Saturday, November 20, 2010

Defenders, Victims, Avengers: Turnbull's "Samurai Women"

While the female warrior is a staple of chanbara films, manga, and anime, there's very little in the way of books that examine the role of women in Japanese warrior society (particularly in English). The ever prolific Stephen Turnbull has addressed this shortage with his newest effort "Samurai Women 1184-1877" (which despite the title actually covers the period from 170 to 1877). Whether in their capacity as castle defenders, victims of warfare, or avengers pursuing a vendetta, Turnbull examines the impact that women had upon the violent world of the samurai.

We'll go over the book's shortcomings first since we'd like to end on a positive note. Simply using the term ‘samurai’ with ‘women’ casts Turnbull in a bad light-it seems he’s unaware that the Japanese use ‘samurai’ as a gender specific term that can only be applied to males (those who want the details can read about it here). Onnamusha, buke women, and other terms would be more appropriate here. While I would have to reread the book to be 100% positive, I believe Turnbull never explains that 'Gozen' is not a proper name but rather just another word for 'woman' or 'lady'. This might puzzle some readers who will come away thinking that virtually all the female warriors of yore shared the same given name!

The careless errors that crop up on a regular basis in Turnbull’s other books waste no time in showing up in Samurai Women. For example, he devotes two lines in the main text to Hosokawa Gracia (possibly the best known ‘samurai woman’ in the west besides Tomoe Gozen). One is a picture caption, one is in the main text-and he gets them both wrong. The caption reads “Hosokawa Gracia is revered for the fidelity that she showed to her Christian faith in spite of the initial opposition from her husband, and later his disgrace and death”. As Hosokawa Tadaoki outlived Gracia by several decades, it appears Turnbull instead is thinking not of her husband but her father Akechi Mitsuhide (who of course was labeled as a traitor and disgraced for his attack on Oda Nobunaga and his subsequent death at the hands of peasants). The selection in the main text reads “This was Hosokawa Gracia, the staunchly Christian wife of Hosokawa Yusai”-but of course, her husband was Hosokawa Tadaoki with Yusai being his father. These are the types of errors that make one speculate if Turnbull actually proofreads his work or even has someone else glance over his manuscript for accuracy.

Turnbull’s tendency to be highly uncritical of his sources and accepting Edo period and earlier legends at face value is on full display as well. Nowhere is it mentioned that most Japanese historians consider celebrated female warrior Tomoe Gozen to have been nothing more than a legend. She appears in no contemporary documents, histories such as the Azuma Kagami, the records of the Wada family, or in the registers of the temples she was alleged to have joined late in life. He fails to mention that the Genpei Seisuki (the basis for the story of Tomoe becoming Wada Yoshimori’s concubine) is an ‘expanded version’ of the Heike Monogatari with many fictional elements added. Instead, it appears Tomoe was birthed in the Heike Monogatari through the efforts of pro-Minamoto/Hojo historians to discredit Kiso Yoshinaka. In many subtle ways the Heike chroniclers cast aspersions on his fitness to rule, ranging from referring to him as ‘Kiso’ rather than ‘Minamoto’ to always depicting him in the company of women (the story even has Kiso remarking that to die in the company of a woman would be dishonorable). Elizabeth Oyler has a fascinating examination of this in her book ‘Swords, Oaths, and Prophetic Visions’ for those who wish to learn more. Similarly, the story of Akechi Mitushide’s mother being killed by Hatano samurai after Oda Nobunaga breached their agreement with Mitsuhide is presented as fact. Instead, this appears to have no basis in reality and was first seen in an Edo period play as an attempt to explain Mitsuhide’s motivation for turning traitor. There are records of her surviving past 1574 (the supposed year of the incident) along with letters written to and by her. There’s more along these lines, but these examples should suffice.

It’s also odd that Turnbull neglects several of the more dramatic episodes involving ‘samurai women’. Although it’s mentioned that the ‘Satsuma rebels under Saigo Takamori had a few women in their ranks’ (during the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877), the many contemporary accounts of large groups of them fighting at the siege of Kumamoto castle are ignored (we would have been interested in reading more about this, since there seems to be a question about whose side they actually fought on). Tachibaba Ginchyo’s defiance of Kato Kiyomasa during the Sekigahara campaign while she was a nun is depicted, but Turnbull fails to mention that she was unique in Japanese history. Ginchyo was the only female daimyo lord in Japanese history, being installed in that position by her father who lacked a male heir (she lost this position to her husband Muneshige after their marriage-and Muneshige later divorced her. Talk about ingratitude!). Several short accounts of ‘female horsemen’ in the full version of the Taiheiki are not brought up. Another of Kiso Yoshinaka’s attendants who supposedly fought and died at the decisive battle of Kurikara, Aoi Gozen, isn’t examined. As noted earlier Hosokawa Gracia rates barely a mention. Even some recent archaeological discoveries that could have an important bearing on the role of women in combat are brought up only in passing (such as excavations at head mounds located near battlefields that contain approximately 33% female heads according to DNA testing). We would have liked to have seen much more done with the latter (even if only referencing a source), as this has the potential to redraw the parameters of the female warrior.

Finally, in an effort to get the maximum drama from his subject, Turnbull engages in some rather baseless speculation both in the body of the text and in his interpretation of certain images. For example, he states that "the samurai woman as a fighting warrior, by contrast, appears to be virtually non-existent" and follows that by stating "they...allow us to regard the exploits of female warriors as the greatest untold story in samurai history". However, given that Turnbull is unable to find enough material to fill the approximately 32 pages of text in the book with the exploits of warrior women, it seems the 'female warrior' (at least on the open battlefield) must still be considered largely a myth. This is a theme Turnbull comes back to again and again, but he fails to provide evidence to back it up. For example, the best he can do for contemporary images of 'female warriors' are a woodblock from 'Hojo Godaiki' and 'Boki Ekotoba' (a picture scroll from 1351). The woodblock shows 'trophy heads' lined up after the Hojo capture of Fukane castle, and Turnbull claims several of the heads appear to be female. He doesn't identify which heads he has in mind, but the ones he might be thinking are female clearly have the hairstyles of male pages. Turnbull also states that a figure seen in the Boki Ekotoba scroll is likely a woman because "the features are very feminine with rouged cheeks and painted eyebrows, and by comparison the faces of all the other characters are coarse and masculine". Well, not really-all of the characters display rouged cheeks and painted looking eyebrows. The figure appears to be a youth or page (Turnbull does list this as being possible), with the only real facial differences being that he still has all his hair (not having yet taken vows) while the other monks have shaven heads.

Now let's move on to the book's strong points. Turnbull does a good job of providing background on the important roles that women played both in the political (both in marriage politics and working behind the scenes) and economic (by managing the estates and affairs of a samurai household) realms. These were women like Hojo Masako, Minamoto no Yoritomo's wife who was as feared and ruthless as any male leader of the time. Many of the early female Emperors are mentioned, including the mythical Empress Jingu (who may or may not have existed) who was said to have led an army that conquered Korea around the start of the third century AD. Another early female leader, Himiko (mentioned in a Chinese account in 297) is also examined.

By far the most impressive section of the book is where Turnbull examines the role women played in castle sieges. This is where virtually every reliable account of women participating in warfare comes from. Women were routinely left in charge of the defense of castles while their lords were away, and even took an active part in the action when their husbands were present. Turnbull has well-documented instances from Hangaku Gozen's defense of Torisaka Castle in 1201 to the woman of the Joshigun at the siege of Aizu-Wakamatsu Castle in 1868. While women generally performed support duties such as extinguishing fires, loading guns, making bullets, cooking food, caring for the wounded, and even preparing trophy heads for viewing, there are many accounts of them taking up arms and even sallying forth from the castle to confront the enemy. A common theme is that of a woman who would don her husband's armor to inspire the troops, in effect 'standing in' for the lord. Some of the accounts are comical and heartbreakingly tragic at the same time, such as occurred at Tsuneyama Castle in 1577. Led by Ueno Tsuruhime of the Mimura, a group of 34 women charged out of the castle and attempted to engage the besieging Mori troops in conflict. However, the Mori samurai refused to kill women and tenaciously avoided combat, frustrating the women who returned to the castle and committed mass suicide. A much different result was to be found at Aizu Wakamatsu in 1868. Nakano Takeko and a large group of women left the castle and charged into the lines of the new Imperial army. While the Imperialists instructed their men to take the women alive (likely more for some nefarious purpose than out of compassion), the women had no such compunction, slaughtering many of the Imperial troops before most of them were gunned down. There are many other excellent accounts such as at Imayama in 1570, Tsurusaki in 1586, Hondo in 1589-90, Omori in 1599 (where women operated a catapult), several actions during the Sekigahara campaign of 1600, and more. Perhaps our favorite account was of Yamamoto Yaeko, who was the daughter of an Aizu gunnery instructor and who replaced him when he was killed during the fighting in 1868. Brandishing a brand new Sharps repeating rifle, she not only fought with the men but also survived the battle, living to found Doshisha University in Kyoto. Perhaps Turnbull's greatest strength is his ability to bring to life the legends of long ago, and this is some of his best work in that area.

