Saturday, August 27, 2011

Stephen Turnbull, Slayer of Ronin

Most everyone with an interest in pre-modern Japanese history (and we're assuming that's anyone reading this) knows of Stephen Turnbull. Describing himself as "one of the world's foremost military historians of the medieval and early modern periods", Turnbull is usually lauded by those new to the field and panned by those with some experience. Relying heavily on Edo period legends and secondary sources, his books make for entertaining reading but usually contain a healthy dose of misconceptions, errors, and editing that would make a fifth grader cringe. He's a polarizing personality on the Samurai Archives Citadel forum. While we've reviewed several of his books favorably, we've still taken him to task for the overall sloppiness and careless nature of some of his books.

For several months we've known that Turnbull was writing a book on the 47 Ronin. You all know the story-or at least the popular version where the 47 shining paragons of Bushido led by the stalwart Oishi Kuranosuke slay the evil and corrupt Lord Kira who was responsible for the death of their fair minded, upstanding and exemplary Lord Asano. As we've pointed out many, many times over the years (on both the forum and the Shogun-ki) the legend did not stand up under the glare of critical analysis. Asano was a loutish lecher, Oishi was a drunkard long before being made ronin and neglected his duties in training Asano, and Kira was a typical Edo period bureaucrat. The Ronin were more concerned at first with keeping their positions. After the Asano house was abolished, many possibly hoped to parlay a successful raid into pardons and new jobs. The question was, would "The Revenge of the 47 Ronin-Edo 1703" follow the newest findings, or would Turnbull stick with the dearly held Edo period legends he had espoused in his earlier books?

The first thing we usually do with a new book is to check out its sources and bibliography. While being an Osprey book, it was a foregone conclusion it wouldn't have footnotes or endnotes. But the sources Turnbull used were some of the best, up-to-date scholarly sources on the Ako Incident available. Numbered among them was Beatrice Bodart-Bailey's "The Dog Shogun", "Genroku Ako Jiken", and the landmark series of articles appearing in Monumenta Nipponica by Henry Smith and others that began to question seriously the validity of the Ronin legend.

It being a Turnbull book, it was also loaded with a variety of excellent photos, maps, prints, and plates. There are maps showing the likely layout of Kira's mansion (just a typical hatamoto mansion, not a fortified stronghold as often depicted), the route taken by the Ronin after the assault, and spots along the Tokaido road stretching from Edo to Kyoto (and stretching to Ako) that figured in the legend. There's also an excellent chart giving the names of each of the Ronin that specifies what unit they were assigned to during the raid and the weapon they are traditionally associated with. It also gives the 'aliases' that the Ronin were known by in prints and plays that were produced in the aftermath of the assault on Kira's mansion-writers and artists during the Edo period were forbidden to use the names of post-15th century historic personages in their works.

But what about the text?!?! It's divided into chapters on the Chronology, Origins (including Asano's failed assault on Kira), Initial Strategy, The Plan, The Raid, and an Analysis. And Turnbull absolutely nails it. He's delivered the goods-in spades. He pulls no punches when it comes to tearing down the walls of the legend that has grown up around the Ronin. Up to date on the latest scholarship (such as the recent discovery that Kira's name wasn't 'Yoshinaka' but 'Yoshihisa'), Turnbull clearly points out where fiction and fact don't mesh, and even gives great care when using dates (presented both as Japanese lunar dates and their Western equivalents). He presents all the different theories surrounding the '47th Ronin', Terasaka Nobuyuki (who either ran off before the raid or was told by the other Ronin to leave), concluding that whatever happened it was highly unlikely that he was sent as a messenger to inform the Asano family the raid had succeeded. And he does it all in his typical entertaining manner-some of our favorite short passages from the book:

"...I (Turnbull) shared fully and largely uncritically in the concepts and images provided by the popular version of the story..."

"...I sat peacefully with a cup of tea while a priest (at Kezo-ji) calmly explained to me how everything I had ever read about the Forty-Seven Ronin was complete nonsense".

