Read & React Review of Director’s Commentary: The Book of the Five Rings


Gordon, J. (2012, September 21). Director’s commentary: The book of the five rings [Weblog post]. Retrieved from


Gordon’s (2012) post on Forbidden Planet International’s blog presents commentary from creator (writer) Sean Michael Wilson regarding his work on a manga adaption of rōnin[1] Miyamoto Musashi’s The Book of the Five Rings (circa 1640), a discourse on Samurai culture and martial arts philosophy. References to contemporary Western works, such as Star Wars’ Jedi Order, link Samurai asceticism and fighting style to a context familiar to many (most) contemporary readers (Gordon, 2012), and demonstrate the breadth and continuity of Musashi’s influence in translations of Samurai ontology across time and artistic media. Wilson characterizes the Samurai as an ‘artistic warrior’, integrating Zen practice through martial arts, painting, calligraphy and poetry (Gordon, 2012).

Abandoning an unsuccessful attempt at martial arts immersion, Wilson took a commensurate experiential approach towards shaping his capacity as a creator in adapting Musashi’s work (Gordon, 2012). This approach leveraged Wilson’s experience of solitude fostered by living a.) in a country and culture not his own[2], and b.) in an urban but isolated part of Japan comprising the location and landscape within which Musashi created The Book of the Five Rings (Wilson describes residing within visual proximity to the cave in which Musashi undertook his great work) (Gordon, 2012). Complementing this, Wilson immersed himself in Buddhist asceticism and philosophy, engaging in ritual practice at a living religious site that was also contemporary to Musashi’s lifetime (Gordon, 2012). Wilson translates this temporal experience directly into his manga adaptation by having Musashi (his main character) visit the same temple in the story’s 17th century setting (Gordon, 2012).

Though Wilson does not state it outright, through these experiences he seems to have internalized Samurai concepts upon which to draw inspiration as a creator. Wilson describes the process of adapting a visual story (in collaboration with illustrator Chie Kutsuwada) from Musashi’s source work, incorporating design elements that translate Samurai ontology, such as heightened abstraction, movement/motion and energy flow, and representations of ‘emptiness’, all expressing with great fidelity Samurai asceticism and fighting style (Gordon, 2012). Excerpts from this manga adaptation interspersed throughout the blog post provide examples of this narrative fusion.

One comes away with the impression that Wilson transformed himself into an artistic warrior, foregoing sword for ‘fighting’ pen, lending to the fidelity of his manga adaptation as an authentic expression of the Samurai way.


While Wilson focuses his discussion on his creative process for integrating Samurai culture and martial arts philosophy, he provides modest description of his work’s overall manga style. Yet, after reading this blog post, I feel I better comprehend many elements and concepts of manga style, and better appreciate its cultural context and historical links and development.

The book excerpts shared in the post typify many of the manga style elements described by McCloud (1994), including subjective motion (pp. 113-114); aspect-to-aspect transitions (p. 79) combined with moment-to-moment transitions and action-to-action transitions (pp. 70-72); relational panel size and configuration, and variable gutter space (pp. 66-68); focus on figure/ground relationships and negative space (pp. 82-83); panel transitions that impact time/duration (e.g. slowing single moments down) (pp. 100-103); and emphasis on “being there” rather than “getting there” (p. 81), which mirrors Wilson’s immersive efforts summarized above.

One excerpt demonstrates the use of aspect-to-aspect transition from a panoramic landscape panel to successively closer depictions of the main character in tighter panels, serving to establish location, position the main character within this landscape, then draw the reader in to the main character as subject relative to the landscape while at the same time isolating him from the landscape. I felt this effectively expressed the Samurai concept of asceticism, in addition to creating an intimacy between the reader and the main character and expressing the intimacy between creators and their subjects.

Another excerpt shows how panel configuration, gutter space, figure/ground relationship and negative space, combined with subjective motion, are used to complement arm movements and maintain subject focus during the action sequence of a sword fight.

Overall, I felt the sparseness of Kutsuwada’s illustrations provided experiential engagement that connected me with the concepts of Samurai asceticism embodied within this example of manga style, and within manga style in general. The use of captioned panels (McCloud, 1994) rather than thought or speech bubbles to share the main character’s narrative evokes a transcendental quality.

Thinking about the focus on figure/ground relationships and negative space in manga, perhaps best typified by the painting The Great Wave Off Kanag’awa by Hokusai (1829) (replica in McCloud, 1994, p. 82), made me reflect back on my exploration of the concept of ‘form’ in a number of my philosophy and cultural anthropology courses. I think the commensurability of fighting style and art in expressing Samurai ontology, as Wilson describes (Gordon, 2012), is an example of form; While fighting style represents one expression of a form, art represents another expression of that same form. This concept of form is cross-cultural, somewhat akin to an archetype[3], most familiar to me as Plato’s nonphysical Forms[4] representing ideal states (Ferrari & Griffith, 2000) and paralleled in the shared epistemology of Aboriginal Australian peoples[5][6] described by anthropologist David H. Turner[7] (1985, 1997). The concept is actually quite simple: Form exists independently of content, and content (including people) moves through and is moved by form in emulation of form. To really comprehend it, however, one must experience it (Turner, 1985, 1997). I think understanding the relationship between the concept of form and this experiential requirement is critical for comprehending the validity of Wilson’s immersive experience and how it translated so authentically to express Samurai ontology through the contemporary medium of manga. In other words, Wilson’s work constitutes both form and content.

Another great work to add to my graphic novel collection.



Ferrari, G. R., & Griffith, T. (2000). Plato: ‘The republic’. Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press.

Gordon, J. (2012, September 21). Director’s commentary: The book of the five rings [Weblog post]. Retrieved from

McCloud, S. (1994). Understanding comics: The invisible art. New York: HarperPerennial.

Turner, D. H. (1985). Life before genesis: A conclusion and understanding of the significance of    Australian Aboriginal culture (Vol. 1). New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.

Turner, D. H. (1997). Afterlife before genesis: An introduction: Accessing the eternal through         Australian Aboriginal music (No. 22). New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.

Samurai. (2016, June 10). In Wikipedia. Retrieved June 10, 2016 from


[1] An independent Samurai swordsman, serving no lord/master (Samurai, 2016).

[2] Wilson describes that Japanese illustrator, Chie Kutsuwada, shares a similar experience of isolation, residing in the United

Kingdom (Gordon, 2012).

[3] Perhaps even congruent to iconography (McCloud, 1994).

[4] The meaning of the five rings — earth, wind, water, fire, emptiness — align very well with the concept of Plato’s Forms (Ferrari &

Griffith, 2000; Gordon, 2012).

[5] Turner describes the concept of ‘renunciation’ as being central to the shared epistemology of Aboriginal Australian peoples. Renunciation comprises a logic of reciprocity whereby a person gives up everything and is thereby owed everything (Turner, 1985,

[6] ). I think this somewhat parallels Wilson’s description of the concept of ‘emptiness’ (Gordon, 2012).

[7] Turner also refers to Hokusai’s painting in articulating the concept of form (Turner, 1985, 1997).

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