There's also an intriguing 'battlefield' account of Sengoku period female warrior Tsuruhime of Omishima (no relation to the Tsuruhime mentioned above). Tsuruhime's exploits against the Ouchi around 1541 (both on land and on the sea) are perhaps the only reliable accounts in Japanese history of a woman participating in open field battle. Oddly enough, Tsuruhime wasn't even a member of the buke class-rather, she was a shrine maiden who proclaimed herself the avatar of Mishima Myojin. The high point of her career came when she boarded the flagship of Ouchi general Obara Nakatsukasa No Jo and cut him down. Turnbull includes an image of the altered armor that is attributed to Tsuruhime and that is still housed in the Oyamazumi Shrine.

Turnbull fills out his accounts by relating many of the atrocities suffered by women as victims of war, with some particularly grisly accounts of them being pierced through the hands, tied to ships, and used as human shields by the Mongols during their invasion of Japan in 1274. Threats of mass suicide were also commonly used by women against invaders-one wouldn't think that would be much of a deterrent, but the courage showed by the women sometimes impressed the invaders enough so that they would abandon their assault out of respect. He also brings up sanctioned Edo period vendettas-out of 100 recorded vendettas, 14 were carried out by women. One of these is examined in detail, showing how the two daughters of a farmer, Miyagino and Shinobu, killed the samurai who had murdered their father. While their story has been greatly embellished over the years ala the 47 Ronin, they used a naginata along with a chain and sickle to dispatch their foe. It's also interesting that the only instance during the Edo period where a 'retainer' took revenge for their 'lord' (besides the fabled Ronin) involved a lady-in-waiting who killed a woman that had forced her lady into suicide.

About half of the 64 page book is devoted to photos, reproductions of woodblock prints, portraits, and also some excellent plates by artist Giuseppe Rava. In our opinion, Rava's plates are among the best ones seen in Osprey's Japanese samurai history line-they're quite dynamic and don't 'glamorize' their subjects by making them look like schoolgirl teen idols. Turnbull's images are quite good, showing statues and museum pieces as well as woodblocks and scrolls. Unfortunately, there are errors and exaggerations here too. Turnbull identifies a photo of a woman playing a hand drum to accompany Oda Nobunaga's performance of 'Atsumori' before the battle of Okehazama as 'a servant girl' when in fact it's his wife Nohime. There are the spurious identifications mentioned in a prior paragraph. One of Rava's plates shows Hangaku Gozen charging out of Torisaka Castle on horseback slashing her way through a group of foot retainers, but the Azuma Kagami states that she remained inside the castle throughout the siege until felled by an enemy arrow. It sure looks great, though!

"Samurai Women", despite Turnbull's hyperbole, does little to change the model of Japanese female warriors that has developed over the years. In short, there's virtually no reliable evidence that women were professional soldiers or standing troops in a regular army. However, when it came time to defend the homelands in the form of castle sieges, they routinely became an active part of the defenses. While they usually joined servants and children in support services, there are many records of them taking a more direct role in the fighting-and by all accounts, acquitted themselves well in both roles. Women (both of the buke and commoner classes) also were involved in a large percentage of vendettas during the Edo period, proving that they didn't shy away from conflict when it was called for. Finally, during the closing days of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the shifting boundaries between classes and gender roles gave women the opportunity to become more active in many fields, including warfare. However, the new Meiji government reversed many of these gains and restricted their new conscript army to males.

So, in the final analysis, is Turnbull's book worth a read? Yes, it is. Despite the grab bag of errors and speculation, the positives outweigh the negatives-and like many of Turnbull's books, it's regrettably the only work in English on the subject. Many of the accounts will be new to Western readers and his bibliography will give many new directions to explore. As always, Turnbull's selection of pictures is excellent and the color plates are among the best done for an Osprey 'samurai' book. And what the heck-it's less than $13. It's a small price to pay to learn about the women who defended their homes, were victimized by war, and who avenged the deaths of their families. While it isn't quite "the greatest untold story in samurai history", it certainly ranks with the more interesting ones-and merits further study.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Samurai and Death in Battle - A Translation

As another translation, I've picked out a section of a book called "日本の歴史・合戦のおもしろ話" (Japanese History - Interesting Tales of Battle). This translation deals with Samurai and death in battle. Everyone likes to think that Samurai were in love with the idea of death in battle and that they had no fear of death.  Japanese historian Owada Tetsuo gives a much more reasonable explanation, which I hope everyone finds enlightening.  This is the first of two sections I'll be translating.  Due to the vague nature of Japanese, I've added some slight exposition here and there to clarify, but otherwise it is a direct translation.

What were the warriors thinking on the battlefield? - Translated from:
Nihon no Rekishi - Kassen no Omoshirobanashi by Owada Tetsuo

In his house codes, the famous general Takeda Nobushige wrote, "In regards to battle, one must never fear death". These words illustrate that the Sengoku warriors stood shoulder to shoulder with death on the battlefield. However, if one reads between the lines, it also illustrates that these warriors, as well as their vassals, actually feared death, otherwise it wouldn't be necessary to put it directly into the house codes. In fact, if one looks at the various family records of the 100 years of the Sengoku period, it will become obvious that death on the battlefield was the rule rather than exception.

Socho, a renga poet who served Imagawa Ujichika in Suruga province wrote in the historical document Socho Shuki "Death in battle. That is to be Samurai."  Death in battle was a matter of course, and to thus fully prepare for it before setting out on campaign. The fear of death was probably the same for the Sengoku warrior as it is for the modern man, however there was one definite difference: The awareness or at least hope of utility or practical benefit in one’s death.

This benefit or utility in dying a heroic death on the battlefield is that it brings fame to one's name, and by practical extension, one's descendants, family, and clan. During the Sengoku period, there was an awareness that a shameful showing in battle could have had a catastrophic effect on one's family, and a glorious death would be preferable. Therefore, there was by no means some sort of death-wish spurred on by a “beauty of death” philosophy. It was purely a practical matter.

Of course, death was not the goal, it was to survive and bring fame and glory on oneself. However, war service is accompanied by danger - a chance for glory also brings the danger of death, and on the battlefield, the difference between life and death is paper-thin. But, on the battlefield is the only place where one can find the glory they are looking for, and the Sengoku warriors must have been aware of the inherent danger.

When it’s said that a warrior wants to bring glory to their name, or protect their name, the "name" in question doesn’t refer only to their own individual name, but to their family name and family honor, including their ancestors and descendants. Warriors in battle carried responsibility for not sullying their name with shameful actions.

One famous example took place in 1581 during the siege of Tottori castle. Kikkawa Tsuneie, under siege by Hashiba Hideyoshi, was forced to commit seppuku, and left a written will for his children. In reading his will, you can see that he believed that by slitting his belly he could not only save his soldiers, but bring honor to his family and clan.

Based on the above, it is obvious that "name" is the keyword in the Sengoku warrior's opinion on life and death. And also as stated above, there was a tendency to believe that the sons of a warrior who died a valorous death in battle would also share that same honor and valor displayed by their father.

Tokugawa Ieyasu
For example, in the 3rd month of the 10th year of Tensho there is an episode involving Tokugawa Ieyasu after the battle of Temmokuzan in the countryside where Takeda Katsuyori was finally destroyed. At that time, there were barely 20 or 30 mounted warriors left alive on the the opposing side, and among them, one warrior, Tsuchiya Masatsune, served as Katsuyori's kaishaku (seppuku assistant), and then promptly followed his lord in death. When Ieyasu heard this, he said "Does Tsuchiya Masatsune have any sons?", and when he found out that Tsuchiya did have a son, he sent men out to find him. The son was eventually found being hidden in a temple, and he was called to Sumpu castle to meet with Ieyasu. Ieyasu took in the child who was barely six years old, and made him his son Hidetada’s page.