"...hardly a word of it is true. The date was 1703, not 1702. Their victim's name was Yoshihisa not Yoshinaka. He was no coward. Greed and treachery were not involved and he played almost no part in Asano's death. Not all of Asano's 270 former retainers joined the plot or even sympathized with it. Religion played almost no part in their deliberations. The secrecy involved in their convoluted plot compounded the utter illegality and underhand nature of their act, to which the Shogun responded correctly by invoking the law of the land. The reaction by their contemporaries involved condemnation in addition to admiration, with both the Forty-Seven Ronin and their late lord being dismissed as cowards and a disgrace to the name of samurai. Finally, instead of 47 loyal samurai there were (according to some authorities) actually only 46, or maybe even 48. In fairness to the popular account, however, I can assure the baffled reader that on the night the raid was launched it was indeed snowing".

"By 1701 the 60-year-old-Kira Yoshihisa had served successive Shoguns as a loyal and utterly reliable master of court ceremonies for about 40 years. It was a role that required minute precision to detail and the ability to organize with clockwork precision. A man in that position, one can safely assume, did not suffer fools gladly. When faced, therefore, with having to instruct in etiquette a young daimyo to whom court ceremonial was much less interesting than court ladies, and a man who appeared ignorant of the most basic learning and yet enjoyed an income 11 times greater than his stuffy old teacher, Yoshihisa's self-control was to be tested to the limit".

(about Asano) "The main means of promotion among his retainers appeared to be their success in obtaining women for him. He was surrounded by flatterers and toadies. These flatterers and toadies included, of course, the future Forty-seven Ronin".

"...the population who lived in the gaudy world of Genroku craved a more direct heroism of a bygone age. If Kira Yoshihisa represented anything at all to them, it was the ordered, compassionate, legalistic and very boring world of the Shogun Tsunayoshi, not the exciting world of the sword-wielding samurai. To embrace this world the public had to ignore deceit, deception and a callous massacre, and, by creating a demand for the enduring myth of the Forty-Seven Ronin, ignore it they did".

Bravo! For all that, Turnbull keeps his tone as neutral as possible, never vilifying the Ronin needlessly or downplaying their well organized and carried out assault. He's not pursuing any sort of agenda and it makes for a fair and balanced presentation of the facts.

We found the section of the book dealing with the '17 Loyal Retainers of Lord Kira' to be the most intriguing (these being the 17 people killed by the Ronin during the raid). Contrary to what many Japanese sources state, it seems that Kira had 14 armed guards in the mansion on the night of the assault (not the 3-5 that are usually given). This changes the perception of the raid quite a bit-rather than a nine to one advantage in numbers, the Ronin instead appear to have enjoyed only a three to one superiority (and also means that they only killed three civilians, not the nine or so they are usually blamed for). Turnbull does an excellent job of backing up his statement, examining Kira's stipend and breaking it down into the composition of the troops the Bakufu would expect him to provide. The final tally matches almost perfectly with the numbers seen at the Kira mansion on the night of the raid. Turnbull also examines the 17 names given on the memorial to Kira's retainers at the former site of his mansion in Matsusaka Park in Tokyo, where it's shown that 14 are samurai. It's excellent work and Turnbull is to be commended for it.

The book is rounded out by a short examination of the Ronin in art and literature, a guide to the sites and memorials associated with the raid, and suggestions for further reading. The cottage industry that the Ronin have become (second perhaps only to the 'Bum of Tosa', Sakamoto Ryoma) is borne out in a photo of a souvenir shop loaded to the rafters with 47 Ronin items.

There are a few minor issues with the book. For example, Turnbull states that the Ronin committed ritual suicide, whereas (except for one) they were all beheaded BEFORE beginning the act. There are also the typical editing and spelling problems that Turnbull's books are notorious for. I'm sure there will be other minor issues that will crop up when we subject the book to an in-depth reading, but considering its overall excellence and copious new information, these are just small blemishes.

However, not all the latest Turnbull/Ronin news is encouraging. It should be noted that according to an interview on the University of Leeds site, Turnbull acted as the historical consultant on the upcoming Keanu Reeves version of the 47 Ronin story being filmed in Hollywood. According to Turnbull, "I've was asked to be historical adviser on a new film that's being made starring Keanu Reeves. The producers wanted it to be as historically and culturally accurate as possible, so they consulted me - which was incredibly exciting!"

This 'historically and culturally accurate' film will also be including 'computer generated fantastic creatures'. And the sad thing is, the fantastic creatures will likely be far more historically accurate than the film's portrayal of the 47 Ronin story.

