Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Interview with Samuel Hawley, Author of The Imjin War --Part Two

This is the conclusion of our two-part interview with author Samuel Hawley

SA: The rivalry between the two Japanese generals Konishi Yukinaga and Katō Kiyomasa is perhaps one of the more interesting sub-plots in the overall Imjin War saga. You refer to the disharmony between the two leaders quite a bit in your book. Do you think that this rivalry hindered or helped the Japanese cause?
SH: Hindered or helped? Some of both, I suppose, but I’d tend more toward “helped,” considering how the rivalry spurred each commander on to greater efforts. For pros like Kato and Konishi, it was almost like a game, seeing who could outdo the other in beating the hell out of the Koreans. Rivalries like this are often the stuff of great military campaigns.

SA: Were there any other persona from the Japanese side that you found interesting? Who and why?
SH: I definitely found Hideyoshi the most interesting character. I even flirted for a short time with writing a book about him, something that would appeal more to general readers than Berry’s biography. There’s the rags-to-riches story of his life, his later quest for gentility, his fretting about his heir...it amounts to a grand story. I’ve long since given up the idea of a book on him, though. Now that I know a bit more about the publishing business, I realize it would be a dead loss for me to write such a book.

It’s funny, but shortly after The Imjin War came out, I was interviewed by KBS (Korean Broadcasting System) Radio. The tone of the interview, as you can imagine, had a pretty anti-Japanese slant. A lot of it seemed to be, “How can we use the Imjin War to smear the Japan of today?” Anyway, when the interviewer asked me about who I found most interesting in the story, I didn’t give the expected answer, “Yi Sun-sin” or “Yu Song-nyong” or whoever. I said “Hideyoshi,” and went to express admiration for his chutzpah. Boy, the interviewer didn’t like that!

SA: I wouldn’t sell yourself short about your ability to write a story about Hideyoshi—you could definitely pull this off. Tuttle just recently re-released A.L. Sadler’s bio of Ieyasu and a new 96 pager book about Hideyoshi is coming out very shortly from Turnbull (published by Osprey). Hideyoshi sells specifically because he does capture the imagination of many people and his life story is interesting enough to transcend borders. And the same can be said of Admiral Yi Sun-sin, who stands out as the hero from the Korean side. However, the myth of his character and prowess has grown beyond reality, much like what has happened with the “cult” of Sakamoto Ryoma worship in Japan. Yi is certainly worthy of the title of hero, but do you think he maybe gets too much credit? What about the contribution of the Korean warrior monks and their role in bringing about the defeat of the Japanese? Is their contribution wrongfully overshadowed by Yi?
SH: In writing The Imjin War, I wanted to tell the story as Koreans know it, as imperfect as that might be, so that Western readers who know nothing about the subject could learn about the war and in turn something about Koreans. In other words, I wasn’t trying to be revisionist about anything (except, perhaps, my ideas on the turtle ship, which is a relatively small thing). In writing about Yi Sun-sin, for example, I presented him as Koreans tend to see him (but without the messianic touches of the two English-language biographies, which to Western readers come across as way over the top). Same with Hideyoshi, Konishi, Kato, etc. I did as much research as I could and then presented them in a way that I thought reflected the Japanese viewpoint. I wasn’t trying to put any sort of revisionist stamp on anything because I saw myself as a chronicler and storyteller (heck, it’s an interesting story and deserves to be told well), not as an academic trying to come up with some new interpretation.

Let me add here that, as sympathetic as I might appear to Koreans in The Imjin War, I actually took some flak from Koreans after the book came out for being too critical of their ancestors. For example, I received a letter from the foundation devoted to preserving the memory of Imjin War government official Kim Song-il, asking me to change some things in the book that they felt didn’t reflect well on their ancestor. I even got a blast from a descendent of Yi Sun-sin, who felt I had blackened Yi’s name. I think this had to do with the part where I describe Yi ordering the execution of a Japanese prisoner on the false charge of having killed his son (it’s right there in Yi’s diary). I liked this because it showed the humanity, the fallibility, of Yi. It shows that he was a real person, capable of doing the wrong thing, and not a messianic figure as he has been previously depicted. I guess some Koreans don’t see it that way.

About the warrior monks, I’ll just say this: If I had written a dissertation on them, I bet I would have concluded that they had played a bigger role too. And if I had written a dissertation on the role of the Ming army in beating back the Japanese, hey, I bet I would have concluded that they had played the crucial role too. And if someone comes out with a book on the role of women in the Imjin War, I can tell you right now that the thesis will be that they played a darn big role. That’s the way it works when you set out to prove some sort of core thesis. My own book is not a dissertation; I didn’t have any core thesis to push, for example that the Koreans could have won the war on their own or something like that. I speculate on things along the way and express opinions, of course, but my ultimate purpose was just to tell the story.

SA: It’s disturbing but not surprising that you took some flak from certain corners in Korea. History sometimes tends to get shoe-horned to fit whatever the wearer wants in order to pursue an agenda or to support a certain “interpretation” of the truth. I should add that sadly, this can still be a problem in Japan as well. But let’s stay on the topic of the Korean warrior monks. Their units tended to be the strongest land forces the Koreans were able to deploy. What were some of the factors that made them such formidable fighters? Why were they so willing to die for a government that had persecuted their religion for many years?
SH: For the warrior monks, it wasn’t just about being loyal Koreans. Why should they be, after the way they had been treated during the Choson dynasty’s drive to establish Neo-Confucianism as the primary ideology? There was something of more personal benefit to gain: By proving their allegiance and worth to the Korean government—by doing the country a service—the monks hoped to win back some of the things that had been taken away from them over the years. For the individual monk, this was first and foremost the right to be officially ordained and recognized as a monk. (The government had previously done away with the law allowing for the ordination of monks.)

So why were the monks-soldiers such an effective force? Well, first of all, they operated as guerrilla fighters. In so doing they played to their strengths and took advantage of Korea’s mountainous terrain. Second, the monk community had a pre-existing organizational structure, complete with leaders that the monks highly respected and were predisposed to follow. Third, the monks as a body of men were conditioned to obedience and to seeing themselves as part of a cohesive group. It was religious obedience, and the cohesive group was monastic, but it translated well into the military sphere. When it came to fighting, they were therefore already conditioned to operating as a group, and to obeying the head monk or the abbot serving as their commander.

Finally, we should bear in mind that when we say that the monk-soldiers were an effective fighting force, we’re comparing them to the highly ineffective Korean government army. The army hadn’t been much of a cohesive group prior to the war, what with all the exemptions from service, the generals being kept in Seoul, etc. So you had the situation at the start of the war of a bunch of disparate, disorganized men being pulled together to form an army and a strange commander racing down from the capital to lead them. The result is that there was no sense of cohesion in the group, no shared sense of discipline, and no deeply ingrained respect and unquestioning loyalty for the commander.

