MUSASHI, Japan's answer to James Clavell's Shogun, is a long picaresque novel of a swashbuckling swordsman first published as a serial in Japan's leading newspaper, the Asahi Shimbun, in 1935-39. It has since been published 14 times in book form to the tune of over 120 million copies and produced as a film seven times. In a fine foreword, Edwin O. Reischauer calls it the Gone With the Wind of Japan.

Written by Eijii Yoshikawa, a popular novelist who died 20 years ago, Musashi is the story of a wild youth, Takezo, keen on killing, whom we first meet lying wounded among the corpses after a battle of Sekigahara in 1600. This battle brought Tokugawa rule and two-and-a-half centures of relative peace to Japan. Portuguese-introduced matchlock musketry, decisive in the war, was now no longer needed and the samurai reverted happily to their "soul weapon," the sword. Schools of swordmanship proliferated to more than 1,700, but gradually skills to kill became arts to compete and the samurai lost their perquisites (including arbitrary killing of commoners) and, finally, their swords. Our hero, on the losing side at Sekigahara and on the lam, lives during the early transition period, among thousands of unattached samurai (ronin ) seeking through blood to become retainers to 265 lords.

Takezo meets Takuan, a Zen priest, who locks him up for three years while teaching him a higher swordsmanship. Thereafter, as Musashi Miyamoto, boy becomes man while traveling throughout Japan perfecting his sword technique and preparing for his climatic contest with his great rival, Kojiro Sasaki, he of the dread long sword, "The Drying Pole," with which he severs swallows on the wing. There is a subdued amorous interest in the lovely Otsu and much jocular humor, but mostly the plot focuses on Musashi, Kojiro, and the sword. (Unlike Shogun, in Musashi most of the story concerns society's underside, hoodlums and whores, rather than the lords and ladies.)

Musashi (1584? -- 1645) was an actual person, an acknowledged kengo (sword expert), who fought many contests and died a natural death. His fights with the Yoshioka school (Kyoto) and the Hozoin monks (Nara) and his duel with Sasaki are authentic. Allegedly he later wrote a book on swordsmanship, Gorin no Sho, (A Book of Five Rings, Overlook Press, 1974) and did some painting. Popular legend, to which Yoshikawa contributed, has made him bigger than life. D. F. Draeger, a leading expert on the Japanese martial arts, writes that the two-swords school Musashi purportedly created actually existed two centures earlier, and that Musashi himself is today regarded as an expert swordsman but not as the superman that fiction and film have made him.

Although this novelized account of Musashi could have been compressed somewhat from its nearly 1,000 pages to sustain readability, Yoshikawa's device of making action carry the story works pretty well. As a samurai story it is certainly superior to the neurotic maunderings of Yukio Mishima and some other redent Japanese novelists. The translation is felicitous enough, though the dialogue gets patchy at times.

Though Musashi is much more authentic than Shogun, Yoshikawa's failure to include harakiri (properly seppuku, disembowlment) is puzzling. The practice, legalized in the 13th century and rife during Musashi's time (see Y. Tsunetomo's Hagakure, published in English by Kodansha in 1979), is avoided by Yoshikawa possibly because of its ambiguities or because of personal aversion.

Similarly, Yoshikawa does little with Musashi's transformation into a spiritual swordsman. What did the Zen priest, Takuan, teach him? Presumably the same revolutionary approach Takuan gave to Yagyu Tajima-no-Kami Munenori or that practiced by Hariya Sekiun, both great fighters in the same period: that of Mushin, or a "no-mind" intuitive style which would prevail over the traditional pragmatic one. The style can be savored in the apocryphal story of the 16th-century general, Takeda Shingen, who, armed only with an iron fan, is attacked in his tent by an enemy general who shouts "What do you say now?" Takeda, deflecting the sword with his fan, responds, "A snowflake on a blazing stove." Explication of such training would have helped the story. We know that the training made Musashi less bellicose ("the superior warrior does not fight") and more allied to nature (he fights Kijori with a wooden oar he fashions into a makeshift sword on the boat en route to the contest ground), but in their fight, Musashi purposely arrives late, and uses the sun and terrain to an advantage that would be disdained by spiritual swordsmen. Which means only that he was still in the process of change.

The book ends with Musashi triumphant over Kojiro but still evolving as a spiritual swordsman not yet 30. His development as an artist and writer lies ahead of him. Thus Yoshikawa's epic covers only change and not transformation. But despite its defects, Musashi is a stirring saga and one that will prove popular not only for readers interested in Japan but also for those who simply want a rousing read.