Thursday, November 27, 2008

Turnbull’s ‘The Samurai Swordsman: Master of War’

We at the SA just received the newest offering from the prolific Stephen Turnbull-“The Samurai Swordsman: Master of War”. As we speculated in a post a few months ago, the book is an expansion of his previous work, the long out-of-print “The Lone Samurai and the Martial Arts” (as he details in the introduction). You’ll also see it listed on different Amazon sites under its earlier proposed titles of “Art of the Samurai Swordsman” with Honda Tadakatsu on the cover, or just plain “Samurai”. It’s not an Osprey book (surprise!), but rather an impressive lengthy hardback (208 pages) published by Frontline Books (and in the US by Tuttle).

‘Samurai Swordsman’ is a coffee table book with an abundance of full color photos, prints, paintings, and portraits (some taking up two pages). Like most of Turnbull’s books, it’s a visual treat. It’s organized by chapter into several interesting themes and the incidents Turnbull lays out make for entertaining reading. There are basic chapters on general eras of Japanese history (ancient, Kamakura, Sengoku, Edo, and the Bakumatsu) along with several that focus on a specific subject (sword schools and styles, swords in society, vendettas and ronin, and female warriors). The evolution of the swordsman and the role of his weapon is traced throughout Japanese history from the early days of the Genpei war (when the bow was the weapon of choice for most samurai) through the Sengoku (where the spear and arquebus ruled the battlefield) into the Edo period, where the romanticized form of the samurai swordsman most westerners are familiar with (and that populate most chanbara films) began to take form. Notable early swordsmen such as Kamiizumi Ise-no-kami Nobutsuna geared their swordplay towards the practical, where it would be used under battlefield conditions. The (relatively) peaceful times under the Tokugawa Shogunate saw the highly stylized and regulated schools of swordplay take shape, resulting in a much more formal approach to swordplay more suited for individual duels. Also examined is how these more peaceful times gave rise to an idealized form of samurai behavior, bushido (which is espoused and followed much more ardently by self styled ‘modern sammyrai’ than it ever was by the real thing).

Turnbull also displays an excellent writing style, giving life and a dramatic flair to the tales of old. The careers of many prominent swordsmen are brought to life within its pages. From the usual suspects such as Miyamoto Musashi and the Yagyu to the more obscure (but perhaps superior) Chiba Shusaku and Takahashi Deishu, Turnbull gives both the historical reality and glorified legends that have sprung up around these figures. Turnbull’s strength lies in his descriptions and accounts of these old legends (along with the many illustrations and photos pertaining to these events, most from his personal archives), making his book an interesting contrast and companion to other recent works such as Thomas Conlan’s ‘Weapons & Fighting Techniques of the Samurai Warrior 1200-1877 AD’. Whereas Conlan meticulously deconstructs the traditional accounts (many of which are based on Edo period sources written decades after the fact) to show what is perhaps the kernel of truth that lies at their center, Turnbull gives the richness and impact of the stories that defined the glory days of the samurai. They’re interesting treatments of the same subject-the reality versus the ‘public face’ that helped shape the culture of Japan. In effect, they’re different facets of the same gem. Hence, we get the legends of female warrior Tomoe Gozen, the story of Akechi Mitsuhide’s mother being put to death in a botched hostage negotiation, and Asano Naganori (whose inept assault on Kira Yoshinaka in Edo Castle gave rise to the 47 Ronin incident) being called an ‘upstanding’ ‘well respected and experienced samurai’-all of which recent evidence suggests are false, but that have become widely accepted as fact both in Japan and the west.

The book does have a few editing problems (as virtually all texts dealing with history do). There are a few mismatched dates, and some photos appear to be mislabeled (such as a print on pages 182-183 dealing with the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 that implies the infamous Shinsengumi were present-a rather difficult feat since they hadn’t been around for several years by then). Turnbull’s bibliography is outstanding (with both English and Japanese language sources from academia and general surveys), and will give readers several excellent avenues to pursue further study.