SA: Who else from the Korean side did you find yourself drawn to during your research?
SH: Those few who stand out do so mainly because they left us some sort of personal record that gives us a glimpse of what sort of people they were (i.e. Yi Sun-sin’s diary; Yu Song-nyong’s Chingbirok; King Sonjo’s travails as revealed in Sonjo sillok). But that’s all they are—very small glimpses. The thing about writing about something that happened so far in the past is that it’s hard to get much of a feel for individual characters. People back then—and especially people in East Asia—didn’t lavishly reveal their personal feelings the way that we would come to do in the West in our private letters and our diaries and journals, which can sometimes be almost stream-of-consciousness stuff. In the diary George Foulk kept while traveling in Korea in 1884, for example, he rages against Koreans when their staring makes it impossible for him to take a crap in private. It’s this sort of intimacy that draws you to a historical figure; that makes you feel close to him. You just can’t say the same thing about anyone involved in the Imjin War. No one is “know-able” to such an extent. Even such a central figure as Hideyoshi. The little glimpses of him as a man that emerge in his private letters, his concern for his aged mother, his doting on his son—these are gems to seize upon precisely because they are so rare.

SA: While the famous “Turtle Ship” of the Korean Navy has often been described as the “First Ironclad”, this appears to have not been the case. Your book has an interesting anecdote about how a Western journalist might have been responsible for this misconception. Could you tell us more about that?
SH: Putting iron plates on the roof of the turtle ship would have been very unusual—something definitely worth noting. And yet Yi Sun-sin makes no mention of it in the ship description in his diary and reports. Neither does his nephew in his biography of Yi, which contains another description of the ship. Neither do the Annals of King Sonjo, which contain yet another description. They mention iron spikes, but not iron plating. This is what led me initially to question the notion of the use of iron plating. I became more convinced after realizing that iron plating would have been superfluous, a waste of metal, considering that these ships were already so heavily built that they were impervious to Japanese firepower. One thing that did confuse me was the record of the Koreans piling straw on the roofs of these ships to hide the spikes. My first thought was: “Well, in that case the roofs had to be iron-plated, for the straw would have caught fire once the fire arrows started flying and an exposed wooden roof would have burned.” But then I realized that the Koreans would have doused the straw with seawater, a logical response to fire arrows. Fire arrow striking the roof therefore would have been extinguished.

My account of how the iron plating story may have come about is pure conjecture. To the best of my knowledge—and new evidence may have been unearthed since I wrote the book; I haven’t kept up on the subject—the idea that the turtle ship had been iron clad didn’t surface until the early 1880s. It started in part thanks to US Navy ensign George Clayton Foulk, who was in Korea from 1884 to 1887 and served as charge d’affaires, effectively Washington’s ambassador in Seoul. Foulk traveled extensively throughout the country in 1884, one of the first Westerners to do so, and was one of the first Westerners to master Korean. (I’ve done two books on him, America’s Man in Korea and Inside the Hermit Kingdom, both Lexington Books, 2007.) Anyway, in his reports, Foulk mentioned hearing stories about the Koreans having once possessed an armored ship, and reportedly saw the remains of such of a ship at the port of Kosong in southern Korea. This snippet found its way into newspapers in the States. Now here’s where I’m conjecturing, but it seems likely that Westerners would have related this notion of an armored ship to the famed ironclads that had recently been used in the Civil War. And it seems equally likely that the Koreans, emerging from their long isolation and finding themselves weak and vulnerable and far behind the West, would have latched onto this notion as a matter of pride, a shining example of, “Hey, here’s something we thought of first.”

As a sidebar that may interest your readers, here’s a passage from Foulk’s 1884 travel diary in which he relates a story told to him by his Korea attendant, evidently some sort of oral tradition. I believe it’s a convoluted account of Yi Sun-sin:

“Today Suil spoke long on Korean officers. He says for many years past it has been the custom of this government to get rid of strong men physically and mentally among the common people, fearing the use of their power against it. Thus such men are made to live in fear and silence. If by chance discovered, a charge, no matter how slight, is brought against them and off goes the head. The hero of Tongyang, after killing so many Japanese for his country (a man of the people), knew that this display of his power would cost him his life, and standing on top of his junk in plain sight of the Japanese fleet, shot himself with a Japanese pistol or gun, thus to avoid dying like a criminal! Thus it was that while at times of war with Japan and China strong good men would not serve the government, knowing that whether they lost or won, death was the result.” (Samuel Hawley, ed., Inside the Hermit Kingdom: The 1884 Korea Travel Diary of George Clayton Foulk, pp. 93-94.)

SA: Much of Japan's failure can be traced to their inability to keep their forces supplied, and in particular their inability to protect their shipping from the Korean navy. Well protected and armed Korean ships regularly pounded the Japanese fleet. In your opinion, why didn't the Japanese show a greater interest in upgrading the capabilities of their ships in order to address this gross imbalance? This has struck me and others as being incomprehensible, considering how flexible the Japanese in general, and Hideyoshi in particular, had shown themselves to be in the past when integrating new technology into warfare and tactics.
SH: First of all, the Japanese did greatly improve their naval ability for the second invasion, as evidenced by their almost complete annihilation of the Korean fleet under Won Kyun. One can’t blame this Japanese victory solely on Won’s poor leadership. The Japanese had definitely upped their game. The argument could perhaps be made that this represented the greatest naval improvement one could reasonably expect from the Japanese, considering that they had started the war with a fairly primitive notion of naval warfare (i.e. ships as floating platforms for soldiers).

Here’s something else to consider: the Japanese military machine that was sent to Korea was the result of a process of evolution that took place during the country’s long civil war. It was the result, in other words, of a period of intense Darwinian adaptation. This suggests that flexibility was key—and it was. But even the Japanese had limits. For example, the samurai refused to use muskets themselves, considering it beneath their dignity. So there still existed certain constraints on the Japanese notion of warfare. One of these constraints was that Hideyoshi and his daimyo had spent their whole lives mastering the art of warfare on land. They have taken land warfare to the heights of effectiveness. They have made themselves arguably the best land warriors in the world. So how willing would such a man have been to say, “Well okay, I’ll shift my focus to the water, even though I don’t know much about it,” and leave all the glory to be had on land to rival daimyo? It would be like a top NASCAR driver foregoing the Daytona 500 in order to take up horseback riding to compete in the Kentucky Derby. Sure, it could happen. But there would definitely be a tendency toward resistance.

SA: Despite the fact that the future of their country was hanging in the balance, Korea was excluded from the peace talks that followed the Japanese retreat to the south coast after the Chinese offensive of 1593. What led to this situation, and how did it affect the eventual failure of the peace talks that led to the second Japanese invasion?
SH: The Koreans were aware right from the start that once they asked Ming China for help to repel the Japanese invasion, they themselves would be pushed aside to one degree or another and Beijing’s heavy-handed representatives would take the lead. That was the way things worked between China and its vassal states. It was why this was such a big deal for the Koreans, asking the Chinese for assistance. They knew it would mean losing some of their autonomy; that the Ming would start calling the shots. So while it certainly caused the Koreans anguish to be left out of the peace negotiations, it was perhaps not entirely unexpected.

