Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Well-Trod and Annoying Path of Learning Japanese Kanji

Every now and then at the Samurai Archives, be it on the podcast, or here on the blog, we mix things up a bit.  One thing that comes up every now and then on the forum is, "What's the easiest way to learn Kanji?"  It's pretty contentious (which a simple google search will illustrate), because everyone who has decided they want to learn Japanese will probably, at some point and for whatever reason, end up tackling the dreaded Japanese writing system- mainly Kanji. And everyone who has been through it wants to brag that they have the BEST way to learn Kanji. So if you're looking for tips, tricks, and hints on the most effective, fast, and pain-free methods for learning kanji... well you're gonna have to go somewhere else.

If you want a "how to", there are plenty of crappy blogs out there with opinions on The Best Way to Learn Kanji, many of which might work for you, and others that tell you to imagine Kanji as people bending over looking at their shoes, or to create nursery rhymes to help you remember Kanji, or whatever, but rather than reinvent the wheel with another "This is the best way" blog post to add to the confusion strewn about the internet, which never really works anyway, we got a group of people together who have reached some sort of relatively respectable level of Kanji learning to talk about their experiences learning Kanji.  Not only will it probably not give you The Best Way to Learn Kanji, but you'll probably find contradiction and contention below - why? Because there is no BEST way, just the way that works for you, which will involve hard work and annoyance, and be anything but easy. The following is the experience of people who've already been through it, and more or less pulled it off.  So go forth and be schooled. Just keep in mind - your mileage may vary.

First, we'll start with Chris, host of the Samurai Archives Podcast (mostly for convenience since I'm writing the introduction anyway)...

My interest in the Japanese language was fueled by my obsession with the martial arts in high school in the early '90's.  I somehow got my hands on a tiny Japanese-English and vice-versa dictionary which had a list of katakana and hiragana in the back.  I started teaching myself katakana because it seemed a lot easier to write than hiragana, and I quickly realized I could write out test answers on my desk in pencil in katakana, or even blatantly in pen on the back of my hand, which freed me up to do things more important than studying - it goes without saying that 20 years ago, teachers in Small Town USA didn't even have a concept of a non-European language, let alone written Japanese. At this point I think I just wrote out the katakana until I had it memorized.  The idea of flashcards never even hit me at this point.

Once I got to college, I started taking Japanese language classes, but at this point, although I did have a heavy interest in Japanese, I didn't have a heavy interest in studying.  I was able to pull in As and Bs pretty easily without studying, so all I really accomplished was to get a pretty good grasp of hiragana, katakana, and probably about 50 kanji in the first year..  Fortunately I spent the next year in West Bumfuck, Japan, and that's where I got serious.  Things seem to have changed quite a bit in the last 20 years, but when I got to Japan, all anyone ever told me about was how "foreigners can't learn Japanese", and since I have a belligerent streak when it comes to people telling me what I can't do, and since I already had hiragana and katakana in the bag, I started on Kanji with a vengeance. We learned a handful a week in grammar class, but that didn't even remotely come close to satisfying my desire to get ahead, so I started with a few angles.  I stole a kanji dictionary from the library, which included illustrated stroke order (I still have this dictionary, in fact), and collected Kanji to learn by picking up a random manga (the first of which turned out to be a first edition Battle Angel Alita - although it wasn't called that at the time), and starting on page one, looked up the kanji in the dictionary, and wrote them thousands of times.  I use no hyperbole here.  I literally sat in the library probably about 4-8 hours a week, every week, writing so much Kanji I would use up every single piece of paper with any available space for writing on it in the library.  Running out of paper would essentially be my signal that it was time to put down the book, grab a few gaijin dorm mates, and ride our Wizard of Oz bicycles down to the beer machine at the bottom of the hill and start the evening's festivities.

On the subject of Kanji dictionaries, people don't seem to realize the value of looking up Kanji in a dictionary - a paperback, non-electronic dictionary.  It forces you to learn the radicals (the parts that make up the kanji), and it forces you to be able to get an accurate stroke count for the Kanji.  Also, and I see people rail against this all over the internet, but you not only have to learn to write Kanji with the correct stroke order, you gotta write it a metric shit ton of times. After three months of my insane kanji writing marathons, I suddenly hit a critical mass.  Let me explain.