Following Turnbull’s career has been an interesting exercise. From his first book in the late 70’s (The Samurai: A Military History, still my favorite Turnbull effort) through his latest effort 30 years later, he has done more to make pre-modern Japanese history accessible to most westerners than any other author. He’s never been afraid to alter his viewpoints or opinions when new evidence is uncovered (as perhaps best shown in his changing evaluations of the battle of Kawanakajima over the years). As the internet and advanced telecommunications have made certain works much easier to gain access to, his sources have become more varied and of better quality. Turnbull’s research habits and sources have become more involved, detailed, and diversified as well. He has produced some truly excellent and original works the past few years (with ‘Kakure Kirishitan of Japan’ on top, along with ‘Samurai Invasion’ and other short works on east Asian piracy, Kawanakajima, the Osaka Campaigns, and Japanese fortifications). His newest, ‘Samurai Swordsman’, would make a great book to give someone as an introduction to pre-modern Japanese history. It’s available directly from Frontline here. Our friends in Europe can also find it at Amazon UK and in the US from Amazon.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Questions from the Audience - Sylvain Jolivalt

Here are the results of our question and answer session with Sylvain Jolivault, author of Esprits et créatures fabuleuses du Japon: Rencontre à l'heure du bouef. Enjoy!

Sylvain, who is your favourite Japanese artist, and would you say your work is influenced by any one in particular?

SJ: I'm fond of many ukiyo-e artists such as Hokusai or Hiroshige. I also very much like Toriyama Sekien’s works about yōkai. But I think my favorite one is Utagawa Kuniyoshi, among others for his depicting characters fighting huge monsters in a kind of super heroic style ! Very Happy
As far as modern mangaka are concerned, I like Akira's Ōtomo Katsuhiro, and, of course, Lone Wolf and Cub's Kojima Gōseki.

I've read Pierre Souyri’s book, translated into English as The World Turned Upside Down, which gives a very vivid portrait of medieval society in Japan. What else has he written - I guess he was great to study with.

SJ: We (me and my wife) much liked to attend his lessons. Unfortunately, that very year, I had to do my military service in the same time, so I couldn't attend all of them. His teaching is very lively. He is a very concerned and passionated teacher. His usual field is the study of Japanese society. I haven't read any other book he has written, except Histoire du Japon, which he wrote with several other authors and was edited by Francine Hérail.
(Here is Pierre Souyri's bibliography)

What medium did you use to create your pictures (water color, oil paints, ink) and are they computer enhanced?

SJ: I usually draw it first with a pencil, then I ink it with a fine felt-tip pen, and erase the pencil. After that, I color it up with watercolor.
I sometimes use my computer to clean up a drawing, erase unwanted stains. The computer is also useful for superimposing different drawings. For example, after having drawn a nice character, I may not want to waste it with a messed up background. So I can separate it and use it in different ways.
As far as the kyūbi no kitsune (above) is concerned, it has been drawn this way: with a water-colored setting, and then photoshopped! Very Happy

Being involved in the haunted attraction industry, I'd be interested to know how you went about putting together your 'oni tetsubo'-materials, processes, sculpting, and molding. I seem to recall it being light (so likely foam) and 'customer safe', making it a possible template for weapons to supply our 'American yōkai' with.

SJ: Indeed, it's a safe weapon I made for LARP. The inner core is a wooden staff. On the handle part, the staff is wrapped in an insulated foam tube. The "hitting part" is made out of a long block of foam sculpted in a split hexagonal cone. The staff is glued to the foam cone up to its half-way point and an hexagonal cap is glued on top of it.
The big rivets are in fact split foam balls (like the ones used for beach tennis balls). The loop at the tip of the handle is made with a ring-shaped baby toy (made out of rather hard plastic, so you'd better not hit opponents with it.
At last the whole of it is coated with a mixing of black acrylic paint and pre-vulcanized latex. I finally added a light silver acrylic-paint dry-brushing on balls and angles.
And here it is!

金棒姫 Kanabô-hime Wink

Of the Japanese ones you've seen, what do you consider the definitive book on yōkai?

SJ: If you want to look at a good collection of yōkai woodblock prints, I can recommend you Toriyama Sekien Gazu Hyakki-yagyô Zengashû 鳥山石燕 画図百鬼夜行全画集 (Collection of a Hundred Ghost Night Parade's Drawings by Toriyama Sekien).

As far as descriptions and explanations are concerned, Nihon Yôkai Hakubutsukan 日本妖怪博物館 (Museum of Japanese Yôkai) , by Kusano Takumi 草野巧 and Tobe Tamio 戸部民夫, is my favorite one. And Shibuya Yûji シブヤユウジ's pencil drawings are really fine.