I don’t recall if I describe this in my book as a contributing factor to the failure of peace talks leading to the second invasion. The Ming definitely would have benefited by listening more to the Koreans in order to get a clearer understanding of the true situation. Listening to them, however, might not have made any difference, for the negotiations seemed destined to fail. The whole thing was a farce of purposeful miscommunication between the Ming and Japanese envoys, miscommunication necessitated by the intransigence of both sides. They were just too far apart to reach common ground. Failure was the way it had to play out.

SA: And speaking of the Chinese, you, as well as Turnbull in his first book on the Imjin War, make it fairly clear that the Japanese would have lost in Korea with or without Chinese intervention. The participation of the Ming was just a mere catalyst that helped speed up an inevitable outcome. If this is the case, then what do you think of Kenneth Swope’s theory that Japan’s defeat in Korea had more to do with China’s involvement and more importantly, the military technology they deployed?
SH: The arrival of the Ming army certainly hastened the withdrawal of Japanese forces and in turn the end of the war. The Japanese were already bogged down in northern Korean, however, before the first Ming forces arrived. In the absence of the Ming, I believe the Japanese would have eventually exhausted themselves and pulled back into the south. Hideyoshi’s death in 1598 would have spelled the end of the adventure.

I in fact corresponded with Swope back in December 1999, when I was just starting to write The Imjin War and when he was a graduate student at the University of Michigan. I still have the e-mails. His ideas of the central role of the Ming army were fixed even then—based, as he said, on his reading of Chinese sources. Maybe I’m biased, but I put a lot of stock in Korean sources like the Annals of King Sonjo (Sonjo sillok). I say this because the Koreans readily accepted their subsidiary role in a Chinese universe and thus tended to be more self-critical in their official histories. The Annals of King Sonjo, for example, contain a lot of self-deprecating history. You have Korean generals running away, the king fleeing in a completely ignominious fashion, Koreans looking incompetent in the face of the Japanese threat. To me, this smacks of truth. The Chinese, on the other hand, were more heavily invested in preserving the idea that they were pre-eminent. They were, after all, the Center of the World. It therefore gave me pause when Swope wrote to me in Dec. 1999, for example: “The amazing thing about the Chinese sources is that Admiral Yi is not that much of a factor. Some sources scarcely mention him at all!...Yi Sun-sin is often named simply as Chen Lin’s brave second-in-command.” So the Chinese admiral is placed at the forefront and gets the lion’s share of the credit in Chinese accounts. That’s surprising....

SA: Have you read Swope’s book, A Dragon’s Head and a Serpent’s Tail? If so, what do you think of it?
SH: No, I haven’t read it.

SA: Swope took some shots at both you and Turnbull. I am not the biggest Turnbull fan, but think that Samurai Invasion is one of his better efforts and is worthy of praise. But with you, Swope seemed to go out of his way to post a very mean-spirited review of your book on Amazon.com as well as in one of his published articles. I for one, think your book is by far the best balanced work in English on the topic and found Swope to be completely out of line. The SA’s affiliated blog, the Shogun-ki, even addressed this issue in a post titled “Fear and Loathing in the Imjin War”. How do you feel about the negative campaign that Swope waged against you and Turnbull? Do you have any idea what motivated him to act so unprofessionally?
SH: What Swope wrote about my book on Amazon.com was ungentlemanly, to say the least. I assumed he was jealous, and I was surprised that he would reveal himself so clearly and make himself look so small. His comment about how readers should “look elsewhere” was of course self-serving. Back in December 1999 Swope himself wrote to me about his own dissertation: “So when I finish, something will exist in English [on the Imjin War], but right now there’s not much at all.” In writing The Imjin War, I was trying to fill the very void that Swope himself acknowledged needed filling. I guess he thinks he owns the topic. There is a lot of arrogance like that in academia. Swope is by no unique on that score. He’s just clumsier than most.

In hindsight, the whole thing has become kind of funny, what with the heat Swope has taken. It’s been a real-life example of the saying, “You reap what you sow.” I wonder if he’s learned anything from this self-generated teaching moment.

By the way, as I mentioned before, I finished writing The Imjin War in 2003, the year that Turnbull’s Samurai Invasion came out. It was a pretty big disappointment to realize that I wouldn’t be the first to come out with a book on the topic (I was already shopping mine around to publishers as “the first book-length account in English,” etc.). But that’s life. I swallowed my disappointment—it never occurred to me to “Swope” Turnbull—and I ordered a copy of his book and found it to be a valuable work. I think he did a good job. In the two years it subsequently took me to get my own book published, I ended up incorporating some things from Turnbull’s Samurai Invasion, and I thank him for it.

SA: Can you tell us about what you are currently working on?
SH: Since giving up teaching in 2007 and moving back to Canada with my wife, I’ve been working full time writing more popular books for a wider audience. My first effort in this new vein is Speed Duel: The Inside Story of the Land Speed Record in the Sixties (forthcoming from Firefly Books, Aug. 2010). It’s about the rivalry between Craig Breedlove and Art Arfons, who pushed the LSR up through 400, 500, and 600 mph between 1963 and 1965. My next book, which I’ve already finished but haven’t yet signed a deal for, is about Canadian Olympic sprinter Percy Williams. It’s entitled I Just Ran: The Life and Times of Percy Williams, World’s Fastest Human. I’m now starting work on my third book since leaving Korea, Bad Elephant, about a circus elephant named Topsy that was electrocuted in 1903.

SA: Any plans to return to writing about East Asian history?
SH: My only involvement in East Asian history today is my link with the Royal Asiatic Society. Last year they asked me to return as general editor of their annual journal Transactions. So I’m doing that. Here’s the link to our Call for Papers:

As for writing another book on East Asian history—no, I’ve done that and now I’ve moved on. I enjoy researching new topics in different fields, whatever I stumble on that strikes my fancy, and then crafting what I learn into a book. So the “bestial Swope” need have no fear on that score. It’s unlikely I’ll stray onto his quarter-acre again.

SA: It’s been a real pleasure and treat to interview you. Like your book The Imjin War, this has been a most informative and delightful experience. On behalf of the Samurai Archives, thank you very much and wish you the best with your new books!
SH: My pleasure. All the best to you and the folks at SA.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Interview with Samuel Hawley, Author of The Imjin War --Part One

On behalf of the Samurai Archives, I’m pleased to be interviewing Samuel Hawley, author of The Imjin War: Japan’s Sixteenth Century Invasion of Korea and Attempt to Conquer China . Samuel Hawley spent 20 years living in Japan and then Korea, where he was an instructor at Yonsei University and a member of the governing council of the Korean branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. Like most of the membership of the Samurai Archives, Samuel Hawley is an amateur historian—which is what makes his The Imjin War and the amount of research that went into preparing the book that much more inspirational and endearing. Hawley is now residing in Canada and has devoted himself to writing full-time. His other works include America’s Man in Korea: The Private Letters of George C. Foulk, 1884–1887, Inside the Hermit Kingdom: The 1884 Korea Travel Diary of George Clayton Foulk, Help Wanted: Korea and the forthcoming Speed Duel: The Inside Story of the Land Speed Record in the Sixties .

At the time of the publication of this interview, The Imjin War is not available directly from Amazon.com, but can be ordered new from Han Books for US$72.17 by clicking on the following link.