In Ieyasu's view, the son of a man who fulfilled his duty so honorably, and gave his life for his lord, would be destined to become a great man himself, which is likely why he took the child on as a vassal. That the child was the son of a man who fought him in battle didn't matter. His conduct on the battlefield moved Ieyasu.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Mito Komon’s Coming To Town: Holiday Gifts For Japanese History Buffs

That jolly old soul with the white beard and hair recently paid a visit to the Samurai Archives, and along with him came several new Japanese wargames and RPG’s. No, it wasn’t Santa, or even our father-in-law, but rather Mito Komon-the Edo period hero who proved that the Tokugawa really were the good guys. The wizened Tokugawa scion brought along Sanada Yukimura, Shimizu No Jirochou, and Oda Nobunaga to join in the fun along with a bunch of frantically retreating Ming and Korean troops. With New Years and Christmas rapidly approaching, it’s time to start dropping hints to your friends and significant others about some of the items on your personal wish list-and we’re assuming since you’re here, some of them are probably Japanese history related. We’ll have book reviews of some interesting releases in the weeks to come but for now, let’s take a look at some historical simulations, card games, and board games dealing with pre-modern Japanese history-the perfect gift for those looking to replay the past. Everything reviewed here is Japanese language only except for ‘The Imjin War’.

The best of this round of offerings is likely Game Journal #36: Sanada Gunki: Kessen! Osaka No Jin (真田軍記:決戦!大坂の陣, Sanada War Chronicles: Decisive Battle! Siege Of Osaka). This is an update of Tenka Fubu’s 1992 release Sanada Gunki. It’s a strategic/operational level simulation of the Osaka campaigns of 1614-1615. The game has enough specialized rules to make it unique and interesting but not so many that it becomes overly complex and bogged down. Played on a well done map of Japan from Owari to west of Osaka, it employs a standard hexagonal movement grid. The counter sheet and orders of battle are excellent, sorting the different forces (Tokugawa vassals, Tokugawa allies, Toyotomi retainers, and Toyotomi allies/ronin) by color. The Tokugawa forces outnumber the Toyotomi by roughly two to one, but the Toyotomi are given a shot at surviving by the strength of most of their units. While this was done to balance the game, it works against it from a simulation standpoint. The Toyotomi units did tend to perform better in the battles, but is Sanada Yukimura’s small personal force really twice as strong as the main Tokugawa force under Ieyasu? For that matter, is Akashi Teruzumi’s detached force (which historically performed miserably, getting lost and missing the battle) one and a half times more effective than Ieyasu’s? The Toyotomi army also has the advantage of being able to hole up in Osaka castle when things go bad, an extremely hard nut to crack for the Tokugawa (and something they almost have to take to win). There are plenty of other castles and objectives to take for both armies. It’s well balanced and games played between two players of similar skill will go down to the final turns.

There are scenarios for the Winter campaign of 1614 and the summer campaign of 1615. There are also three ‘what-if’ scenarios. What if Sanada Masayuki had lived to take command of the Toyotomi forces? If Fukushima Masanori had deserted the Tokugawa and thrown his support back to the Toyotomi? And finally, what if it had been Ukita Hideie who had returned from exile to take command in 1614? Sanada Gunki is an excellent old school wargame that might be Game Journal’s strongest offering to date. The magazine has several articles on the Osaka campaigns, including an historical overview, designer’s notes, a phase by phase illustration of how the action unfolded in real life using the game components, and even a manga strip with gameplay tips. Comparisons of various Sengoku related wargames, reviews of other new releases, and articles on non-samurai related wargaming round out this excellent package.

Japanese History War Game Quarterly #7 features Nagashino: Shitaragahara Kassen (長篠:設楽原合戦, Nagashino: Battle Of Shitaragahara), the famous 1575 battle where the allied forces of the Oda and Tokugawa effectively ended the threat of the Takeda. Strangely enough, this tactical level game features area movement on a map that encompasses not just the main battlefield but also the area around the besieged Nagashino castle. A hex based map would have been far better for this level of game, but it’s not totally unexpected since JHWGQ hasn’t produced a hex game yet. The map itself is quite an ugly and abstract piece of work. As with most games that appear in this publication, there are cards to introduce random elements into the battle (like the weather changing, rendering the Oda guns useless). The counter mix is by far the best part of this offering-the oversized counters are broken down into generals for both sides and the Oda/Tokugawa forces have two for each commander-one used for equipping them with guns and one without. Yes, as if being outnumbered historically by almost three to one isn’t bad enough for the Takeda, they don’t know until battle is joined which of the Oda forces have guns-and for that matter what commander is where, since units are hidden until engaged (but all of the Takeda forces are clearly identified from the get-go). There’s great cover artwork featuring Takeda Katsuyori and a glowering Oda Nobunaga, and you’d swear it was Darth Vader being depicted on Oda’s in-game counter. As a bonus, there’s a code exposed when the game components are removed from the bubble that allows you to download a Vassal module for Nagashino from JHWGQ’s website. At any rate, it’s a fast play and has a high fun factor.

There have been several changes made in the format of JHWGQ with this issue. Some are minor-the magazine is now printed ‘Western style’, opening and being read from the ‘front’ (with the game components now in a bubble on the right side of the opened magazine rather than the left). Some are medium-the rules for the issue’s game are now printed separately instead of being part of the magazine, somewhat hurting the cohesiveness of the product as a whole. Some are major-there’s now only 16 pages to the magazine, just about half of what JHWGQ #1 had. A bit of this is due to not including the rules, but other content (such as reviews of DVD’s that tie in with the issue’s subject matter) have been eliminated. What’s there is fine-an overview of Oda Nobunaga’s army and various battles it took part in, an historical article on the Battle of Nagashino, set-up instructions and an introduction to wargaming, and an examination of the campaign using the game map and components to illustrate how the battle played out in real life. JHWGQ has been losing steam the past few issues with content being scaled back and using less polished components-probably cost cutting measures that bode ill for the future. Hopefully they’ll be back on track in issue 8, with a game depicting the action of the Bakumatsu.

Sengoku Daimyo Card Game: Kunitori! (戦国大名カードげーム:くにとり!, Steal The Nation!) combines the best of both possible worlds: a Sengoku period province grabbing game and hot anime chicks. Yes, all your favorite daimyo from the warring states are rendered as women in this game by some of Japan’s best known manga artists. Whether it’s the cutesy-pie flat chested Hideyoshi or brassy lingerie-wearing Oda Nobunaga strutting around with her big boobs spilling out, these famous historical figures take on a whole new dimension. This 270 card non-collectible set (meaning you get the whole thing at once-none of this ‘false collectible’ rare card and booster sets crap) from Arclight not only has novelty appeal but is a solid gaming experience as well. Like most card games, it’s easy to pick up and play but will take some time to master all its subtleties. Up to six players can compete and games can be finished in 30-60 minutes. Enlist the help of foreign traders, boost your economy, mash enemy daimyo, and check out Nobunaga’s rack. Go ahead-you know you want to.

‘The Imjin War’ is a condensed 16 page booklet produced for use with the Killer Katanas 2 (tsk, tsk-a plural Japanese word) miniatures game system. It contains information and rules for putting together miniature Ming Chinese and Korean armies and pitting them in battle against Japanese forces during the Bunroku/Keicho campaigns (Hideyoshi’s Invasions of Korea in the 1590’s). There’s a nice level of detail here, giving the mainland Asian forces plenty of armament and artillery options. Ming armies are rated differently for northern and southern troops and Korean forces are divided into regular army, Righteous Army, and armed monks. Sorry, no provisions for naval warfare, so Admiral Yi cultists will have to wait for another day. While the KK system is probably the most accurate and detailed English language rules system portraying tactical samurai warfare, this particular rules set tends to result in fairly balanced battles, coming up with rather ahistorical results. This is easily rectified by dropping the morale factors for Chinese troops (always) and (depending on the battle and type of forces) Korean troops by one. Then you’ll be seeing battles that play out accurately. For further fine tuning, try raising/lowering the morale of Japanese troops according to their supply status in a particular battle. Author Brian Bradford has been selling these booklets on eBay, but interested gamers might want to wait until early November when his full scaled ‘Hideyoshi’s Korean Invasion’ sourcebook comes out. The sourcebook will contain the rules found in ‘The Imjin War’ plus scenarios of notable battles and lots of background information such as illustrations of Ming banners and flags. Unfortunately, it appears that Kenneth Swope has had some input into the finished product, so it might be skewed in favor of a powered up Ming army-but that’s nothing that can’t be fixed by lowering a factor here or there.