When I first started learning Kanji, it literally looked like a random collection of lines, and I had trouble even getting an accurate count of the number of strokes, and I sure as hell couldn't write it in the correct stroke order without looking at my handy-dandy stolen dictionary that illustrated the stroke counts.  But suddenly, around the third month, something in my brain changed - I could look at any Kanji, even one I had never seen before, and I could instantly know the correct stroke order, and I could count the number of strokes in my head.  As an aside, the first three months in Japan listening to spoken Japanese, I had to translate it in my head into English, and then I would understand it, but right around the same time in that third month, suddenly I was sitting in class and I realized with not a little bit of shock that I was no longer translating Japanese into English in my head, I was just understanding it.  A brain seems to need a certain volume maintained over a certain amount of time to reach a critical mass where things suddenly change.  I think it's similar to learning an instrument.  For a while you're just playing notes and mimicking things and memorizing things, and then suddenly BANG everything changes, and you can actually play.

But, back to the Kanji.  So, for me, writing Kanji a gazillion times, as boring as it sounds, internalized it (it's not just "memorization").  Oddly enough, I'm pretty sure that even at this time I still wasn't ever using flashcards.  I was reading newspapers and such, noting Kanji I didn't know, then writing the everloving shit out of 'em.  So I think at the point I left Japan after the year was up, I probably could write around 500 Kanji, and probably read twice as many.  People don't realize that reading and writing are two unrelated skills.  Currently I can easily read three or four times as many Kanji as I can write. I see it and can read it, but since I don't ever write anything by hand (computers don't count), I've gotten pretty limited in what I can recall in order to write out by hand without looking it up.

A few years later, I went back to Japan, and started using flashcards.  Every sign I saw, or every TV show or movie I watched that had Kanji that I didn't know, I put on flashcards, which probably resulted in about 500 flashcards of jukugo (two-Kanji combinations), or words.  And at this point, I could knock out most of a newspaper, or read any random novel by Akagawa Jiro and barely crack a dictionary three times.  Flashcards worked great for my reading.  If you learn jukugo, you basically learn the On'yomi for both Kanji, and next time you see one of them with something else, you've already got half the word read (feel free to utilize Google if you need a definition of On'yomi and Kun'yomi - but it's basically the two main different ways to read Kanji).  So I've always been a fan of flash cards for quick recognition, which you can then solidify even more as you read.  But again, they do very little, if anything, for writing.

Now, in this day and age, you really don't need to learn how to hand-write any Kanji - I can type out an entire letter with barely a hitch in Japanese because hitting the magic space-bar gives you a list of Kanji, and if you can read 'em, you can pick 'em out of a line up.  But the experience of writing out Kanji by hand is important not just because some teacher says it is, but because it is also a learned skill, and learning it seems to do something to your brain that I can only assume is good, and probably useful for something.  I didn't major in Neuroscience, so that's as technical as I can get, although I have read that learning multiple languages changes structures in the brain, which seems like a good thing, expanding the brain and all, but damn it's annoying when you're speaking to someone in English, but you can only come up with the Japanese version of the word you need in your head.

So, I guess my experience is as follows - writing Kanji using the correct stroke order eventually allowed me to eyeball any Kanji and be able to reproduce it correctly and immediately with zero practice.  Being forced to look up Kanji in a paperback Kanji dictionary forced me to learn Kanji radicals, and be able to get a quick and accurate stroke count, as well as be able to pick the Kanji I was looking for out of a long list of similar Kanji listed in the dictionary (If you've seen a Kanji dictionary, you'll know what I mean).  Flashcards created from what I was reading or looking at meant that I would continue to use them in practice as I read related materials or looked at store signs or what have you - the more you see/read the same Kanji, obviously the better you retain it.  I really can't speak to the mnemonic devices. I never used them.  I feel like they are pretty worthless unless you need to remember 15 Kanji for a test. In that case, I can see it being useful, but you are not going to be able to read a newspaper by looking at every single Kanji and try to remember how it looks like a sea otter balancing a butterfly on its nose.  Just do the work, slacker.

Next up is Rick Noelle, a software developer in Atlanta, and alumnus of that same school in Western backwoods Japan as Chris, above.