SA: Sam, it’s a pleasure to have you here with us for this interview.
SH: Thanks for your interest in The Imjin War. It’s a pleasant surprise that there are still people out there who want to talk about it.

SA: To start things off, when you were living in Japan, were you drawn to samurai and Japanese history?
SH: During the time I lived in Japan (1988-1994), I was interested more generally in the culture than specifically in Japanese history. I loved things like sumo (especially hanging around heya), yakatabune (those pleasure boats that you dine on), tsuribori (urban fishing ponds) and spent many happy afternoons out taking photos and doing research for magazine articles. In Tokyo there are neat and quirky things to discover in just about every corner.

I moved on to Seoul in 1995 and lived there until 2007. That’s where I wrote The Imjin War. It was actually a bit of a homecoming for me, for I’d grown up in Korea. I was born in Pusan in 1960 (my parents were missionaries), we moved to Seoul when I was about 2 and stayed there until I was 14. So my awareness of the Imjin War goes back a long way, back to when I was a kid in the ‘60s. I can remember my parents even had a model of Yi Sun-sin’s turtle ship in a glass case.

SA: Prior to the publication of your book, not a whole lot about the Imjin War, better known as the Bunroku to Keichō no Eki in Japanese, was available in English. There were some writings by Geo. H. Jones at the turn of the 20th century, Stephen Turnbull’s Samurai Invasion and a couple of other publications about Admiral Yi and his turtle boats. In essence, this conflict is probably the true “forgotten Korean war” when it comes to exposure in the West. Why do you suppose that until Turnbull, you and Swope came onto the scene in the past 8 years or so, there hasn’t been much written about the Imjin War in the West?
The first problem was the language barrier. When I was writing The Imjin War (I started in 1999), Turnbull’s Samurai Invasion wasn’t out (I already finished my book when I stumbled on it on Amazon.com) and neither was Choi Byonghyon’s Chingbirok translation. There was in fact very little material on the subject available in English. I ended up studying Korean to attain some basic reading skills, then went through umpteen volumes of Sonjo sillok and other Korean-language works with the help of a native Korean translator. I did that for two years—spending my own money on the translation help, by the way. It entailed a heck of a lot of work, more than most people would be willing to do for a payout of little more than personal satisfaction.

I speaking of course of amateur historians such as myself, taking on a project like this on the side for personal enjoyment. It’s different for academics. For them, penning a scholarly tome can be the route to tenure and a pretty good living as a professor, so there’s an incentive. So why didn’t some history professor with much better language skills than me write a book on the Imjin War first? The reason, I think, is that the topic is too big, too wide-ranging for an academic to tackle. Academics tend to choose very narrow topics to specialize in (i.e. “The Impact of the Imjin War on Rice Production in Cholla Province”), then spend the rest of their careers protecting this little quarter-acre of ground. It’s the safe approach. I mean, once you become the foremost expert on Cholla rice production in the 1590s as it relates to the war, no one is going to be able to criticize your work, right? No one can “Swope” you. But if you try to write a book about the whole Imjin War, you’re going to be writing about rice in Cholla and a thousand other things. And since a single person can’t be the foremost authority on such a wide range of topics (Korean history, Japanese history, Chinese history, battle tactics, Korean/Chinese/Japanese court intrigues, East Asian diplomacy, battleship construction, etc., etc.) it means taking a big creative risk and courting criticism and maybe even falling flat on your face.

SA: But in my eyes and the eyes of others, it was worth the risk. I thought the book was fantastic and many of us here at the SA learned a tremendous amount from it. But what made you want to write about this conflict?
SH: My first idea actually had been to do a biography of Yi Sun-sin, for I thought I could improve on the two English-language works then in existence. That was in early 1999. When I realized there was no book in English on the Imjin War as a whole, I broadened my focus. It ended up being a far, far bigger job than I ever imagined.

So why did I set out to write the book? Well, I wasn’t an academic trying to carve out a niche as a scholar, so the above concerns about taking risks didn’t mean anything to me. I did it because I wanted something intellectually challenging to do, and I wanted the satisfaction of writing a book. It was as simple as that.

I’d like to point out here that I didn’t set out to write a scholarly book on the Imjin War, because I didn’t—and I still don’t—consider myself an expert on anything. My objective was just to tell the amazing story of this war, which hadn’t been fully told before in English and which scarcely anyone in the West knew about. (Again, I finished writing the book in 2003, the year Turnbull’s Samurai Invasion came out, and long before Swope.) The book, you’ll note, is narrative history, not a dissertation. In other words, its purpose is to “tell the story,” not to advance any particular core thesis. That it ended up in the scholarly realm, which I hadn’t intended, was entirely due to the fact that it was the only way I could get it published.

SA: You had mentioned in other correspondence that you had trouble finding a publisher for The Imjin War. Why do think this was the case? Was it because this topic is still considered controversial considering the sometimes cankerous triangular relationship that exists between China, Korea and Japan?
SH: My difficulty in finding a publisher had nothing to do with the controversy surrounding the subject. Here’s the story:

Since I had written The Imjin War as a narrative history for general readers, I wanted to get an agent who could place it with a mainstream publisher. I failed. The consensus was that a book of this nature wouldn’t sell. (“Korean history? Who the hell wants to read about that?”) I was also told it was too long. The only agent to actually look at the manuscript (all the others turned me down at the query letter stage) concluded that he might be interested...if I rewrote the book to beef up the Japanese side of the story and cut back on the Korean. My emphasis on the Korean perspective, he figured, would not be popular with potential publishers. (By the way, I initially entitled the book “The First Korean War.”)

After banging my head against that wall for a while, I started contacting university presses. That earned me a whole bunch of rejections. Nobody—nobody—would even look at the manuscript. The problem here was obvious: I wasn’t a history professor, but just an English teacher. And I didn’t have a PhD, just an MA. (In history from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, by the way.) It was very much a case of judging a book by the author’s CV.

The fact that The Imjin War was published at all was due to a series of lucky breaks combined with my own hustling. The only outfit to express any interest in the book had been the Royal Asiatic Society of Korea. They couldn’t publish it, though, because they didn’t have the money. What they did do was invite me to speak before the Society on the topic (in Nov. 2003, I think it was). In the audience was Yoo Kang-ha, secretary of the So-ae Memorial Foundation, a part of Poongsan Corporation. (So-ae was the nom de plume of Yu Song-nyong, Korean prime minister during the Imjin War. The chairman of Poongsan Corp. is a direct descendent of So-ae.) Anyway, I ended up receiving a publishing grant from Poongsan for The Imjin War. (Note: this financial backing did not color how I wrote the book. It was already written by this point.) This grant was enough to cover roughly half the cost of publication. By this time the RAS had invited me to join their governing council and elected me publications chairman. The first book I shepherded through the press for them was Elizabeth Underwood’s Challenged Identities, which the RAS fully funded. I then showed them how we could publish my book, The Imjin War, without it costing the RAS a penny, funding it with the Poongsan grant and money out of my own pocket. The council liked the idea. I then approached the Institute of East Asian Studies Press at UC Berkeley, which had previously turned the book down, and offered them a co-publication deal that would similarly not cost them a cent. They liked the idea and signed on and took editorial oversight of the project. I then did all the grunt work myself: I did the camera-ready copy, I made the maps, I designed the cover, I made the index, I liaised with the printer, and I provided all the money, the Poongsan grant plus my own dough, a total of around $11,000. After all this, I declined to use the RAS’s standard publishing contract, as I felt this would be grossly unfair to me. I instead drafted a contract myself whereby I received the lion’s share of the profits and retained full rights to the book. This was okay with the RAS because they ended up making a tidy sum of money without having to invest anything or take any risk.