For those not familiar with the KK2 system, it’s well worth checking out even if you’re not a gamer. Brian’s base set and supplements give some of the better information to be found about most of the major Sengoku daimyo and their campaigns in English (although a lot of it is taken from Rekishi Gunzou mooks and the notoriously unreliable Japanese General Staff written histories of the 1890’s, so be forewarned). You can contact Brian on the Yahoo ‘Asian War’ group for more information.

Our wife Ayame recently visited from Japan and gifted us with some older games we hadn’t known about. The following two games have been out for a couple of years, but are worth a look for their depictions of subject matter not usually covered in samurai era sims.

While Command Journal Japan #75 touts two WWII German vs Russian games as the main attractions, what we’re interested in is Toukai Yuukyou Den: Jirochou Sangoku Shi (東海遊侠伝:次郎長三国志, Eastern Gangster Legend: Jirochou’s Three Provinces Record). This is a game simulating the Edo area Yakuza turf wars of the late Edo/early Meiji periods. It’s based on the well known Japanese novel Jirouchou Sangoku Shi that details the adventures of historical Yakuza boss Shimizu No Jirochou (AKA Yamamoto Chougorou). Jirochou was a tremendously popular ‘chivalrous man’ along with being a master swordsman, gang mediator, philanthropist and a type of ‘Robin Hood’ figure in Japanese lore-he’s been the subject of dozens of films and novels. As indicated by Jirochou’s name, the object is to control Yakuza activity in the areas between Edo and Kyoto. There are several factions in the game (including Shogunal inspectors sent to control them) and the counters represent individual figures from history (and sometimes fictional ones). There are oyabuns, sub-bosses, enforcers, soldiers, and the occasional ronin bodyguard. The rules system covers a lot of options and has interesting ‘chrome’ rules, giving the gameplay that seedy Yakuza feel. The map features area movement with the different famous major roads of Japan (such as the Tokaido) playing a large part in strategy. Overall, the gameplay is quite like that seen in War Game In Japanese History’s #1 ‘Shinsengumi’ game (reviewed earlier in this thread). For fans of Zatoichi and Yakuza films, this game will have a lot of appeal and is an interesting break from the conventional battle games that usually appear in Command Journal. The reverse side of the map has a cool 'woodblock' look to it with illustrations and doubles as a fourth game-Meiji Zankyouden Sugoroku (明治残俠伝雙六, Meiji Yakuza Tales Sugoroku). Sugoroku is a simple Japanese dice game, in this case playing off the 'Showa Zankyouden' film series. It features the Yakuza as well (zankyouden means 'remaining chivalry' and is often used to describe the Yakuza). The main magazine also contains articles that give mini biographies for each of the figures in the counter mix and one that gives a history of the Yakuza in the Kanto area in the 1800’s. You also get the two other WWII games and loads of reviews, gameplay tips, and (non-samurai related) historical articles, making this issue a great value.

‘RPGamer’ is a Japanese magazine that touches every facet of Role Playing Games, from Call of Cthulhu to Star Wars to D & D-horror, SF, fantasy, and more. Issue #12 focuses on historical roleplaying, featuring Shibaiyuugi: Mito Komon (芝居遊戯:水戸黄門, Drama Game: Mito Komon). Mito Komon is the historical Tokugawa Mitsukuni, a member of the Tokugawa Mito branch family and an historian who began to put together the massive ‘Dai Nihonshi’ (‘Great History Of Japan’) that took around 200 years for the Mito branch to complete. Mitsukuni was said to have wandered the length and breadth of Edo period Japan incognito in his research efforts. Folk legend had it that using the guise of retired wealthy merchant Mito Komon he righted wrongs, broke up criminal gangs, and punished corrupt officials along the way. The Mito Komon legends have been the source for dozens of Edo period and modern novels along with a long running TV series and several movies. The game allows you to recreate these adventures of the elderly Mito and his two energetic young aids (and whatever other playable characters you might care to roll up), presumably pausing at the penultimate moment to dramatically flash an inro with the Tokugawa crest emblazoned on it just to show those punks who it is they’re REALLY dealing with. There’s a detailed 24 page rulebook/sourcebook with small scale maps for all sorts of Japanese environments-farming village, fishing village, small town, way station, daimyo mansion, etc. There are game markers to represent the forces of good and evil and a very nice three panel gamemasters screen. The latter has a map of Edo period Japan on one side with all of the provinces, major towns, and road networks displayed. The reverse side has all the tables needed to play this entertaining and colorful RPG. For anyone putting together Japanese themed RPG’s or even aspiring authors, it’s a great resource. The magazine has a huge variety of articles and reviews, including one that examines the different releases over the years in the ‘Japanese Historical RPG’ genre. Even better, it covers both English language (Sengoku, Gurps Japan, Land Of The Rising Sun, Ninja, and lots more) and Japanese releases-surprisingly, there seems to be more of these in English (although the Japanese releases appear to have lots more color, flavor, and chanbara feel to them).

Other highlights include reviews of ‘Edo period’ DVD’s to add flavor to any campaign, several manga strips (our favorite being a long one that pits ‘Mito Komon Vs Mobile Great Buddha’), ads for every RPG game ever released here or abroad, and overdeveloped gals in sailor suits with blazing automatics. Japanese publications almost always figure out a way to work hot chicks into the mix, and I for one appreciate their heartfelt efforts to gain my entertainment yen.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Heroes To Some, Villains To Others-Animeigo's Shinsengumi Chronicles

Few groups tend to raise such disparate images as the Shinsengumi, the Kyoto based group of swordsmen sponsored by the Shogunate that fought Imperialist agents (as well as other disruptive forces and crime in general) in Bakumatsu Japan. Heroes to some, villains to others, and a wildly popular subject for anime and manga, the Shinsengumi rarely fail to create strong opinions among those with an interest in Japanese history. Animeigo's newest release, 1963's "Shinsengumi Chronicles" (based on the first part of a print trilogy by Shimozawa Kan), takes a far more realistic look at the group than does Animeigo's other Shinsengumi offering, Mifune Toshiro's "Shinsengumi-Assassins of Honor" (1969). The film we reviewed last week had two big name stars as its headliner (Samurai Vendetta with Ichikawa Raizo and Katsu Shintaro)-this one does as well, this time featuring Raizo and Wakayama Tomisaburo (billed here as Jo Kenzaburo). It's an excellent film from Daiei that features the distinctive down-and-dirty realistic style the studio's samurai epics were noted for-and a style perfectly suited for its subject matter.

Virtually all the characters in Shinsengumi Chronicles are based on its real life members and events. Raizo's character is Yamazaki Susumu, a member that largely functioned as a spy and because of his education also as an intermediary in 'polite society' such as the Imperial Court. Wakayama fills the shoes of the group's second leader, former farmer and Tennen Rishin-ryū sword instructor Kondo Isami. Most of the group's core members are on hand as well, including the first chief Serizawa Kamo, his deputy Niimi Nishiki, Kondo's second in command Hijikata Toshizo, sword prodigy Okita Soji, spearman Harada Sanosuke, and 'traitor' Todo Heisuke. The other main character is Yamazaki's woman, Shima (Fujimura Shiho). Shima functions as the voice of reason that continually tries to turn Yamazaki from the Shinsengumi towards a normal life. Interestingly enough, while Yamazaki was a doctor in real life, he is presented here as a ronin with no purpose in life and Shima is given the role of physician. Being based on a trilogy, the movie takes the Shinsengumi only so far as the Ikedaya Incident-an incident, however, that proved to be the group's finest hour and defining moment.

The Shinsengumi are cast in a poor light from the very beginning where a shot of a crucified man displays a placard that the group has killed him for his crimes against the state. While it's found out later he was killed by a ronin working for Imperialists from the Tosa clan to frame their enemies, it's clear the Shinsengumi have already inspired fear and loathing among many of the citizens of Kyoto. When ronin Yamazaki Susumu comes across a Shinsengumi member dying from wounds incurred when slaying an Imperialist, he takes the man's netsuke and attempts to return it to the group and inform them of what has happened. Initially he's repelled when the Shinsengumi's chief, Serizawa Kamo, snorts in disgust and walks off. However, he becomes spellbound when Serizawa's subordinate, Kondo Isami, displays concern and invites him to talk. Kondo had earlier restrained and apologized to Kamo on behalf of a geisha who had inadvertently insulted the drunken Shinsengumi chief. Yamazaki recognizes that Kondo, although a former farmer, embodies the true spirit of the samurai and believes that he has found a leader worth following. He joins the group despite the pleas of his woman and childhood friend Shima, who believes the Shinsengumi are nothing more than a group of murdering thugs who are worse than the men they hunt down.