Thanks to Sylvain and all who participated for the fascinating interview! Stay tuned for further interviews from the Samurai Archives.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Footnotes of History?

Have you ever wondered why there seems to be so little scholarship on the Shinsengumi available in English? One may find it surprising, considering all the attention the Shinsengumi get in imported Japanese “pop” culture in the form of films, anime and manga. To date, the only book I know that is dedicated to the study of the “Wolves of Mibu” is Romulus Hillsborough’s Shinsengumi: The Shogun’s Last Samurai Corps published in 1995. On one hand, I have to tip my cap to Hillsborough for writing this book. At least he had the chutzpah to tackle this controversial historical group, and as a result, he’s been beaten up in internet forums for being unbalanced in his approach to the political factions of that day, overly critical of the Shinsengumi by those who adore them, as well as has been accused of writing a book that lacks a coherent flow and contains too many corny and hackneyed phrases. Yet for all of Hillsborough’s faults, both real, imagined or exaggerated, his work remains the only readily available non-fiction book about the Shinsengumi in English. So again, why aren’t there more? I was recently asked this question by a friend and this triggered a serious round of thinking. The following is based on my response.

I think the reason why there is so little on the Shinsengumi in English is that in terms of the overall story of the Bakumatsu/Restoration, they are relatively minor players and don’t do anything save one incident which dramatically affects the pace of events. That event was of course, the Ikedaya affair where they pretty much saved Kyoto from deliberately getting torched by some Chōshū nut job extremists. Other than that, what else can you say about these thugs and their brutal behavior towards each other and the loyalist extremists they hunted down? Sorry-- I use the word “thugs” to describe the Shinsengumi, but what other word best describes these guys? I’m definitely no lover of the loyalists, but let’s face it—the Bakufu thought the best way to fight the loyalist thugs that were terrorizing the streets of Kyoto would be with their own “deputized” gang of thugs—and they were right! So while the Shinsengumi may have been minor players in the overall big picture, they do loom very large in the Bakumatsu period history of Kyoto. It would be ludicrous to think that the Shinsengumi did not have a direct impact on the events in that city and everyday life there for a handful of tumultuous years. Again, their impact on Kyoto can’t be denied and is probably one of the reasons they are popular to this day in Japan. Stories and incidents that took place in Edo and Kyoto dominated the mass media then, so we are left with a wealth of material about their exploits in the not so distant past. This is evident by the number of books about the Shinsengumi that can be found on or in any decent-sized Japanese bookstore. One look at my bookshelf further backs this up.

Okay, so the Shinsengumi remain a popular topic of scholarship in Japan, but why not in the rest of the world?

I think you can look at the Shinsengumi’s popularity in Japan and compare it to why a sizeable portion of American society may be able tell you a thing or two from the days of the Wild West about the James Gang or the Dalton Gang on the wrong side of the law or the Texas Rangers, Bat Masterson and the Earp brothers and their friends on the “right” side of the law. In a 20th century context, I guess you could make a loose comparison to Elliott Ness’ G-Men acting as a crack unit to take down Al Capone and the other gangsters of Chicago. Neither the outlaws nor their “good” guy counterparts were angels, but they all stick out and are relatively well known. Americans can tell you about these people and some of their exploits because they were exciting points in the long and bland history of how as a people and a country, the US got from there to here. Also, these people, both “good” and “bad”, were products of the times as well as the culture. They weren’t catalysts or show stoppers in a historical context, but just interesting, and because of this, they are remembered and studied. I don’t think too many non-Americans know much about these people, besides what they may have seen in movies or in old TV shows. I’m willing to wager that there probably aren’t too many non-fiction books published in foreign countries about these historical American figures for the same reason it is hard to find histories of Shinsengumi in languages other than Japanese.