The Imjin War eventually sold out its first print run of 2,000 copies, and is now on its second printing. Pretty paltry sales, but not too bad considering that the book received absolutely no marketing or publicity. I still retain full rights to the book, and I am free to republish it in any way I see fit.

SA: Well, we hope to see it back in print and marketed properly so it can reach a larger audience. But let’s get into some questions regarding the origin of the conflict itself. You touched upon some of the theories in your book, but why do you think Hideyoshi ordered the invasion of Korea?
SH: With something as big as the invasion of Korea, there had to have been multiple factors at work. In my book I discuss, I think, five of them. I don’t think it was a case of, “One of these five factors might have motivated Hideyoshi.” I suspect several driving factors were at work. Hideyoshi, after all, was a supreme strategist; he would have been thinking on several levels, weighing advantages and disadvantages. To say “Hideyoshi invaded Korea for this reason” is to frame the thing too simply. Hideyoshi wasn’t playing checkers. He was playing chess.

Let me just insert here that The Imjin War is the distillation of my understanding of the topic as of 2003, when I finished writing it. I’m answering these questions now without referring to the book, as I don’t want to just rehash what I’ve already written and what I was thinking back then. Because of the passage of time, and because I’ve moved on to other topics, what I answer here may vary from what I wrote in the book. I may even contradict myself. But hey, so what? As we go on we learn new things and adjust our previous conceptions. So be warned that I’m just throwing musings out there; that these musings might stray from what I wrote in The Imjin War—and that anything I wrote then and say now could be dead wrong.

SA: Kenneth Swope, in his new book A Dragon’s Head and a Serpent’s Tail, refers to a theory that appeared in Samuel Dukhae Kim’s PhD dissertation that Hideyoshi initiated the war in order to weaken the power of the Kyushu-based Christian daimyo as Hideyoshi wanted to eradicate Christianity in Japan. How much stock do you put in Kim’s theory? Do you think it is plausible?
SH: I guess it’s plausible, another possible motivating factor to add to the mix. But I wouldn’t give it too much weight, and I certainly wouldn’t say it was the reason. To begin with, using Kyushu-based forces for the invasion made perfect sense because these forces were the closest to Korea. It was also in line with the pattern of conquest that Hideyoshi had already established in his unification of Japan: using the forces nearest the target to spearhead the conquest of that target.

Again, Hideyoshi in his strategizing and long-term planning would have been considering several factors. Weakening the Kyushu-based Christian daimyo may have been one of the things he placed on the scales. Or maybe it was just an unplanned benefit of the expediency of using Kyushu-based forces.

SA: What was the ultimate reason, in your opinion, for Korea’s utter lack of preparation for the invasion? Did they really think that Japanese talk of invading China via Korea was mere bluster?
SH: Even if the Koreans had managed to make better preparations, the Japanese likely would still have swept up the peninsula regardless. In other words, the Koreans were perhaps inherently incapable of resisting the power of Hideyoshi’s invasion force because of the way the country was set up. First, there was the fact that generals were kept separate from their armies except in times of crisis. This was considered necessary to prevent them from becoming too independently strong and possibly attempting a coup. The founder of the Choson dynasty, Yi Songgye, had been a general himself and had seized power, and he didn’t want another general doing the same to his new dynasty. Hence the expedient of separating generals from armies. It was definitely a stupid idea in terms of military preparedness in the face of an external threat. The fact remains, however, that the Choson dynasty lasted from 1392 on into the 20th century—so clearly it made sense in terms of internal stability. It was a case, in short, of sacrificing the ability to repel an external threat in order to guard against threats from within. It was a good trade-off most of the time—but a disaster in the face of the extraordinary threat posed by Hideyoshi.

About the Koreans mistakenly regarding Hideyoshi’s threats as bluster: It’s hard to overstate the enormity of what Hideyoshi was proposing to do, at least in the eyes of the Koreans. It wasn’t just a case of one country threatening to conquer another. Hideyoshi was threatening to conquer, as the Koreans saw it, the center of the world. To put it in modern terms, it might have been like Chavez in Venezuela threatening to conquer the USA. Well, maybe not quite like that. But you see what I’m saying. The threat seems obvious to us now. But if we put ourselves back in that Korean court and try to look at things like a late-16th century Korean, it becomes easier to see how Hideyoshi’s threats could have been discounted as bluster.

Another thing to consider is the innate inability of Korea’s Confucian scholar-led system to deal with the ruthless military efficiency of Japan. In Japan, the military had evolved for maximum effectiveness thanks to a century of civil war. There were no soft-palmed scholars getting in the way, no trappings or niceties to trip over. In Japan it was all about military efficiency. The same could not be said about Korea. As noted above, the Koreans in effect hobbled their military (separating generals from their armies) to guard against internal threats. Still more hobbling was effected by the Korean—and in turn Chinese—notion of the supremacy of a scholar class; the notion that mastery of the Confucian classics, as evidenced by passing the government exam, equipped a man to do just about anything—including things he knew little about, like overseeing armies. So you had this situation in Korea where military professionals were often being second-guessed by scholars who sometimes didn’t know what they were doing, but who assumed that they did because they knew the classics.

(We can’t be too critical of the Koreans here, for the same situation exists in Washington DC and just about every any other Western capital today: governments growing bigger and bigger, with officials thinking they know better than the professionals how to run things. There is actually the notion that government officials are somehow more virtuous than professionals in the private sector. It’s a mindset that would have been quite at home in King Sonjo’s Confucian-scholar government in 1592.)

SA: But based on Korea’s experience with previous devastating Japanese-led pirate (wako) raids, was the Korean court really naïve in thinking that the “robber-dwarves” posed no serious threat?
SH: Naïve? I don’t know. In hindsight, they were certainly mistaken. But again, we should try to look at it from the Koreans’ perspective, considering their time, their mindset, and the information available to them. What Hideyoshi said he was going to do, march through Korea and conquer China, was really huge. It would have been easy, being a Korean and without the benefit of hindsight, to have discounted this as just a lot of hot air, an attempt to intimidate Korea. To put it in perspective, let’s draw a parallel to Iran today. President Dinner-Jacket threatens, “Do such-and-such or we will destroy Israel!” Or North Korea’s Dear Leader: “Cave in to my demands or you will feel my wrath!” Don’t we tend to brush aside such threats? And then something like 9-11 happens and everyone says, “Why were we so blind? Who dropped the ball? Who can we blame?” The moral: everything is clear in hindsight.