From here the film focuses on the early history of the Shinsengumi and Yamazaki's inner conflict as he attempts to reconcile harsh reality with the ideals he thought that lived in Kondo. The extortion of money from merchants, the elimination of Kamo's faction and Kondo's rise to power, the casual murder of a sumo wrestler and the assassination of the police officer that arrested a Shinsengumi member for the crime, and the torture of suspected enemies all raise doubts in Yamazaki as to whether this is the life he wants to pursue. Yamazaki is seen as being a potentially traitorous element in the ranks, and is first set up to commit a murder by Hijikata Toshizo and Okita Soji. They then use this as a way to have him removed by the police, but Yamazaki is saved by Kondo's intervention with their sponsors, Aizu han. The situation has put the Shinsengumi's future in doubt, and it might take an extremely daring act to put them back in the good graces of the Shogunate-a chance that might be provided by the scheming Imperialists of Choshu han. Despite his misgivings, the distrust of his comrades, and his discovery by Tosa assassin Okamoto Kyuzo (who had slain the ronin hired by Tosa to frame the Shinsengumi early in the film), Yamazaki sets out to discover the plot-and does so, facing down the conspirators alone while the bulk of the Shinsengumi is attacking the wrong building. With enemies numbering not only the Imperialists but also among his own allies, will Yamazaki be able to survive?

Raizo's performance as Yamazaki Susumu allows him to display an emotional range that was absent in some of his films-Yamazaki is an idealist in a world full of characters on both sides with seemingly no standards. Yamazaki is caught between the honor he believes is embodied in Kondo Isami and the dishonorable acts he is required to perform as a Shinsengumi member. The moral dilemma at times puts Yamazaki into the role of the 'deer in the headlights', frozen into inaction and confusion-even when his life hangs in the balance. Raizo excelled at roles such as this, even bringing an undercurrent of the 'frustrated idealist' to his most famous film role, nihilistic ronin Nemuri Kyoshiro. Yamazaki's attempts at espionage also bring to mind Raizo's roles as ninja Goemon/Saizo in the Shinobi No Mono series. Fujimura Shiho as Yamazaki's love Shima plays her role effectively, being the picture of Japanese womanhood-feminine, strong, and both supportive and critical as the situation calls for.

For the Shinsengumi's leader Kondo Isami there were few actors better suited for the role than Wakayama Tomisaburo. Kondo tended to let Hijikata Toshizo (his deputy) perform the actual administration of the group while he provided the strong, silent symbol that the group could use as their anchor. Wakiyama's best known for roles in which he has relatively little dialogue and for his precise and vicious swordsmanship, both being attributes that served him well in portraying Kondo. His rather gruff and unpolished appearance also helped define the character, a farmer-turned-samurai. Wakayama (like many chanbara stars) also had a lot of experience playing characters that had lofty ideals but were eminently pragmatic (most notably Ogami Itto from the Lone Wolf and Cub series) and provides the balance between Yamazaki's idealism on the one hand and the ruthlessness of ones like Hijikata and Okita on the other. This is perhaps best seen when he is confronted by Yamazaki over some of the group's acts and delivers his response while staring at the Shinsengumi's battle standard-the flag displaying the kanji for sincerity. His faith and confidence in Yamazaki shows that honor is indeed still alive within the ranks of the Shinsengumi.

Director Misumi Kenji helmed many other violent samurai action films, including entries in the Zatocihi, Shinobi No Mono, Hanzo the Razor, and Lone Wolf and Cub franchises. The fast pace and brutal violence evidenced in these efforts are also on full display in Shinsengumi Chronicles. However, unlike many chanbara directors, Misumi never hesitated to show sword duels for what they were-ugly, chaotic, and bestial. This is best evidenced in the closing minutes of the film where a lingering shot of corpses frozen in awkward positions amongst the post-Ikedaya carnage shows that there's little real glory in killing, even when it's for a greater good-particularly so when it's juxtaposed with the Shinsengumi wearily trodding off. Misumi traces the culture of violence through the development of the Shinsengumi's new members, most notably Yamazaki's aide, young Oshu. Oshu is almost childishly insistent on his wish to become a samurai-someone with status, someone important. When first donning his Shinsengumi 'colors' and thrusting his sword through his sash, Oshu is beaming like a kid getting his first toy-and when first killing a foe, only thinks of how this act will make him a man in the other member's eyes. This has interesting parallels to the mentality of US street gangs-as does the Shinsengumi's insistence that new members be 'tested' by slaying an enemy as soon as possible (or implicate themselves in one of the group's more illegal activities, making it tougher for them to go rouge). The allure and glamor of the gang life is underlined when Oshu buys a woodblock print of a valiant samurai-with that appeal symbolically exposed as false when his blood spills over it in the aftermath of a fight. And as shown towards the end when Yamazaki literally turns his back on Shima (his chance at a normal life) and never looks back, once you're in, you're in for good (that of course being one of the Shinsengumi's rules-no one could quit the group). The heat of the Kyoto summer also played an interesting part in the film-no doubt this was shot in summertime, because all the actors are in a constant sweat. This helped to further infuse their characters with the uncomfortable sense of edginess that summertime temperatures can bring.

Just as it did for another recent release, Samurai Vendetta, Animeigo has included two sets of program notes. One set covers the historical background for the Shinsengumi and provides a general overview of the situation during the Bakumatsu. The other set comprises the standard cultural and film notes. Happily, both are extremely well done and extensive, using solid scholarly books as sources (such as "The Emergence of Meiji Japan", a digest version of volume five of the "Cambridge History of Japan"). Viewers unfamiliar with the history of Japan at that time will find their enjoyment of the film to be greatly enhanced by reading the Shinsengumi set. Other extras include cast and crew bios, a still gallery, the theatrical trailer, and trailers for three other related Animeigo releases (Mifune's "Shinsengumi" and Raizo's "Samurai Vendetta" and "Sleepy Eyes of Death" series). The translations are as good as we've come to expect from Animeigo, including the bonus of a complete translation of the credits (something many companies releasing Asian films fail to do).

Shinsengumi Chronicles is one of the more accurate film portrayals of the historical group. It never hides the excesses or blemishes of its members but never simply writes them off as Shogunate thugs. Despite the infighting, extortion, and treachery the group was often noted for, when it came time to fight for their ideals, they were by and large the most effective and passionate group the Bakufu had to offer (and in many ways not much different from their Imperialist foes). Heroes to some, villains to others, but never boring-and with Raizo and Wakayama, a chanbara hound's delight. You can get a copy of Shinsengumi Chronicles direct from Animeigo or from Amazon through the SA Store.

All images courtesy and copyright 1963 Kadokawa Pictures, Inc

Sunday, October 17, 2010

One Arm, One Leg, Two Legends-Animeigo's "Samurai Vendetta"

The story of the 47 Ronin is perhaps the most popular subject for Japanese literature, and almost as popular are the various 'gaiden' dealing with the various members of the group. 'Gaiden' means 'side story' and in this case the efforts of novelists and kabuki playwrights who fictionalized the lives of the Ronin leading up to the assault (and the time after it as well). This applies to Japanese cinema as well-there are dozens, if not hundreds, of 47 Ronin efforts and many of them are gaiden-for example, the excellent 1994 "Chushingura Gaiden Yotsuya Yaidan" that combines the world of the fictional Ronin with the famous "Ghost Of Yotsuya" story. Another would be the film being examined today-Animeigo's DVD release of 1959's "Samurai Vendetta" (Japanese title 'Hakuoki'**, "A Chronicle Of Pale Cherry Blossoms"). Taken from a story by noted novelist Gomi Kosuke, it combines the 47 Ronin with elements of the Tange Sazen story. It also stars two of chanbara's biggest headliners-Ichikawa Raizo and Katsu Shintaro (not to mention one of our favorites, character actor Date Saburo, as one of the film's rotten apples). As a bonus, you'll even get to watch Raizo play virtually two characters-respected Shogunate Inspector and swordmaster Tange Tenzen and the one armed (and later one legged) scruffy ronin Tange Tenzen. Along with Katsu's portrayal of 47 Ronin swordsman Horibe Yasubei, this gives the film one arm, one leg, and two chanbara legends in one of their better films together.