And speaking of 'fantastic creatures based on beasts', we decided to put the book to its ultimate test. Cracking open the chained door of the Samurai Archives fruit cellar a couple of inches, we tossed down a copy. Down below, we heard the bellow of disbelief from the imprisoned 47 Ronin cultists, followed shortly by the chaos of their death throes. Mission accomplished!

In our opinion this is far and away Turnbull's best book to date with the possible exception of "The Kakure Kirishitan of Japan". It immediately becomes the best English language book on the 47 Ronin (it should be noted that the West's preeminent scholar on the Ako Ronin, Henry Smith, has yet to author a book on the subject). Given Turnbull's following in pop culture history, it's no exaggeration that with this single work he may have slain the 47 Ronin-or at least the legend that for far too long has been accepted as fact. While it will take years to fully be relegated to the realm of fiction and fantasy, Turnbull has taken the first steps towards introducing the real story to the world of non-academia. Since it's a revelation that many of his readers might be highly resistant to and might cost him a few of them, it was a bold move. With the steady improvement of his work over the past five years and his increasingly ambitious research ethic, one hopes that THIS is the Stephen Turnbull we continue to see.  Be sure to pick up your copy at the Samurai Archives Bookstore, powered by

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Abandoned By The Heavens-"The Clone Returns Home"

Over the years, the releases from Animeigo's 'other' line of Japanese films (as opposed to the chanbara and jidaigeki classics they're known for) have always been top quality. From the cornball but touching 'Tora-san' comedies to the bleak tragedy of 'Black Rain', they've always represented some of the best films Japan has to offer. We have to admit, though, that we didn't know what to expect when we received "The Clone Returns Home" (2009). Sure, it won many awards-it was the 2006 winner of the Sundance/NHK International Filmmaker’s Award, the Official Selection of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival (and 24+ others), the Winner for Best Visual Achievement at the 2009 New York Asian Film Festival, and the Winner of the Jury Prize at the 2009 Fantasia International Film Festival for Best Cinematography. However, over the years we've found mainstream critics to be about as reliable as a Fox News broadcast or Mark Dacascos History Channel Special. Animeigo's synopsis promised an SF film that wasn't really SF, but that used the medium as a vehicle to examine the mysteries of human existence. Would 'Clone' prove to merit its accolades, or like its central character Kohei would it be consigned to the void?

The story is simplicity itself. When veteran astronaut Kanemoto falls victim to an accident during a space walk, Takahara Kohei (Oikawa Mitsuhiro) finds himself in line to receive the next mission. Under pressure from superiors, Kohei agrees to become the first 'official' subject for a cloning program (or 'life insurance', as it's termed). The process in effect manufactures a full grown version of the test subject in a 'save state', producing an exact replica complete with memories up to that point. During his mission in space, Kohei discovers the probable cause of Kanemoto's death-and falls victim to it himself. With his death, a clone is produced. There are immediate complications. The clone is fixated on a memory from Kohei's past involving his twin brother Noboru. Kohei is in effect a clone twice over-with the original being an exact twin and the clone being an exact copy of the original. When the clone escapes the research center, Professor Teshigawara is brought in an attempt to 'fix' the problems in downloading memory. Meanwhile, the clone attempts to come to terms with its existence-and with the mysterious spacesuit it finds as it is drawn towards Kohei's childhood home.

The film's tone is heavy with the emotional isolation and despair felt by virtually all the characters. This is reflected both in the film's environments and in the performances of the actors. Characters wander through the vast emptiness of the cold chrome and glass of the research center, almost always alone. The wreckage of Kohei's childhood home reflects the state of his emotions as well. The film has a very deliberate pace (putting it mildly) and indulges in the extremely lengthy takes that Japanese directors are known for. This actually works in the film's favor, accentuating the remoteness and isolation. The only warm space in the film is Kohei's childhood home in flashbacks-and even that is short lived. Everyone in the film seems guilty of something. Kageyama is the administrator of the cloning project. As indicated both by his name (literally translated as 'Shadow Mountain') and the actor playing him (Shimada Kyusaku, who played a similar 'soulless bureaucrat' role in "The Princess Blade"), Kageyama lives only for the project and isn't above arranging for the early exit of a test subject. Rather than the scientists, he's the real Frankenstein behind the creation of artificial life. Professor Teshigawara (Shinagawa Toru) seems benign by Kageyama's standards, but he has been guilty of unsanctioned cloning and sees Kohei as little more than a test case for a theory. Kohei makes a deliberate decision to not inform his wife Tokie (Nagasaku Hiromi) of the cloning program, leaving her to be shocked, anguished, and heartbroken when the clone is unveiled. And of course Kohei feels guilt over what happened to his twin Noboru many years ago. The air of isolation, coldness, and detachment gives the scenes with emotion a much greater impact. The simple appearance of dead astronaut Kanemoto's mother at a protest rally, silently clutching a framed photograph of her son, speaks volumes-as does a scene late in the film where a grown Kohei enters a door to rejoin his mother and brother, with the shoji sliding shut behind him.