SA: Considering it was the ineptitude of the royal court and partisan politics that led to Korea’s ill-preparedness for the invasion, why do you suppose that the Korean people stuck with King Sonjo and the Choson Dynasty after the cessation of hostilities? One would think that there would have been enough popular discontent and anger with the government and the sovereign’s failure to protect his people would have led to a serious revolt. Yes?
SH: Sonjo was acutely aware of the discontent among his subjects. It was Koreans, after all, not the Japanese, who burned a lot of Seoul in May 1592. So Sonjo knew he was balancing on the edge of a razor. When things were at their worst he even flirted with the idea of crossing the Yalu River and leaving Korea, which would have amounted to abdication.

One very important service the Ming Chinese did in sending armed forces to Korea was to put some heart back into Sonjo, who was in despair. Another important service was that they propped up his throne and in turn the Choson dynasty. I don’t know how close the dynasty came to falling during and immediately after the war, but it was obviously teetering. Even if the Japanese had eventually worn themselves out in northern Korean and withdrawn without Ming interference, the lack of a Ming presence in Korea might very well have ensured the dynasty’s collapse.
To be continued. The second part of this interview will be posted on April 28.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ninja Assassin: Carnage at its Finest

I had been looking forward to seeing the movie Ninja Assassin
ever since I saw the first trailer online sometime last year, and at long last, it came up on my Netflix queue and appeared in my mailbox. It delivered on exactly what I had expected - over the top action and beyond expected gore and carnage.
A little background on my Ninja experiences - The first time I had seen Sho Kosugi's "Revenge of the Ninja" was way back in 1984 (and probably on Betamax) at my friend's 9th birthday party (us children of the 70's had it so much better - no seatbelts, no protective sports gear, no green participant ribbons, and no political overlords keeping cool action movies under lock and key). I haven't seen the movie since then, and after 26 years I barely remember it, but to my 9 year old brain I remember it as being serious, hardcore, and VIOLENT (Yay!), and I probably assumed that Ninja were real superhumans with mystical powers.

Ninja Assassin stands firmly on this foundation, and in more ways than one. Remove the technology, change the hairstyles to bad 80's cuts, and keep the dialogue, and you have before you something that could have been produced in 1983. The characters are fully invested in the myth, and in fact take it way too seriously. But I'll get to that later.

The movie follows the protagonist, Raizo, who we will find out part way through, has forsaken his Ninja clan, not really out of love, honor, or morality, but essentially because his mentor, the head of the "Ozunu" clan (played surprisingly solidly) by Sho Kosugi (of the original "Revenge of the Ninja" fame), was unable to completely remove his humanity. That's it. Unlike most "revenge" movies, the main character isn't motivated by anything so obvious or simple as emotion - his best friend/lover/etc. wasn't murdered in cold blood - simply one person reminded him that he wasn't a an object; a living weapon of the Ozunu clan. The fact that this person (by the name of "Kiriko", presumably the Japanese characters for "Cutting Child") was killed in front of him is probably immaterial to the plot; Raizo is like one robot in a robot army that suddenly becomes self-aware, and in that awareness realizes that the programming it has been fed doesn't compute. Pretty deep stuff, all things considered.

The "everyman" in the film is "Mika", a forensic researcher of Europol, which seems to be some sort of world police force based in Germany. Her and her partner, Ryan, end up on the trail of the thousand year old Ninja clan that spawned Raizo, which has been taking part in political assassinations. These two characters seem to have been resurrected directly from 1980's cinema, and act mainly as the cardboard characters that provide the eyes and ears for us, the audience. They, in fact, take everything too seriously for us, the audience, to take them seriously - maybe there was some backstory I was missing, but I couldn't figure out exactly whey they were so grave when talking about Ninja clans on the rampage before the characters themselves really had much in the way of evidence that the Ninja clans were real. By extension, the movie takes itself too seriously as well - the story is completely unbelievable, and watching these two characters react in shock, awe, horror, and gravity to every little piece of the puzzle they pull together is almost comedic. The movie could have worked perfectly well without them, and in fact probably would have, but as we all know, Hollywood needs its John Blackthornes, its Nathan Algrens, and so on - because apparently they think we need someone we can "relate to". An everyman or everywoman pulled into inextricable circumstances, trying to make sense of what's going on, on behalf of the audience. Watching Ryan and Mika stumble around in circumstances beyond their understanding is somewhat disconcerting, as the audience has a far better and clearer grasp is going on than they do, which makes their roles as the everyman for us to experience the movie through almost completely superfluous.

Unlike Mika and Ryan, Raizo and Ozunu are solid characters, well acted and well represented. You have no doubts that Ozunu believes completely in what he is doing without regret or remorse. He is what he is, and Raizo is what he is, and they are destined to cross swords by the end of the movie.

The visual effects require special mention - no matter where the fighting takes place- in the dark illuminated by a flashlight, in the street at night, or in a burning Ninja temple, the visuals are nothing short of amazing. And the blood - oh the blood...! Swords and blades move like hot knives through butter, and copious amounts of blood are spilled- definitely stylized blood, but visually spectacular - as are the constantly flying body parts. So over the top that I can find it hard to imagine anyone would be horrified or discouraged by the gore, since it plays out more like a violent video game than actual
people losing arms, legs or heads.

I can give this movie a qualified 5 out of 5 stars, since this movie was obviously influenced by the 1980's Ninja obsession, and I can respect that, since I was there. It embraces the sub-sub-genre of goofy and poorly acted 80's Ninja craze movies - it is what it is. For anyone who didn't experience the Ninja craze of the 80's, this might be a hard movie to swallow acting- and plot-wise, and it might look like I've even gone so far as to give it far more credit than it is due, but there should still be a little something for everyone - hardcore bloody action the likes of which haven't been put to film before, as well an interesting philosophical thought that simple human self-awareness alone can be enough to motivate one to be better - or to take down a thousand year old Ninja clan.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

No Bullshido Here-Animeigo's "Bushido: The Cruel Code Of The Samurai"

As evidenced by the recent post covering History Channel's "Samurai" special, one of the most frustrating and constant things we on the SA have to contend with are the misconceptions associated with Bushido. The idea that "All Samurai followed a chivalrous code of ethics known as 'Bushido' that emphasized honor, loyalty, and bravery unto death" has been branded onto the minds of many westerners from the time of Nitobe Inazo's book "Bushido: The Soul of Japan" to the hijinks of Tom Cruise in "The Last Samurai". We usually refer to this as "Bullshido". Therefore, it's a real pleasure to review Animeigo's recent DVD release of 1963's "Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai" (Bushido Zankoku Monogatari). Finally, a film that eschews the glorification of a code that never was and shows the dark side of just what such a system would entail!

And dark it is, in spades. During the course of the film's 123 minutes, the viewer will bear witness to murder, executions, suicide (ranging from oibara/jushi to kamikaze), rape, filicide, castration, homosexual enslavement, insanity, humiliation, corporate espionage, fetishism, and all manner of cruelty-all committed in the name of Bushido. While there's nothing all that graphic in the film (with much of the violence relatively bloodless or implied), it maintains its power from beginning to end. Director Imai Tadashi's film won the 1963 Berlin Film Festival's Golden Bear Award for Best Film along with garnering a Japanese Blue Ribbon Best Actor Award for star Nakamura Kinnosuke.

