called Eiken. Eiken isn't well known among anime fans in the West, mostly because the majority of their work is from animating the decades-long series Sazae-san: Japan's most popular mainstream anime of all time (despite being virtually unknown outside of it). Sazae-san is a somewhat crudely drawn (and, to my knowledge, is STILL animated with cels and paint -- possibly the last such production in the world) sitcom that takes place in the postwar era, and is, similarly, enjoyed today as a bit of nostalgia. Unfortunately I'm not too familiar with the filmographies of either director Toshitaka Tsunoda or head writer Yu Yamamoto.
I was rapt nearly the entire 72-episode running time. It's all too rare for an anime series to be as addictive as this: I would stay up late, devouring one episode after another, as if fiending for a hit of heroin. The last third of the show, which takes place a few years later as Musashi enters high school, is a bit less compelling than what came before (and shots of teenaged Ranko and Musashi together in the new opening look alarmingly like an 80s blue jeans ad), but still I couldn't get enough. I had never really learned much about kendo before this show, and now I think I could follow a match if I saw one on TV or in person. The quick sudden-death nature of a kendo match works extremely well for anime drama -- it's hard for a match to get too long and drawn out -- so the series never drags, and while the ending is slight, it does exist and is satisfying enough. When I'd finished the show, I slipped into withdrawl, I missed the characters so much. Even finding an emulator of the (frankly, terrible) Famicom game didn't help.
The manga of Musashi no Ken is well remembered and loved among Japanese fans, and the anime, while less famous, is still well regarded. But it seems like virtually nobody in the Western world even knows about the show: only translated-badly-from-Chinese bootleg-subtitled copies exist in English. Awful as the subtitles are, they're worth trucking through. Musashi no Ken is absolutely worth the effort, and no American publisher in their right mind would ever, ever license a show like this. The Japanese DVD release, in three boxed sets, is unfortunately out of print and getting quite expensive (even by Japanese standards) on the used market.
Musashi no Ken is one of the rare long-running shows that becomes part of you. Its characters become friends that you wish to revisit, and long after the series ends, you wonder what became of them. It's shows like this that made me a lifelong anime fan, and keeps me an anime fan will into my adulthood. It's an underappreciated classic.
Japanese Name: 六三四の剣
Media Type: TV series
Length: 23' X 72 episodes
Genres: shounen, sports, coming-of-age, slice of life, comedy
Availability (Japan): 3 DVD boxed sets (out of print)
Availability (English): It'll be a cold day in hell. All we have are bootleg Chinese DVDs with bad English subs, and "fansubs" ripped from them.
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