Just as many Americans can say that they know the name of Jesse James or Billy the Kid, the same holds true for how Japanese look at the Shinsengumi—whether they are fans or not. Everybody in Japan knows something about the Shinsengumi—even the idiot kids who can’t even tell you the name of the current prime minister! So even though the Shinsengumi are a part of the landscape of Japanese history and culture and are fodder for exciting stories of adventure and dark camaraderie forged in blood, how much interest does a non-Japanese academic or his/her peers have in this topic? I’m not so sure they fully “get it” or find the subject matter all that interesting in the larger scheme of things. If we really think about it, there really aren’t too many books out there in English on the Bakumatsu. I’m already hearing groans from those who already think there are enough books on the Bakumatsu and not enough on the Sengoku period, but let’s face it; there really aren’t all that many books available on Japanese history as opposed to say, European or American history, yes? And most of the books on the Bakumatsu are going to focus on the general big picture or on the key individuals or han, such as Chōshū, Satsuma or Tosa. Thus sadly, for western written histories of the Bakumatsu, the Shinsengumi are nothing more than an interesting footnote. This is one of the problems with non-Japanese scholarship on this period. A lot of the exciting stuff gets relegated to mere footnote status as it really doesn’t alter the outcome of events. Hence, at least in English, the Shinsengumi, for the large part, remain footnotes of history.

So, the question is—who is going to write the next non-fictional account of the Shinsengumi in English? Any takers?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Weapons & Fighting Techniques Of The Samurai Warrior 1200-1877 AD

Wow, I thought to myself as I unwrapped a large parcel from a bookseller in the UK-Thomas Conlan (Associate Professor of Asian Studies at Bowdoin College and a leader in the scholarly examination of samurai warfare) has written a coffee table book-Weapons & Fighting Techniques Of The Samurai Warrior 1200-1877 AD! It's loaded with lots of color photos, diagrams, and artwork, including step by step demonstrations of fighting with bows, swords, spears, harquebus, and more. I can’t say I’m very impressed with the maps. Overall, the graphic presentation is a lot like Kure Mitsuo’s Samurai: An Illustrated History-but with more impressive writing.

While I’ve only given it a quick read through (I’ll post more on it later), these are my initial impressions. As far as text goes, there is a LOT to chew on here for those interested in samurai combat and tactics. Conlan brings the same fresh perspective that he’s brought to his two former books (In Little Need of Divine Intervention and State Of War). Even those who have kept up-to-date with the newest findings among Japanese historians will find some startling new material. Conlan continues the fine work that he (along with Karl Friday) has done in exploding the old myths of samurai combat and bushido. Samurai warfare is shown to have had over 75% of its casualties caused by projectile weapons (this concept isn’t new, but more evidence is presented). The impact of the small Japanese horse on battle is examined in depth (along with the extreme reluctance of horse owners to risk them in close combat), further reinforcing the notion that there were few if any massed cavalry charges in Japanese battles, with cavalry usually only being used in close combat to go after an enemy that had broken and was in retreat. Another interesting point Conlan makes (using contemporary accounts) is that the small horses put brawny warriors at a disadvantage.

Conlan also reexamines some of the more popular accounts given in most history books and puts a new spin on them. His section on Nagashino reinvents the likely course of the battle, beginning with debunking the numbers of guns fielded by the Oda. While most of us on the Samurai Archives realize that the Oda/Tokugawa forces had 1000, not 3000 (normally the number seen in Western histories), guns, Conlan takes it a step further and puts forth the notion it fielded 500 or fewer. Using the results of recent excavations of the battlefield, he postulates that Nobunaga achieved such a decisive victory by using the Tokugawa army as bait, concealing the Oda forces, and unleashing a massive ambush on the Takeda when they attempted to envelope the Tokugawa. The famous notion of ‘three ranks’ of rotating gunfire is largely discounted as an Edo period fabrication. It’s fascinating stuff many people won’t agree with, but it’s a well supported and thought out argument. Likewise, Conlan has a different viewpoint of the Uesugi army than is normally seen-he considers them to be right there with the Oda in terms of innovative and effective use of gunfire (largely due to their contact and friendly relations with the Ashikaga Shogunate, gaining access through them to early gunpowder and firearm technology) rather than the ‘traditional’ cavalry based army it is usually portrayed as. He ascribes the collapse of the major Eastern daimyo (the Takeda, Hojo, and Imagawa) largely to their failure to incorporate firearms technology quickly enough. Conlan even makes corrections to common attributions, such as identifying what is perhaps the most famous portrait of Minamoto no Yoritomo (as seen here) to be in reality a portrait of Ashikaga Tadayoshi (this info has been around since the mid-nineties, but is the first time I've seen it presented in an English language book).