The film opens with Ikura Susumu rushing to the hospital to be with his fiancee Kyoko, who has overdosed on sleeping pills. Susumu berates himself for his as yet undisclosed indiscretion in the name of loyalty that has led to this. He muses over the family records he recently discovered at a local temple that make this incident only the latest in a long chain of tragedies brought on by a culture of total obedience. While waiting for Kyoko to emerge from her coma, he runs over them in his mind...

The first vignette opens in the Keicho era with Ikura Jirozaemon Hidekiyo, having been made a ronin after Sekigahara, being employed for his skill with the spear by clan minister Hori of the Yazaki of Shinshu (Shinano Province). Hidekiyo pledges his unswaying obedience and loyalty to his lord, even unto death-starting things out with a scene typical of most jidaigeki films. Years later, the clan is taking part in pacifying the 1638 Shimabara Rebellion. When a desperate night attack is launched by the peasants against the camp of the Yazaki, the clan's lack of vigilance results in not only their buildings being destroyed by fire but also the neighboring camp of Lord Kuroda. Although Hidekiyo's spearmanship ended the assault, amends must be made to the Shogun-but what must be done?

Moving to later in the Kanei era, the action picks up with Hidekiyo's son, Sajiemon, who is a page to the old lord. Sajiemon is placed under house arrest when he offends the lord by suggesting the clan doctor be summoned when the old man falls ill. The lord moves closer and closer to death, but shows no sign of forgiving Sajiemon, placing the future of the Ikura clan in jeopardy. The fate of his wife Yasu and son Kyunosuke hangs in the balance. How to prove his loyalty to the clan and ensure that the Ikura are not once again turned out as ronin?

While the first two stories are certainly tragic enough, things begin to get REALLY nasty in the third. Here in the Genroku era, Ikura Kyutaro Tomoyuki has succeeded Sajiemon's son Masanoshin as head of the clan. He's a young student in the clan's Shoheizaka Academy who catches the eye of his lecherous lord Tanba-no-kami when he arrives to present birthday wishes. Kyutaro is ordered to report to the lord and begins to feel a growing sense of dread when one of the Lord's concubines, Lady Hagi, complains that the Lord always sends his 'pretty boys' to her to prepare. In no time at all, Kyutaro has been rudely initiated into the ways of Shudo (here referring to homosexual relations among samurai, usually between an older powerful man and a younger one of less status). While this wasn't an uncommon situation in medieval Japan and was quite acceptable by the standards of the day, it comes across strongly as enslavement and rape here (since Kyutaro isn't what you would call a willing participant, only being cowed when Tanba-no-kami tells him it's just another way to 'show your loyalty'). Things get even sleazier as the Lord 'gifts' Kyutaro with his discarded clothing-ranging from a kimono to a vest and eventually his underwear. Again, this would indeed be considered an honor by the standards of the day, but tends to leave modern audiences a bit sickened. The Lord also seems to enjoy a bit of s & m with his lovemaking, inflicting a painful bite on Kyutaro and warning him to stay away from women. Seemingly resigned to his fate, Kyutaro's world get even worse when the Lord manipulates him into being alone with Lady Hagi with rather predictable results-and the denouement to this episode will leave every male in the audience cringing and grimacing.

Now comes the most twisted and disturbing story of all-that of Shuzo, head of the Ikura family in the Tenmei era. Shuzo is the clan's most skilled swordsman and master of the "great sword of darkness", a technique that allows him to strike effectively while blindfolded. He has a seemingly wonderful life with his son Jujiro, daughter Sato, wife Maki, and friend and future son-in-law Kazuma. Although he saves his lord's life by striking down a peasant that attempts to assassinate him, Shuzo is subjected to a mind-numbing litany of injustice and humiliation at the hands of an intensely sadistic, warped, and sexually charged daimyo. This is the film's dramatic high point, and Imai pulls out all the stops. Having lost several members of his family to the lord's depravity, Shuzo is given a chance to have his 'crime' of finally getting the courage to remonstrate the lord forgiven. All he has to do is use the 'great sword of darkness' to execute two criminals. What follows is one of the most disturbing tableaus in samurai cinema, with Shuzo becoming an utterly pathetic and broken man.

Following this is an incident in the Meiji era where Ikura Shingo, a rickshaw driver and student studying for the Japanese bar, takes into his household the dispossessed, feeble minded final lord of the clan. Shingo hopes that if the lord recovers, the Emperor will make the lord part of the aristocracy, increasing the prospects for Shingo's career. However, it looks like the only thing the lord seems interested in is Shingo's fiancee Fuji. How Shingo reacts to this is possibly the most troubling scene in the film.

The sixth story is a short one, showing Susumu's older brother Osamu, a pilot in the 3rd Mitate Squad in World War II. Time is running out for Japanese forces as the Americans close in on the home islands-and it doesn't take a crystal ball to see what this will mean for Osamu.

Finally, the film comes full circle and returns to Susumu. We learn that under pressure from his boss, he has asked his fiancee Kyoko (a typist at a competing firm) to steal a budget estimate for a major construction project. Despite having misgivings (her boss is a longtime friend of her family and has treated her well), she does so and for her efforts is asked by Susumu to delay their marriage. After all, it might raise questions about how his company beat out hers for the bid. Feeling used and abandoned, she attempts suicide. Will Susumu be the Ikura that breaks the cycle of blind obedience to an uncaring 'overlord', or will he continue to be the steadfast company man?

This is a film that carries the stamp of Director Imai from start to finish. Imai was a confirmed Marxist (except for a period during WWII where the government forced him to make propaganda films), and the 'class struggle' of Marxism is reflected not only in the virtual enslavement of the Ikura but also in the hardships and punishments handed out to farmers (being sentenced to death by bamboo saw for the crime of appealing to a minister). Imai infuses each episode with a healthy dose of melodrama, concocting scenarios so extreme that they sometimes seem more like a nightmare than something that was really happening. Imai's skills in telling the story makes it all seem natural and believable. Taking this approach clearly spells out the abuses that would have flourished under a system run under the auspices of Bushido. This is symbolically shown when the body of a character who has been backed into committing suicide is 'honored' by having a flag bearing the mon of the Tokugawa Shogun draped over his body. When loyalty is expected to be absolute, there are no recourses for those at the bottom. Any action, however innocent, can be deemed a crime by those in power. In the early 60's, this would have found an audience ready for the film's message. Japanese film in general and jidaigeki in particular were beginning to embrace fare that questioned traditional values, leading to heroes who fought the injustices of a rigid class-structured society (such as Nemuri Kyoshiro or Zatoichi). About the only complaint we had with the film is that the high point comes too early-after the episode involving Shuzo, everything else seems somewhat anti-climatic, albeit effective.