I started studying Japanese after taking a job in a Japanese restaurant.  Initially I focused on listening and conversation but eventually added reading and writing.  I started by memorizing hiragana and katakana and then took up Kanji.  While studying Japanese in college I would practice the assigned kanji but I also liked to study extra on my own.  Ultimately I fell back to the order taught in Japanese schools.  I basically use that as a basis but also supplement it with Kanji found in things I read for fun such as newspaper articles, manga, etc.

I think the best advice is to accept early on that there is no secret method to learning Kanji quickly.  It basically boils down to hard work and finding the system that works best for you.  I've tried many methods including those that are supposed to speed up the process such as James Heisig's Remembering the Kanji.  Those types of systems never seem to work as well as you'd like unless you are really committed to author's idea of the best way to learn.  But you might discover something about the system that you like so I think it's a good idea to try many different approaches.  In the end you can take the bits and pieces from each that you find appealing and mold them into your own custom approach.  One example from my own experience, I basically memorized all the Kanji radicals and have a unique keyword assigned to each that is based on it's actual etymology.  When I look at a Kanji I think of it as a collection of radicals rather than an individual entity and I try to come up with a mnemonic based on the radical meanings that aids in its memorization.  But since I am sticking to the 200 or so radicals, I don't need to study the Kanji in any particular order (like you must do in Remembering the Kanji).  This allows me to study them in the same order that they are taught in Japanese schools but also employ some of the parts I liked from RTK.  But again I think it's worth pointing out that there isn't a secret formula to learning Kanji and I don't think you can ever be "too good." It is something you must enjoy studying and accept that you will probably have to keep studying it as long as you are interested in Japanese.

One additional point I'd like to make is the importance of a good dictionary.  It can be a little daunting choosing a good one when starting out because there are so many to choose from - compact, comprehensive, etc.  Since you will be using your dictionary a lot, it is wise to take your time and select one with features that match your needs.  For day to day study, my personal favorite is Kodansha's Kanji Learner's Dictionary.  One nice feature is it lists kanji compounds with the target Kanji in varying positions - lead, middle, trailing, etc.  Many dictionaries will only show compounds where the target Kanji is in the lead position.  The point is to be aware that not all dictionaries are created equal and it pays to shop around.  A good dictionary can make the difference between enjoying Kanji study and dreading it.

Travis, a graduate student in Japanese history, and another host of the S-A podcast, also weighs in:

I started studying kanji, I guess we could say out of necessity. I taught myself kana while I was still in high school (using the "Let's Learn Hiragana/Katakana" series) and then began taking Japanese in college, initially out of interest in video games, though I very quickly became less interested in video games, and more in history and traditional culture. But, when I was in college, obviously having to study Kanji as part of studying the language, I never enjoyed Kanji very much, and in particular always struggled very much with it.

To study, I basically just used whatever methods we had from class. I might have used flashcards - I don't recall - but I never went out of my way to try any range of different methods or tricks for learning kanji.

Early on, if I remember right, it was mostly just a lot of repetition - the sort of "go home and write these Kanji 20 times" (or 100 times, or whatever it was) kind of homework assignments. And then, I guess, homeworks or quizzes that gave us either the kana, or the English, and asked us to provide the Kanji  or the other way around. And, of course, later on, getting into practicing Kanji by reading and writing whole sentences, and then whole paragraphs. But I don't remember any of this really working for me. I don't remember having too much trouble with what was assigned to us, and I guess I graduated college knowing fairly well the majority of Kanji that I had learned, but that jump from the level of language ability one has after four years of college language classes, to the level of language ability where you can actually read whole articles or books, and otherwise function in a relatively functional way in Japan, or in Japanese Studies, that's a pretty big leap, and that's where I really struggled.

Then I went to the Inter-University Center (IUC) in Yokohama, and, not to sound like I'm shilling for them or whatever, but, whatever they did, it worked amazingly. We were given a number of Kanji to learn every day, and were basically just left to our own devices to learn them, and to submit quizzes proving we learned them. It was left up to us whether we did one quiz a day, or five once a week, or ten quizzes at once only handing them in once every two weeks; and then we would go over the quizzes with our sensei, briefly, once a week, one-on-one. Since we didn't have a "Kanji class" or anything and were pretty much left to our own, I guess I can't say that anything special happened there either with methods, but I guess just being forced to work on it so intensively (ten characters a day or whatever it was, every day for a full school year), while being immersed in language classes - reading and writing in Japanese for so much else of what we did every day - made it work.

