Comics have an amazing ability to give readers the ability to understand complex people and distant cultures in ways that are different from the understanding that we get from consuming art in any other medium. Through comics we can see and learn about people from different cultures, with different ways of thinking about the world and different forms of self-expression, in ways that are dramatically and intriguingly different from film or novels or other artistic works. In comics, we can both read characters' intimate thoughts and abstract philosophies, while still seeing the character's outward form. Readers of comics literature can read characters' minds and watch their actions in ways that are thoroughly unique to the medium, and which allow complex themes to be conveyed in fascinating ways.
This concept is echoed in the teachings of the monk Kukai, who founded a form of Buddhism that he called the Shingon, or True Word. Kukai taught that the esoteric meanings of Buddhism shouldn't be conveyed in wordy explanations, but through Art. He believed in Truth through Art, and that philosophy is hidden in the subtext of the wonderful new adaptation of The Book of Five Rings.
The Book of Five Rings is a classic work of Japanese philosophy, written around 1645 by the great martial artist Miyamoto Musashi. The work is nominally a meditation and lesson about swordsmanship, battle techniques and mastery of one's inner thoughts and turmoil. In its focus on mastery and practical applications of its techniques, this book presents a fascinating look at a philosophy and worldview that is both of its times and quite relevant today. This adaptation presents an approach to this philosophy that many modern readers will find compelling and at times romantically fascinating, in the classical sense of the word fascinating.
Writer Sean Michael Wilson and artist Chie Kutsuwada deliver a stately and respectful adaptation of this classic work that is a truly a tribute to the original. Wilson delivers text that is straightforward and prescriptive, clear and crisp and as unadorned as the original work. Kutsuwada presents the material in a direct and clear style, every line reverential for the subject matter that is being portrayed. There is a tremendous amount of depth and insight into this work, an exploration of the five elements of life (the "five rings" of the title) that represent the cosmic Buddha. Readers get complex but eminently readable explorations of each ring and are led to see them all together as an overriding philosophy that enriches and broadens the life of any reader.
The art in this book isn't quite manga style. It's presented from left to right like an American comic and has none of the popular iconography of Japanese comics. But Kutsuwada's style is wonderfully resonant of Japanese art and design, and is often tremendously creative. That's particularly true in the end section that discusses the theme of nothingness in a cleverly symbolic and oblique way that made me smile hard at its matter-of-fact cleverness.
Interesting, almost playful scenes like those show that this book isn't dry. The Book of Five Rings is compelling reading, working both as a fascinating insight into the life of a warrior in 17th century Japan and a meditation on how the stillness of mind and powers of self-control can help any warrior reach his peak in battle.
Anyone interested in Japanese philosophy, classic literature or the life of a warrior will really enjoy this insightful and intelligent adaptation of a great work of Japanese culture.