It would also seem Imai is something of a feminist. The female characters in the film are almost to a fault stronger than the men, refusing to kowtow to the whims of a warped lord and embodying the true spirit of honor. At one juncture Fuji seemingly points this out, asking Shingo 'What kind of a man are you?'. As a group, they function as the film's spiritual center and grounding, acting as a foil to the actions of the men. Even the seemingly weak and suicidal Kyoko succeeds in driving home her point to Susumu.

Star Kinnosuke, who turned in dozens of excellent samurai roles, is often overshadowed by the better known stars such as Mifune, Nakadai, Katsu, or Ichikawa, but has the role of a lifetime here. He plays all seven scions of the Ikura shown in the film, and one role even has a 'middle aged' and 'old' version. He's completely believable in every role and each character is differentiated. Hidekiyo is a grizzled war vet who takes a practical approach to everything. Kyutaro is a young 'pretty boy' who, after being defiled, croons to his lord in a high pitched falsetto. Shuzo does a 'Nakadai'-moving from brutally efficient middle-aged swordsman to a wasted shell of a man, aged well beyond his years. Shingo could be the know-it-all college kid next door. Many actors are praised for their range, but few have over the course of their career managed to show convincingly the range that Kinnosuke shows in just this one film. He deserves more attention among jidaigeki fans, and looks like he'll be getting it in Animeigo's upcoming "Musashi' boxed set.

Interestingly enough, the film comes across at times as being part of the Japanese horror tradition. This is reflected in Mayuzumi Toshiro's score, early on using a harpsichord to produce a jarring and unnerving mood. Other parts of the score sound much like the music used for other contemporary kaidan rather than that used for jidaigeki. The lighting and cinematography also tend to give characters that 'horror movie', shadowed look. A scene where a character makes an impossible request of his lover is foreshadowed by his extinguishing of a light, plunging the scene into darkness. An attractive young woman is boxed up and presented to a corrupt samurai as a 'Kyoto Doll', considered nothing more than a toy for his amusement. The sound of a simple jangling handbell associates itself with evil. Crazy skewed camera angles are used in several scenes to emphasize the horror of the moment. While there's nothing supernatural going on, approaching the film in this way helped to underscore the abuses being put on display.

Animeigo has delivered a good looking print and upholds its reputation for producing a detailed and accurate translation, complete with on screen cultural notes. They even translate the ENTIRE cast list, something rarely done in the west (but appreciated by those of us who like to 'actor spot'). The care put into this release is on display from the opening menu. Here black and white photos of the 'seven generations' emerge from the top and bottom of the screen to close like a set of jagged teeth, and the photos are slowly filled in with sickly looking colors that set the stage for the horrors to come. The extras will be of particular interest to readers of the Samurai Archives. The Samurai Archives Samurai Wiki was used as a source for many of the cultural notes (which give abundant background on all the eras the film covers). In addition, an essay on the history behind Bushido by film historian and Samurai Archives staffer Randy Schadel is included that amply illustrates how samurai behavior usually fell far short of the idealized version of Bushido. Rounding out the extras are trailers (two different ones for this film plus ones for Shinsengumi, Kon Ichikawa's 47 Ronin, Shogun Assassin, and Samurai Assassin), an image gallery, bios for Imai, Nakamura, and Mita Yoshiko (who played Kyoko and who is still active in Japanese filmmaking-she was in Battle Royale 2), and a short essay that gives the traditional view of Bushido. The extras do a solid job of complementing the film's content as well as expanding on some of the issues it brings up. Short of some of Criterion's more elaborate releases, no one does extras for jidaigeki films better than Animeigo.

In our opinion, this film should be required viewing for anyone with an interest in jidaigeki films, if only to balance the surfeit of 'noble ronin' and 'glorious samurai' films out there. It'll give even the worst 'modern sammyrai' pause to consider if following the tenets of Bushido is such a good idea after all! There's no 'bullshido' here-just excellent performances, a compelling well-told story, and a first rate package of supplements. You can order 'Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai' directly from Animeigo or at Amazon through the SA store.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Change is coming to the Samurai Archives

First off, as the webmaster I'd like to thank the loyal readers, contributors, and forum members. The goal of the website was always to create an online community of people interested in Japanese history, and I think we've done a bang up job. Before going into detail on what's in store for the Samurai Archives, I'd like to extend my thanks to a few stalwart vassals of the Shogun's domain - namely Tatsunoshi and Obenjo Kusanosuke, who have been the grease that have helped keep the wheels moving along year after year.

Now for the news: A while ago I was approached by a representative of a scholar of Japanese history who was interested in forming an alliance of sorts. This scholar has striven for years to bring the study of Japanese history out of the ivory tower to the greater community, and so in retrospect, it was only a matter of time before messengers would be sent, hostages exchanged, and marriage alliances formed.

After weeks of dialogue and brainstorming, the bulk of the agreement has been set, and we have been given the green light to make an announcement. I will let the press release speak for itself, and then end with a few more comments:


Phone: +44 (0)1865 348 0400

Top Samurai Scholar to Integrate S-A; Announces New Deal with Osprey Publishing

April 1, 2010
LEEDS, England- Today it was announced that renowned Japanese historian and scholar on the samurai, Dr Stephen Turnbull, has just completed a deal to purchase the Samurai Archives website and all other affiliated entities for an undisclosed sum.

Dr Turnbull said, "I'm delighted to make this important step into expanding my multimedia-based educational efforts to teach people about real samurai history. I believe that the entire general public will benefit from this move."

Also on hand was Clive Gimpley-Goole, Managing Director for Osprey Publishing’s newly created Far Eastern Military Publications Division, who also has worked out a simultaneous deal with Dr Turnbull to publish printed editions of the Samurai Archives' respected online content. "This is really a tremendous opportunity for us to strengthen our working relationship with Dr Turnbull. We think that publishing the SA's web-based content in Dr Turnbull's name is a sure fire business model. In essence, it allows us to maximise the output of Dr Turnbull's books without the delay of having him to go out and do the usual lengthy field research."

When asked about the future of the Samurai Archives' Citadel--an online forum for armchair historians, D. Turnbull responded that it will be taken off-line effective April 3 for an overhaul and extensive editing to remove excessive negativity about certain scholars and other members that was allowed to prevail under the previous management.

C.E. West, who effectively ran the Samurai Archives out of his home in Honolulu, Hawaii, has been asked to stay on and serve in a yet to be determined capacity.

We have entered into an agreement, beginning a mutually beneficial relationship that will present the amateur historian new and exciting features on the Samurai Archives.

As part of the new agreement, Osprey will begin publishing the website content as a series of books starting in the fall. Each will be edited by Dr. Turnbull himself, and lavishly illustrated. Additionally, Osprey will be pioneering the latest concept in publishing: For-Print. This is indeed an exciting development for everyone involved with the S-A. For-Print, for anyone who isn't aware, is the concept of publishing forum content in book form. Each "Chapter" consists of one thread, taken directly from the Samurai Archives Forum. The threads will be chosen by a panel of scholars and experts including Ming-Sheng Lee, Thomas D. Conlan, and Steve Hubbell of the Samurai Eiga forum.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, and there will be many more exciting things happening in the next few weeks, so stay tuned!

In the meantime, please enjoy your April 1st.