The book comes up short in at least one major area-being written for a more general audience, it has no footnotes or endnotes. This makes further examination or study of Conlan’s points difficult to impossible. For example, he twice brings up a female warrior, Tsuruhime, who according to oral legend fought in several battles in the inland sea around 1542 (there’s an existing suit of modified armor attributed to her). He also mentions that there is an account of a group of female cavalry that fought in western Japan in the 1350’s. I find this interesting, but a dead end-what account? Contemporary? A war tale? Temple tradition? Where do the accounts of Tsuruhime come from? Without the notes, it’s impossible to tell and evaluate these claims.

Still, it’s a book that anyone with a serious interest in samurai warfare, Japanese history, or weaponry should have on their bookshelf. It will be interesting to see how the book is received by the public-the general audience it is aimed for will likely not take kindly to having its romanticized preconceptions dismantled so effectively. It’s sure to cause some spirited debate and get its readers reconsidering their positions on a multitude of topics. At around $13 for a 225 page hardcover loaded with color shots, it’s an absolute steal. Buy it today-you won’t be sorry.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Author and Artist Sylvain Jolivalt - S-A Interview #3

For our third interview, our pal Obenjo Kusanosuke has taken the time to interview talented artist and author, Sylvain Jolivalt. Enjoy, and feel free to post questions for Sylvain in the comments.

Today we are fortunate to have author Sylvain Jolivalt, our SA Citadel Forum’s own “Akaguma” with us for a special interview, and believe me, we’re in for a treat. Besides being extremely knowledgeable about Japanese history and culture, Sylvain is an accomplished artist, author and yokai expert. These skills are beautifully combined and represented in his book Esprits et créatures fabuleuses du Japon: Rencontre à l'heure du bouef , available from Also, be sure and check out Sylvain’s website at and his blog at where you can see much of his terrific artwork.

Obenjo Kusanosuke (OK): Sylvain, welcome to my little interview chashitsu. It is a real pleasure to have you here.

Sylvain Jolivalt (SJ): Thank you very much! It’s a pleasure for me too. It’s still a bit unusual for me to be interviewed. Wink

OK: I thought we’d start this out by asking you one of my basic questions—how did you become interested in Japanese history and culture? What drew you to it?

SJ: I couldn’t say it’s thanks to japanimation, as when I was a child, I didn’t even know those cartoons took place in Japan, or even were made in Japan. Actually, I became interested in Japanese culture thanks to… American comics! Since I was eight, I was a great fan of Marvel comics. I once read a story about the X-Men that took place in Japan, and found out that my favorite super-hero (Wolverine) could speak Japanese. That looked real cool. A few years later, I got into Frank Miller’s Daredevil (with a lot of ninja stuff), and then Miller’s Wolverine in which I learned my first words in Japanese, which then motivated me to buy a “learn-it-by-yourself” Japanese handbook. At this time, I was also fond of every ninja movie (like the ones featuring Shō Kosugi) that were released on VHS. Embarassed Wink , and of course, Shōgun could be watched on TV. Since then I began to read everything about samurai and ninja. In Dungeons & Dragons Oriental Adventures role-playing game I first read stuff about yōkai. Then, reaching university, I started to more seriously lean the Japanese language and culture.

OK: I can’t help but to admire your artwork. I think you’ve done a fabulous job of capturing the essence of traditional Japanese landscapes and objects in your work. I think your rich knowledge of Japanese culture really shines through in your work. Your illustrations have a nice modern and sappari (さっぱり)—refreshing—feel to them. At what point did you want to start blending your skills with the pencil and pen with your love of things “Japonais”?

SJ: Thank you. Actually I started to draw more or less Japanese things for quite a long time ago. But it’s since I began my comic book project six years ago that can be seen on my site, that I tried to stick closer to historical reality.

OK: Where are your top three favorite places in Japan that make you want to pick up a pencil and paper and start sketching when you are there?

SJ: Good question. I much liked to visit Mount Hiei. Not only the principal buildings of the Enryaku-ji, but also the forest between them. As we were most of the time all alone, we felt like we could anytime run into a tengu. I also like traditional looking streets like the ones in Takayama, and, of course, castles. The very first one I visited was Matsumoto-jō which impressed me very much.