Nakayama Yasubei's not having a good day-he's just found out his uncle has been challenged to a group duel by a rival sword school, and the fight is already underway. Yasubei is hauling ass to the duel when he comes across the procession of Shogunal Inspector Tange Tenzen. Apologizing to Tenzen and requesting an emergency right of way, Yasubei is chugging past the procession when Tenzen notices that the cord Yasubei's used to tie back his loose sleeves is of poor quality, putting him in potential danger. Tenzen attempts to stop Yasubei but the flustered swordsman doesn't understand and continues on his way. Yasubei manages to make it to the fight just in time, but is indeed put at a disadvantage when the cord unravels. A samurai from the crowd throws him a makeshift cord made from his daughter's sash. A concerned Tenzen has followed Yasubei to render aid but seeing that he needs none (and that the enemies are from the same school he trains at), takes his leave. The heavily outnumbered Yasubei manages to clean house and in the process becomes wildly popular in Edo, with crowds of girls following him around and offers of employment from respected daimyo houses being extended.

Meanwhile, the duel has had repercussions for Tenzen-he has been spotted at the fight by other members of his dojo and is accused of being a coward by his fellow students. The accusations fly (after all, why didn't the men who reported Tenzen charge in to save their comrades?) and the situation only defuses when Tenzen is exiled from the dojo. As the master does so to indicate to the opposing school he desires peace, Yasubei's sensei follows suit, exiling him as well. The two cross paths again shortly after this, when Yasubei bails Tenzen out of a tight situation involving an 'honorable dog'. During Shogun Tsunayoshi's reign, dogs and other animals were protected against harm by his 'Laws of Compassion', and killing a dog usually meant death for the offender. Tenzen inadvertently kills one when his sword scabbard breaks as he attempts to defend his bride-to-be Chiharu from a pack of dogs (this scene is hilarious, as it appears dogs are being thrown by stagehands at Raizo from offscreen). Yasubei performs a Noh dance to defuse the suspicions of the 'Dog Hut' patrol (yes, really) and disposes of the carcass. Later, Tenzen returns the favor by stepping in for Yasubei to fight several members of his former sword school that are out looking for revenge. He disfigures five of their number, and the 'five bastards' are now sworn enemies of both men.

Yasubei, not knowing of Chiharu's impending marriage, decides to join the Nagao clan (a vassal of the Uesugi and family to Lord Kira) in order to cozy up to her-but ends up joining the Asano clan as a booby prize when he finds that she has been given to Tenzen. Yasubei is adopted by the samurai who supplied him with a 'sword cord' in the initial fight, changes his family name to Horibe, and is betrothed to the family's 13 year old daughter. Everyone seems content at this point, but it's not to last-the 'five bastards' break into Tenzen's home while he's away, have his wife drugged, and gang rape her. To add further insult, they spread rumors that Chiharu has also been unfaithful with Yasubei in an effort to provoke Tenzen into battling him, taking care of at least one of their foes. Tenzen's in a bind-as a samurai, he can't stay with a wife who's been violated even though he loves her and realizes she's not to blame. She can't be simply cast out, as her shame would compel her to commit suicide. He works up a plan worthy of the scammers in "Hana" and manages to clear her name, and divorces her with a clean record-but pays a heavy price as her angry brother lops off his arm from behind. Like another famous Tange of Japanese film (Tange Sazen), Tenzen is now a one armed swordsman-and eventually, one legged as well. How will he ever be able to track down and exact revenge on the 'five bastards'? What role will Yasubei play here, and where do the 47 Ronin enter the picture? Will Yasubei even make it to the raid on Kira's mansion in this version, and will he have to kill the woman he loves to procure information the Ronin need for the raid's success?

Raizo was a well established star by the time this film came out, with Katsu being substantially less so (his big break would come in two more years with "Shiranui Kengyo", another Animeigo release). For audiences used to seeing Raizo in his signature role as Nemuri Kyoshiro in the so-called 'Sleepy Eyes Of Death' series (yes, another Animego release), it'll come as somewhat of a surprise to see him playing a caring, loving and thoughtful husband. Rather than send Chiharu away in shame (and basically sentencing her to suicide), Tenzen bends over backwards to concoct a fairly ridiculous and risky scheme to clear her name, knowing all the while he will have to give her up anyway. Raizo pulls it off, along with Tenzen's conflict over his honor as a samurai versus his love for his wife. While the final extended swordfight between Tenzen and the 'five bastards' (now down to three) with their allies doesn't quite count as the ultimate exercise in exhausted swordfighting (that would go to Raizo's character in "The Betrayal"), it might be a solid second, with Raizo seemingly returning from the dead several times. Katsu makes an impact in his role as Nakayama/Horibe Yasubei (one of the few of the 47 Ronin that possessed a measure of sword skills), approaching it with an intensity, steadfastness, and seriousness that plays well against Raizo's more romantic character. This is a slimmer, younger, and fitter Katsu than the one seen in Zatocihi and Hanzo the Razor, but his swordplay is still among the best of its day. Maki Chitose plays the role of the duo's love interest Chiharu somewhat differently than the typical 'stoic bushi woman' seen in most samurai dramas. While she's certainly not helpless (interposing herself between Tenzen and her brother's follow up sword attack, and then leaving the family and making her own way in the world), Chiharu is the type of woman who will hold extended conversations with her husband's proxy (a small 'doll festival' groom doll she made as a child) while he is away. She's very sweet, feminine and sentimental, the type of woman most men feel drawn to protect-making the assault upon her even more odious. Her and Tange make for a well matched couple, and this gives their final meeting after the climatic battle increased impact.

Director Mori Kazuo is best known for directing Katsu in many of the "Zatoichi" films along with some of the "Shinobi No Mono" films and Zatoichi's 'predecessor', "Shiranui Kengyo". There are some nice directorial touches-the 'bride and groom' dolls made by Chiharu as a child foreshadow and follow many of the events that happen to her and Tenzen. When Tenzen tests his one-armed sword skills by slicing a sheet of paper into fluttering pieces, the scene transitions to fluttering snow. It's a nice touch how Tange's arm being cut off intersects with Asano's assault on Lord Kira in the Shogun's castle (the incident that sparked the 47 Ronin's revenge)-his palanquin is turned away at the gates of the Shogun's castle when he bleeds on the path the Imperial Envoys will be taking to meet with Asano and Kira (mirrored by Asano's crime of spilling blood in the castle). It's also a wonderful ironic touch that Yasubei, who wanted to join the Uesugi (Kira's relatives), instead joins the Asano clan as a second choice, making him Tange's nominal foe in war and romance. Rather than a typical Daiei film, Samurai Vendetta actually looks more like a film produced by Toei Studios, using the brightly colored studio backdrops and stylized swordfighting they were noted for. Even the soundtrack brings to mind Toei's more sentimental and sweeping scores. Many of the scenes appear to be shot on Toei soundstages and sets-it would be interesting to delve into the production history of the film. Since color films were still somewhat uncommon in Japan, it might simply be that the color was accentuated for its novelty value. It works well at times, such as the slow transition of the background from normal daylight to a sickly purple when Tenzen loses his arm to Chiharu's brother.

As goes without saying (but we'll say it anyway), Animeigo provides a stellar translation and English subtitle options for every level of Japanese proficiency from zero to expert. There's the usual package of extras-the film's Japanese trailer, bios of the major players (stars, director, writers), and a large image gallery of both B/W and color images. The program notes are sort of a Jekyll/Hyde situation this time around. They've been split up into program notes on the 47 Ronin (which Animeigo encourages everyone to read to give background on the film) and general cultural/film notes. The notes on the 47 Ronin were unfortunately based on the information found on Wikipedia. Wikipedia's account in turn was largely taken from James Murdoch's 'History Of Japan', a three volume set written in the early 1900's. Murdoch's account of the Ronin was based on oral legend and puppet plays/novels rather than historical fact. Noted Ronin scholar Professor Henry Smith states that "The Murdoch account is no longer of anything but historiographical use". It gives the LEGEND of the 47 Ronin, but NOT the historical facts. Perhaps this works for the disc, since the story is based on the legend, but the notes are not accurate from a historical standpoint. On the other hand, the cultural/film notes given in the second section are excellent-one of the most extensive and involved sets that Animeigo's done to date.

