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I've always loved books, and combined with the fact that I teach my sons at home we have quite a few. This has to rank as one of the best children's stories I have ever read. For a book to stand out as much as this one does takes something very special. I chose this simply because I was looking for something to do with Samurai, as my son was studying Japan. What I ended up with, by pure chance is an unforgettable story of brains over brawn, but also kindness and compassion.
After reading this book I was convinced I was reading a modern retelling of an old folktale or legend. This story has the feel of an ancient fairy tale with its wit and wisdom, but it is not. I at least expected this to have been written in Japan. The story was written by Burt Konzak who teaches Zen Buddhism, ethics and philosophy as well as karate in Toronto, Canada. So much for expectations!
The story itself is an absolutely brilliant tale of two Samurai. Michihara is old and wise, while Noguchi is young and brash but very powerful and strong. Noguchi and Michihara both find themselves on a boat, with several very frightened passengers as Noguchi vents his anger on all around him and revels in the fear he causes. While the rest of the passengers huddled in fear though, Michihara slept, unperturbed by the events around him. This drove Noguchi to even greater extremes, taking a swipe with his great sword near the sleeping Samurai, who still showed no fear. No matter how much Nogushi tried, he could not provoke Michihara or disturb his calm and peaceful nature. But with the safety of others at stake as well, the quiet old man at last agrees to a duel. It seems like victory will be certain for the young and powerful Noguchi against the small and age wizened elder, but things are not always as they seem. I don't wish to give away exactly how this ends, but I am sure you can guess who will come out victorious. Michihara triumphs, not through might, but through wisdom. But even in victory his calm and quiet nature remain unchanged and his compassion becomes all the more evident - turning an enemy into a friend.
The illustrations in this book are lovely. The detail shown on the first pages of the ferry docks and the surrounding town is very impressive, the overall shades of blue and sea greens lends a a quiet calming effect tot he story, while the sails of the ship have every detail right down to a patched sail. Noguchi is perhaps a bit to distorted in most of the story, but I think this is intentional, it shows how out of balance he is. The anger in his face is evident, as is his gloating when Michihara finally agrees to fight him. The real sign of the illustrators gift though is the sense of kindness and inner peace he manages to portray, first on the face of Michihara, and later on Noguchi. The illustrations combine perfectly with the pictures woven by the authors words to create a sense of peering in on another place and time.
My sons ( ages 2 and 6) both very much enjoyed this book. They loved the stomping and shouting, and seeing the bully learn his lesson. There is one seen in which Noguchi ends up nude ( I can't tell you why without ruining the end). The artist has cleverly drawn this so that all parts that are generally unseen remain so. But my sons have great fun giggling at this. I doubt the youngest understands anything of the moral of the story, but my oldest can discuss it with me, and is very impressed with Michihara's wit. The book also provided a nice means to discuss other cultures, eras, and ways of life. In particualr, we discussed the differences in the lovely sailed ferry boat and the large ferry we have taken to Scotland. My son noticed the lovely kites and brought up Boy's Day, a holiday in Japan that involves flying kites and carp shaped streamers.
I absolutely loved this book. I loved the fact that the hero of the story is not just the biggest and most powerful. I liked that it showed wisdom can be a better a weapon then the sword, and most of all I liked the graciousness that would turn an enemy into a friend. I think this is one of those absolutely magical stories that clearly imparts a moral through wit and humour. I think this book has an important message for all children, as all children will someday either face a bully, or bully others, if not both. I think this story could offer courage to children who are bullied, while hopefully offering wisdom to the bullies should they hear it. This book is one I really think every child hear, in a classroom or at home.
The fact that this book was written by a martial arts instructor was not lost on me either. I would strongly recommend this book for all children studying Karate, as I think it teaches something of the Karate- Do - or way, the inner discipline and philosophy that i believe should be part of this art form. But even for adults, I think this book has something to offer. I really enjoyed reading this story, and childish as it may sound, could not help laughing at the result of Noguchi's pride, or being impressed by the serene nature of Michihara. I think there is a lesson in life for everyone who reads this book, as well as just a fun enjoyable story.
I paid £7 for this book used from Amazon, and see the cheapest copy available now would be closer to £10 with postage. I honestly do think the book is worth the price and more. This book really does deserve 10 stars, but I will have to settle for 5 as there is no option for more.