OK: And at what point did you want to combine your artwork with words and write a book about yōkai? And why yōkai? What’s the allure of these mythical Japanese creatures to you?

SJ: fifteen years ago, I worked as assistant and interpreter for a Japanese geography professor who came in Alsace to study rivers, groundwater, and so on. When visiting different spots in the area, I always told him about local legends, which inevitably made him think I was much interested in myths and tales. He then offered me my very first book in Japanese about yōkai, Mizuki Shigeru’s yōkai dictionary. As there wasn’t any book about Japanese ghosts and goblins in French, I thought it could be interesting to write one. Once in Japan, I found out there were a lot of books about them, So, I came back in France with my luggage plenty full of these books. I then compiled and translated every data I could find. As I didn’t really know how ancient pictures found in those books were copyrighted, and as I liked to draw all sorts of strange creatures, I found it easier to illustrate the whole book all by myself.

What I find interesting in Japanese yōkai are their close links with geography and history-- that historical figures have met them, or that there still are signs of their presence. That’s funny!

OK: It seems there has been a recent rise in the amount of publications on yōkai both in Japanese and other languages over the years. The series of Shabake books by Hatakenaka Megumi about friendly yōkai who help the young heir of an Edo-period shipping company has been incredibly popular over the past few years and was even made into a television movie last year. Why do you think the fascination with yōkai has endured over the years in Japan and now in foreign countries?

SJ: It seems that this taste for fantastique seems to be a common trait in all our country, may it be through movies, books or comics. And with this wave of interest in Japanese horror movies, manga or anime, there are more and more people interested in yōkai. Hence my book.

OK: So do you think yōkai are just as relevant in today’s Japan as they were during, say, the Edo period?

SJ: I feel that Japanese are a bit more superstitious than Westerners can be. I was somehow amazed when a Japanese friend of my wife seriously advised her not to take photos in a cemetery because ghost might appear on pictures. Or I have a friend who felt really uncomfortable merely with looking at demon [inō[/i] masks. Maybe was it the same a long time ago.

OK: Can you please talk a little about your three favorite yōkai?

SJ: I like oni. I don’t really know why. Maybe its their hulkish attitude. Some of them dwell in mountains. Others are infernal jailers who spend their time torturing sinners. I’m sure they can be good drinking companions… as long as you have enough sake to offer Wink

This is a karasu-tengu (raven-mountain-goblin). They are usually mischievous toward humans, but when they find a worthwhile soon-to-be hero, they may teach him secret martial arts techniques.

When I decided to talk about the kūbi no kitsune (nine-tailed vixen) in my book, it was first to show to all those Naruto fans that she did exist before the manga. I then found out that she is a very interesting evil creature that has a long history. She caused the fall of two Chinese dynasties and even traveled to India, before trying her luck with the emperor of Japan. But there, she’d been quickly unmasked by an onmyōji, and hunted down by top-class archers. She had been caught in the shape of a rock that can still be found nowadays.

OK: I recently came across this ukiyo-e by Yoshitoshi. Here, we see a person defending himself from kappa by…aiming a “gas bomb” at the little green guys. Is this really an effective strategy for trying to keep from getting one’s shirikodama? I just need to know if it is a good thing to always bring some Satsuma imo and beer with me just in case I’m headed down to the river and am confronted by a kappa looking to rip into my bowels.

SJ: This can be a good technique that may prevent kappa from getting one’s shirikodama. Otherwise, you can bring your pet monkey… monkeys are supposed to be their sworn enemies. Or you can offer them cucumbers… kappa are really fond on them.

OK: I know I’ve asked this before on the SA Citadel forum, but I’ve got to ask again. Are you planning on having Esprits et créatures fabuleuses du Japon translated into English?

SJ: I’d like to. But my looking for a publisher hasn’t been this fruitful so far. I should insist a bit more.

OK: Let’s talk about a little about the study of Japanese history in France. I know you are very much interested in samurai history, their weapons and their armor. Is the study of samurai military history particularly popular in France? Is there a wide selection of books available books in French covering all th
e areas of Japanese history? Who are the more prominent scholars of samurai history in the French speaking world and what books opened the “samurai universe” to you? I suspect there is a rich collection of material available.