Samurai Vendetta certainly lives up to its name-there are more vendettas here than can be struck down with a katana. Raizo and Katsu are always welcome and any film with both of them more than deserves a look. Carrying through on the popular Japanese theme of two men being linked by fate, it supplies drama, action, and an interesting take on the 47 Ronin story. You can get "Samurai Vendetta" directly from Animeigo or from Amazon through the SA Store. And it won't cost you an arm and a leg to see these two legends of samurai cinema.

**-note this film has NOTHING in common, story or otherwise, with the 'Hakuoki' anime that's currently knocking them dead in Japan

All photos courtesy and copyright 1959 Kadokawa Pictures

Saturday, October 16, 2010

An Intro to the Sengoku Daimyo - a Translation

As a mental exercise I've been doing some translation work, and since it is a basic introduction to the Sengoku Daimyo, I decided to post it to the blog.  There isn't anything groundbreaking here, but it does serve as a good quickie introduction to where the Sengoku Daimyo came from, and who they were. 

From Family to Ability: The Sengoku Daimyo of Gekokujo - Translated from:
Sengoku Busho: Shireba Shiru Hodo by Owada Tetsuo

Oda Nobunaga
A single word that sums up the Sengoku Period of Japanese history is Gekokujo. Gekokujo refers to, for example, when an incapable lord was forcibly removed by his vassals. What determined a lord’s capability during the Sengoku period? A capable lord protected his lands and rewarded his vassals with land. A lord that can’t protect his lands exposes his vassals to danger. Furthermore, a lord needed to be willing to invade other lands in order to increase his holdings to reward his vassals. Because of this, Sengoku Daimyo were required to risk their continued survival in battle.

The Sengoku Daimyo came about in various ways: The Shugo of the Muromachi Bakufu who were able to evade the wave of Gekokujo became Sengoku Daimyo. Examples of these Daimyo include the Takeda of Kai province, the Imagawa of Suruga, the Rokkaku of Omi, the Otomo of Bingo, and the Shimazu of Satsuma. On the other hand, there were families and clans that drove out the Shugo to become Sengoku Daimyo. These included the Asakura of Echizen province, the Oda of Owari, the Nagao of Echigo, the Amako of Izumo, and the Ukita of Harima. There are also many examples of small time rural regional lords, known as Kokujin, who became Sengoku Daimyo as well. These included the Date of Mutsu province, the Asai of Omi, the Mori of Aki, and the Matsudaira of Mikawa.

Unlike the three examples above, some men who became Sengoku Daimyo defy classification – three examples would be Hojo Soun, Saito Dousan, and Matsunaga Hisahide, who have been called villains of the Sengoku period. Their origins are shrouded in mystery. Hojo Soun was a mere lowly ronin, Saito Dousan was an oil merchant, and Matsunaga Hisahide was a merchant from Yamashiro province.

From these inauspicious beginnings, these men rose up and embraced their dark ambitions by becoming Samurai and independent Daimyo through plots and trickery in perfect displays of Gekokujo – and symbolize more than any other the Sengoku warlord.

However, is there really a difference between these three treacherous villains and heroes like Oda Nobunaga and Takeda Shingen? If one gives a precise definition of a villain, it would be someone who is ferocious and treacherous – how does Oda Nobunaga stand up to this definition? Nobunaga is infamous for his atrocities, including his burning of the Enryakuji temple, atrocities during the Nagashima Ikko-Ikki, and for drinking sake from the skulls of Asai Nagamasa and Asakura Yoshikage. Yet, in Japan he is still considered a "hero" of the Sengoku.

Villains used treachery to remove or murder other lords, and while it could be said that driving out a lord was a more moral alternative to murder vis a vis Gekokujo, Nobunaga murdered his brother and attacked his grandfather, however Takeda Shingen removed his father from power and drove him from the province, sparing his life. So it might be a better question to ask not what makes a hero or villain but why one was designated one or the other. Even if the methods are considered heinous and barbaric, protecting one’s lands and maintaining the peace was the goal, so as long as it was effective, it could be considered heroic. So when comparing Oda Nobunaga, who burned temples and essentially maintained a sustained terror campaign of “shock and awe”, he was doing it with the relatively honorable goal of unifying and bringing peace to Japan. This is contrasted with Matsunaga Hisahide, who was essentially making a selfish grab for power. These men were a product of their age, and the glorification of brutality was a symbol of the times.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Second Chance at Life-"The Moss at Tokeiji"

As anyone who is familiar with Japanese history will know, the lot of women during the era of warrior rule was not always a pleasant one. Arranged political marriages resulted in relationships that were often loveless, and relationships between the parties to the arrangement meant that a woman's status could change in an instant. The loss of a husband could also put the woman at the mercy of her in-laws. Lacking many of the protections women enjoyed in the Heian era, women such as Oda Nobunaga's sister Oichi endured tragic lives. Oichi's husband Azai Nagamasa committed suicide after being defeated by her brother Nobunaga. Forced into another political marriage, her new husband Shibata Katsuie was forced to follow suit (with Oichi joining him) at the hands of Hashiba (Toyotomi) Hideyoshi. However, there were a handful of alternatives for these women, particularly during the Edo period. A woman in an abusive relationship or simply on the run from a husband could enter a so-called 'divorce temple' and receive sanctuary, being put beyond the reach of her husband. After two to three years of religious training such a woman could receive a divorce, with many returning to their birth families and even remarrying. One of the most famous 'divorce temples' that gave women a second chance at life was Tokei-ji in Kamakura. Founded by Kakusan Shido, the widow of regent Hojo Tokimune (the regent who dealt with the Mongol invasions of Japan) in 1285, the temple was called the 'run-in' temple and continued to serve in this capacity until 1901 when the convent was converted into a monastery. "The Moss at Tokei-ji" is a collection of short prose pieces called "haibun" by several women poets paying homage to the over 600 years of the temple's history and the protection it afforded to women. The book is a labor of love by co-editors Lidia Rozmus and Carmen Sterba, and the care and thoughtfulness put into its preparation, execution, and design shine through.

From a design standpoint, the book reflects the best features of the Japanese aesthetic. It can best be described as simple and elegant. Nature views taken at the temple by Mamoru Luke Sterba Yanka illustrate the page edges, providing a subliminal boost to the prose within. The editors have included a very helpful glossary that will be invaluable to those new to haibun. Among other things, it explains the concept of 'seasonal words' and definitions of the different art forms. There's a short history of Tokeiji that one would have liked to seen expanded. There are biographies of all the authors and a selection of books intended for further reading-a solid variety of scholarly works devoted to both history and the arts.

The book collects 11 haibun (defined by the book as "a short prose piece with one or more haiku") penned by some of the better known women in the field of Japanese poetry. Authors include Margaret Chula, Patricia Donegan, Abigail Friedman, the late Kayoko Hashimoto, Masako Kokutami, Patricia J. Machmiller, Emiko Miyashita, Lidia Rozmus, Carmen Sterba, Nanae Tamaura, and Ikuyo Yoshimura. The educational credentials and publishing history of these ladies are impressive to say the least, and gives the book much credibility before a page is turned. Each of the haibun shares the author's impressions of Tokeiji, with an excellent variety of approaches. Some such as "Sasanqua" (Miyashita) or "Tokeiji Temple" (Donegan) revolve around a visit to the temple and the feelings and introspection it arouses in the author, while others such as "Regina of the Clouds" (Friedman) seemingly have nothing to do with the temple at first glance (detailing the author's friendship with a self-destructive young woman). Others like "Tokeiji Temple-Soothing the Spirit" (Kakutani) and "A Safe Place To Run To" (Sterba) address the history of the temple. Of course, many of the pieces combine these approaches to one degree or another. Perhaps our favorite was "Reveries of the Water Moon Kannon" (Chula), a selection that stretches from pre-WWII Japan through the Edo period to the Kamakura era and is written from the viewpoint of the Bodhisattva Kannon as she observes some of the many women who sought shelter at Tokeiji. Some of the haibun have multiple haiku and some contain Japanese versions of the poems. While the road taken by each of the authors vary, the destination always proves to be the temple of Tokeiji and the women it served.