Kohei's relationship with his mother and brother Noboru is integral to the story. Early in the film, his mother Yoko (Ishida Eri) lies dying in a hospital bed. This is where we learn of Kohei's childhood and his twin brother Noboru. They engage in the typical twin antics of pretending to be the other one and trying to weasel out of trouble by blaming their sibling. The passing of his mother, her desire for him to live on no matter what the cost, and the incident with his brother play a big part in Kohei's decision to become the first cloning subject. Kohei has never quite come to terms with his youth, and in effect the decision to have himself cloned is another way to avoid facing it. However, the repressed memories prove to be too much for the clone, becoming the focus of his existence and setting him on a path to come to terms with them.

One of the more interesting concepts raised by the film is that of 'resonance'-a theory proposed by Professor Teshigawara. He believes that when the original being dies, its 'soul' or 'spirit' attaches itself as a sort of 'guardian spirit' to the cloned body. This is in keeping with traditional Shinto thought-you could call it a kami for the new age. Teshigawara himself has some experience with the phenomenon, and his encounter with his dead granddaughter is one of the most touching scenes in the film-made all the more tragic by the fact that Teshigawara is oblivious to it. In the film 'resonance' manifests itself through an accompanying 'ringing' sound when the guardian spirit might be near. The same ringing sound was heard earlier in the film when Kohei's mother produces it by running her finger around the edge of a half filled water glass, and perhaps this is why it becomes the Kohei clone's 'cue' for the appearance of the original's kami. But what if there isn't just one clone? What if there are two or three? Will the later ones find themselves bereft of the original's spirit? The film gives no easy answers, although a scene at the ruins of Kohei's childhood home hints that the lot of the clones might not be entirely hopeless-and the reappearance of an old injury gives hope that the replicant might indeed not be abandoned by the heavens.

Once again, Animeigo has produced a spot-on translation. Subtitles are also color coded for scenes when multiple characters are conversing where it would usually be difficult to determine who was talking. The extras are headed by a lengthy 'Making Of' featurette. While most 'making ofs' focus on special effects, CGI, and makeup, this one largely focuses on Director Nakajima Kanji's efforts to coerce the performance he's looking for out of his cast members, both veteran and young (in the case of the Tsukamoto twins, who play the young Kohei and Noboru). Most interesting are his efforts working with lead actor Oikawa, who's a well known and flamboyant actor and musician in Japan known to his fans as 'Michee'-getting Oikawa to dial back his on-stage persona to portray the introspective and quiet Kohei was one of the director's biggest concerns. Interviews with the other actors bring insights into their characters. Beyond the 'Making Of'', extras are light. There are a couple of trailers (Clone's film festival trailer along with "The Ballad of Narayama"), three short bios of Oikawa, Nakajima, and Executive Producer Wim Wenders, an image gallery, and program notes (only about three, but to be fair a movie set in the present doesn't require the cultural notes that the chanbara films Animeigo usually releases do).

The Clone Returns Home is a low-key film for those times when you're in a contemplative mood. If you're looking for SF action, you'll be disappointed. While ostensibly a movie about technology, the issues it raises about the nature of identity, the presence of a soul, and the far-reaching effects of childhood trauma are universal. At its heart, The Clone Returns Home is a modern day ghost story with overtures of the Frankenstein legend-all done in a non-sensationalistic and true to life manner. The moral implications of rapidly evolving technology are brought home with an emotional impact. You can buy "The Clone Returns Home" directly from Animeigo at a discount or through Amazon.

All images © 2008 The Clone Returns Home Film Partners.