SJ: The military history of samurai warfare is not particularly studied in France in this detail. There are some nihontō aficionados who happen to write books about weapons. As far as I know, there are a lot of studies about contemporary Japan, but not much that I can recall about earlier periods. I’ve read a good book about the Kamakura period by Pierre Souyri. Francine Hérail’s books are also interesting (both of them were my teachers when I studied at Langues’O).

OK: Who are your favorite Japanese history scholars outside of France—such as in Japan, the UK or the US?

SJ: Actually, I couldn’t tell. I haven’t read this many books by English scholars (except one translation of Turnbull’s). As far as Japanese writers are concerned, only Kure Mitsuo‘s name whose book had been translated in French comes to my mind. I must confess that much of my humble knowledge comes from dictionaries and encyclopedias.

OK: Have you found any significant differences in how French scholars approach Japanese history and culture versus what you see in English language works?

SJ: I can’t really say. Most of the books I’ve read by French scholars are about cults, myth and religions. By the way, Musée Guimet’s Catalogue by Bernard Franck is one of the best introductions to Japanese Buddhist pantheon I’ve ever read.

OK: Which era of Japanese history are you most interested in and why?

SJ: I much like Heian and Edo periods. The Heian period for its heroic-fantasy flavor like in those Onmyōji movies, or Mizoguchi’s Tales of the Taira Clan (I also liked very much Yoshikawa Eiji’s book as well).
And the Edo period, while many might find it boring, it interests me because it is easy to find data about this period. You can easily find which daimyo ruled what fief, how much time it took for a courier to travel from place to place, what was the price of things, and so on. All this information is precious and provides a lot of background material needed to create various characters in RPG or in LARP. I do very much like it when my players feel like their characters could have really existed.

OK: Is there a particular persona from the Heian or Edo periods whom you would consider your favorite?

SJ: Minamoto no Yorimitsu! When writing my book, I found it funny to run into him and his ghost busting Shitennō crew so many times, just because they’ve fought many yōkai: earth-spider, Ōeyama’s oni, Rashōmon’s oni. Even one of his Shitennō – super-strong Sakata no Kintoki a.k.a. Kintarō – is the son of a yamauba (mountain-hag). It seems that numerous Minamoto family members had a brush with yōkai-- Yorimitsu’s father fought an oni as well, Yoshitsune had been trained by tengu on Mount Kurama. Another one fought a nue that haunted the emperor. It’s an interesting family.

OK: You’ve made your own set of samurai armor, which
looks really nice. What was your inspiration or who’s armor served as a model for your set?

SJ: Thanks. Actually, when visiting Odawara castle, I had the opportunity to wear a real armor (as far as reenactment armor can be real, of course). I then took pictures of every part of the armor:

How did you make your armor?

SJ: I’ve made this armor to be used in LARP. I took a huge PVC plate, and cut every part out of it. Then, I’ve drilled holes, heated those parts up in order to shape them the way I wanted, and varnished them black. The longest thing was to assemble all those parts. 70 meters of lace was needed for that.

Do you have any new projects in the works—either in terms of your artistic talents or as a writer?

SJ: I’ve written (and drawn) an adaptation of the classical Japanese fairytale Issun Bōshi (who meets two little fairies who strangely look like my daughters) that is being proposed to publishers.
I’m also working on this Azuchi-Momoyama period role-playing game rulebook I spoke about in Tony’s interview.

OK: You’re one of the more popular long-term members of the SA Citadel forum, but you don’t post as much as some of us would like. How can we get you more involved? Do you have any advice on any improvements we can make?

SJ: That’s a good question. I often come to Samurai Archive only to read new posts. I like to write any helpful post when I can, but sometimes, your discussions go past my very knowledge, which is far than being a bad thing since it enables me to learn a lot of stuff.
But soon, I’ll be able to talk with you about another topic-- Japanese dramas. Lately, my wife (my home computer specialist) showed that it was possible to see J-dramas thanks to the internet. I hadn’t had any opportunity to see a whole Japanese drama series… until now ! Wink

OK: Thank you so much for taking the time to allow me to interview you on behalf of the Samurai Archives. As always, it is a pleasure to converse with you.

SJ: Thanks to you, too!

OK: If forum members have questions for Sylvain, please place them in the comments section below by November 15.