Musashi Ngram: the power of film

Following yesterday’s success with using Google Books’ Ngram analysis to examine the history of judo, I was fooling around with Ngram today and looked up Miyamoto Musashi.  Here is the interesting result I found:



What is that bump in the 1950s?  Perhaps you know.  I didn’t.

I have always assumed that Miyamoto Musashi entered the consciousness of the English-speaking world after the publication of Charles Terry’s translation of Yoshikawa Eiji’s novel Musashi.  So my first thought was that the novel was published in the USA in 1955.  However, when I looked it up, it turns out that the novel was published in 1981!  Huh!

So then I looked up Musashi on Wikipedia, but the first link I went to was the film called Samurai, based on the Yoshikawa novel and starring Toshiro Mifune.  And right in the first paragraph of that article, it says Samurai won an award for outstanding foreign film at the 1955 Academy Awards.


That’s strange, I thought.  I had always assumed that the novel was popular first and that the films were then released in the US after that.  However, my timeline has more to do with my personal history of reading the book first and then finding the films later and having difficulty finding them at that (not what you would expect from an award-winner).  Could that whole uptick in Ngram noise be from writing about the Academy Awards?  I decided to check by doing an Ngram search on Musashi along with the name of the film’s director, Inagaki:



Sure enough, the fate of Inagaki in the western media seems to be inextricably tied up with Musashi, and it appears that this bump really did come from the Academy Awards buzz.  That means Musashi was introduced to modern movie audiences in the 1950s, but the novel the movies were based on didn’t come out for another 25 years!  And what about my favourite Japanese actor, Mifune Toshiro, who played Musashi in the Samurai films?  Was his fate also tied to his portrayal of the swordsman?  By no means, although his western reputation was tied to Musashi’s in the beginning:



So what about those other bumps, though?  In the 1950-2000 chart, “Miyamoto Musashi” trends up in the first half of the 1970s, then levels off, then trends up again the 1980s.  As I mentioned above, the Charles Terry’s translation Musashi was first published in 1981, and writing about his novel could account for the rapid rise in the early 80s.  But what about the early 70s?

I don’t really have a good answer.  Certainly, general interest in Japanese martial arts was on the rise at the time.  Maybe a rising tide lifts all boats?  My best guess, though, is that it has to do with the Japanese economy.  Do you remember back when Japan was booming and everyone thought the Japanese had some secret to economic success?  According to Wikipedia, between 1965 and 1980 Japan’s nominal GDP went from about $90 billion to $1 trillion, and during the 1970s Japan had, after the USA and USSR, the world’s 3rd largest GNP!  People thought there was a Japanese way of business they could learn to recreate the same success.  There was a glut in Japan stuff.  In addition to the 1980 Shogun TV miniseries and the 1981 publication of the novel Musashi, there was a 1982 publication of Musashi’s Book of Five Rings with the subtitle The Real Art of Japanese Management.









But note the cover of this translation has a quote from TIME magazine about Musashi.  This type of book marketing isn’t done unless there is already something in the air.  The publishers want businessmen to see this book and recognise the name Musashi: “Oh, I remember people talking about this guy… I should get this book and check him out.”  And there had already been a translation of The Book of Five Rings made in 1974 by Victor Harris.

Indeed, you can see that if you compare Ngram searches for “Japanese * miracle”, “Miyamoto Musashi”, and “Book of Five Rings”, they all track fairly closely until the downturn of the Japanese economy in 1991.




So, while the 1950s bump in English-language writing about Musashi seems to have been spurred by the Samurai film trilogy, the rest of the late 20th century interest in Musashi can probably be attributed to American obsession with the Japanese miracle economy.