The haiku (the popular 'three line' poems of Japan) encapsulate and underline the prose, giving it added depth and another layer of feeling. As with poetry in general, exploring the different interpretations and what the author might have meant for them to say is a major part of the enjoyment in reading the haiku. Offerings such as

near the gate
spiderweb catching the sunlight-
no master around

from "The Spiderweb" (Rozmus) are both obvious and subtle in their implications, allowing the book to work well as an introduction to haiku for neophytes as well as food for thought for longtime poets. The haibun dealing with seasons and nature such as "Haibun" (Machmiller), "At Tokeiji Temple" (Tamura), and "Four Seasons in Tokeiji Temple" (Yoshimura) benefit greatly by the allusions and symbolism of classic Japanese poetry. The authors have succeeded in 'marrying' their haiku to the haibun, producing pieces where one form elevates the other.

The haibun is further enhanced by the accompanying haiga paintings by Lidia Rozmus. Haiga is an art form that combines elements of haiku and sumi-e ink painting. Composed with black ink and brush, each haiga contains one haiku from each author's contributed piece along with a stylized image meant to "complement rather than illustrate" (much as the haiku complement the haibun). Much of the enjoyment gotten from reading the book is derived from putting one's own individual interpretation to the paintings and how the images and poetry build on each other. While many of the images seem to be fairly obvious at first glance, they are open to many interpretations upon further examinations. Are the images in "Unforgettable Encounters" (Hashimoto) meant to be raindrops, blossoms, or perhaps tears? Some images even attempt to define the undefinable, such as the haiga illustrating "the sound of sweeping sunbeams" from "A Safe Place To Run To" (Sterba). In the best tradition of Japanese culture, the haiga are simple in their execution but complex in their symbolism and will reflect the mindset of the viewer as much as they do that of the author.

"The Moss at Tokeiji" works on several levels. The haiku, haibun, and haiga give the reader a pleasing variety of Japanese art forms authored by some of the best known names in the field. It's designed to be accessible and enjoyable for both aficionados and beginners, and the subject matter will appeal to not only haiku writers but historians and even advocates of women's rights. This elegant volume is a well-executed tribute to the 'walk-in' temple that gave many a woman a second chance at life.

For information on obtaining a copy of "The Moss at Tokeiji" (published by Deep North Press), contact co-editor Carmen Sterba at (replacing AT with @-we can't have Carmen flooded with spambots, y'know).

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Blu-blood Comes To Animeigo: Shogun Assassin

While we at the SA prefer our chanbara subbed, not dubbed, there's no denying the influence 'Shogun Assassin' has had on Western audiences. This film (cobbled together from parts of the first two 'Lone Wolf And Cub/Kozure Okami' films and given an English language dub) introduced the ultra violent samurai epics of the 70's to a audience that had previously had only Kurosawa fare to watch for a jidaigeki fix. Interestingly enough, the film has also had a big crossover impact in the horror/splatter film genre, being celebrated in many works devoted to Splatter Cinema. It even made it into the #6 position on the late Goremeister Extraordinaire Chas Balun's 'Dirty Dozen' list! The latter group would surely approve of the tag line Animeigo has given to its new Blu-ray release of this seminal offering-"The film that brought new life to BLOOD-DRENCHED DEATH!" From Samuel L. Jackson to Quentin Tarantino (who paid homage to the film in 'Kill Bill 2'), the film has made its presence felt. You might say that 'Shogun Assassin' is now the Blu-blood of Animeigo's classic film lineup!

This 1980 release saw the film take twelve minutes of footage from the first Baby Cart film, Sword Of Vengeance, and lift the remainder of the footage from Baby Cart At The River Styx (both of which are also available from Animeigo). The original film provides the background to the series-how Shogunate executioner Ogami Itto was stripped of his title, marked for death by the Shogun, and along with his infant son Daigoro became a ronin and began to roam the countryside as an assassin-for-hire. The footage from part two is highlighted by the conflict between Itto and the 'Masters Of Death', three killers who each specialize in an exotic weapon-a tiger claw, spiked club, and spiked knuckles.

If you've only watched the original Lone Wolf And Cub films, noting the different ways in which Shogun Assassin strays from them makes for interesting viewing. The most notable difference is that the Yagyu clan has been stricken from the books, with clan leader Retsudo now being installed as the Shogun. While Daigoro says next to nothing in the Japanese versions, he becomes the chronicler/narrator of Shogun Assassin. Most of the subplots involving the motivations of the Masters Of Death and the Yagyu are eliminated. The American producers did leave in the one thing that mattered-the buckets of blood, flying limbs, and intense sword fighting. From krazed kunoichi karving up a rival shinobi to make a point, to the baby cart tricked out with as many gadgets and weapons as the Batmobile, to the all out assault and showdown between Ogami and the Masters of Death, not a drop of blood has been omitted. One of the more amusing anecdotes given about the film in the commentary (discussed at length in the next paragraph) is how 'The Masters Of Death', while not being up to defeating Ogami Itto, did manage to defeat the evil censors on the MPAA ratings board. The biggest difference is actually in the trailer for the film, which attempts to promote Shogun Assassin as a 'Conan The Barbarian' sword-and-sorcery film. Hearing about how Itto massacres hundreds of enemies 'with one sweep of his mystic blade', the description of himself and Daigoro as the 'greatest team in the history of mass slaughter', and seeing the Shogun described as a wizard-well, to anyone who grew up watching misleading film trailers it's a real treat.

There are not one but two commentary tracks on the disc. The first is a carryover from the boxed set of Shogun Assassin films (it didn't appear on the individual initial release) and is done by 'Film Scholar' Ric Meyers and 'Martial Arts Expert' Steve Watson. Myers dispenses with the self-referential praise and poor grasp of Japanese culture and history that tainted his commentary for Animeigo's 'Shinobi No Mono 2', turning in an excellent examination of the film's history, stars, voice actors, and production staff. Watson doesn't chime in often and generally seems to be there to correct Meyers's poor Japanese pronunciation. The second commentary is by far the most interesting-it's done by 'Shogun Assassin' Producer David Weisman, Graphic Designer Jim Evans (who designed the memorable 'two sword' English language poster), and Gibran Evans (the English language voice actor for Daigoro). This is definitely Weisman's show, and the insight he brings to the acquisition/localization of foreign films for distribution in the US is a treasure trove for Japanese film enthusiasts. If you've wanted to know why they spliced together two films to make one, why these particular films were chosen, had Daigoro narrate the story, why the story was changed to exclude the Yagyu clan, or why it was dubbed in English rather than subtitled-Weisman has an answer for you. From a business standpoint, it's obvious he was dead on-the film was a box office smash despite the fact that an earlier subtitled version of another of the 'Baby Cart' films flopped badly. The dubbing process is examined in depth (including Sandra Bernhard's fabled cacklings) and the level of dedication and pride taken in the process will come as a surprise to many. Weisman also has an interesting theory that the 'Baby Cart' films revolve around the love of father and son and their bonding. While this aspect of the series is seen in the excellent TV version of the series (featuring Nakamura Kinnosuke's superior portrayal of Ogami Itto), we've always found it absent in Wakayama Tomisaburo's Ogami-quite the opposite. His cold and calculating manner seems to relegate his son to the status of nothing more than a convenient tool. Still, Weisman provides enough food for thought to back up his viewpoint.

There's also an original interview done with Samuel L. Jackson on Shogun Assassin and the influence it's had on his film career, including his voice work on 'Afro Samurai'. It's also obvious Jackson is a huge chanbara fan, with hundreds of films in his collection. Other extras include cast and crew bios for the principles, a still gallery, and the film's ungodly misleading trailer. Aniemigo's always excellent program notes are on display as well, giving historical background and cultural explanations for the action in the film. There's also a very cool section that allows you to compare scenes from the bootleg, DVD, and Blu-ray versions of Shogun Assasssin and how the quality of the transfers has improved over the years. Even on our old-school 1992 TV, you can see a big difference in quality from the Animeigo DVD to Blu-ray. It would be even more pronounced on a modern big-screen HD TV! The next step will no doubt be a 3-D version where the blood comes right into your living room-when that happens, it'll be time for us to upgrade our antique TV.

New TV or old, the excellent transfer along with the new commentaries make this a welcome addition to any chanbara film's collection. If you've put off watching the 'American version' of Lone Wolf, now would be the time to indulge yourself. You'll come away with a better understanding of the difficulties involved in marketing foreign films in the US and be treated to one of the iconic splatter/sword releases of the eighties to boot. At $13, how can you go wrong? Just don't sit too close to the screen-regular blood's hard enough to get out, but Blu-blood is a real bitch. The Blu-ray release of Shogun Assassin is available directly from Animeigo or through Amazon at the Samurai Archives Store.