I don't know what aspect of the IUC experience it was - whether it was so intensively studying all the Joyo Kanji  so many every day; or the immersion element; or the radicals realization - but somehow it was like a switch was flipped, and I became able to learn Kanji  and to remember them, and figure out new ones, so much more easily than ever before. And suddenly I was memorizing and recognizing, especially, some of the rarer and more complex Kanji from placenames (e.g. 薩摩), not to mention alternate versions of characters - (e.g. 學、壱弐参) with little difficulty.
Kanji Radicals

And, perhaps most importantly, as a key element to the effectiveness of it, was the realization, of how radicals work. Apologies for over-generalizing, but I think most people who have never studied Japanese or Chinese feel terribly overwhelmed or intimidated by the sheer number, and complexity, of the characters. As did I, having somehow never been taught up to that point, or never fully realized, the extent to which most characters are made up of recombinations of the same set of elements. So, really, you don't need to memorize characters stroke-for-stroke, but only as a combination of elements (some of which are true "radicals" and some of which are not). The 'kei' of keizai 経済 is a fairly complicated, difficult to remember, early/basic Kanji  I think, and I remember having a lot of trouble with it when I was in my first or second year of Japanese classes. But, really, it's just the ito-hen 糸, do 土, and mata 又, not that one needs to know the names or meanings of these, but just to recognize them as standard elements, rather than thinking of them abstractly as a singular, unique set of 11 strokes, and memorizing each Kanji separately as a whole character unto itself. And then, the final bit of this, is the importance, or usefulness, of radicals as indicators of meaning and pronunciation. This was huge for me. I guess it must have been explained when I was in undergrad, and I guess I never really got it. But once I was being exposed to a whole bunch of different, but closely related, characters, I began to pick it up so much more quickly, and of course, today, as I'm reading through a document, I may not recognize (let alone be able to reproduce from memory) every single character I see, but I can almost always infer the reading (pronunciation), and from there figure out the word just by sound, by pronunciation.

Nate, Army officer, aspiring scholar, and another host of the Samurai Archives podcast, helps us to wrap this up:

For meKanji study has always been, and always will be, about flashcards. I don't mean that nifty cool virtual flash card function you have on your electronic dictionary, or nowadays on your iPad or other similar device. I mean taking those little strips of thick paper on a binder ring, writing the Kanji character and some common combinations it is in on one side, and the furigana readings, meaning, and definition of the combinations on the others. Then going through them forwards and backwards: forward, looking at the character and writing out the readings and the meaning; backwards, looking at the meanings and reading, and writing out the Kanji.

Let me stress: WRITING OUT the Kanji  If you can write a Kanji  then you can recognize and read it. If you only study the reading, or think that electronic version of study is doing enough, you are wrong. You can't write if you don't practice how to write, but if you practice how to write, then you can write AND read. I can't stress that enough.

I've seen all the mnemonic stuff, the Tony Busan's or whatever, and if that works for you, then great. It never has made sense to me. I know it's all "new education" to trash rote memorization, but if I try to imagine a story for every Kanji I see, I'm wasting time and filling my head with nonsense. I've memorized Kanji by memorizing the radicals in it and how they compose it, but I'm not making up stories about the moon and the sun and the rabbit in the moon and all sorts of nonsense. Just do it--make the cards, study the cards, write the Kanji, and you'll remember them. Stories are just distracting to me.

The next step is to read. I'll admit, I'm much worse and much less disciplined at this than I should be. But pick up a book--doesn't matter if it's a manga or a novel--and start reading. Whenever you run across a Kanji you don't know, pull out your electronic (or other) dictionary, look it up, and make a card. Use the word you found it in as one of the vocab words you put on the card. And then continue on. Every so often, pull out your cards and run through them as a refresher. This builds vocab and cements the Kanji in your head. Could you imagine making up a silly story for every Kanji in a newspaper or book? I don't have that kind of time. Just make a card, move on.

That's it in a nutshell. All these fancy memorization or story techniques just seem like hogwash, promising easy and faster ways to memorize Kanji. Just sit down and study--it's hard, and a pain, and sometimes you want to pull out your hair, but it's a proven method that isn't ridiculous.


So, that's how the people who have done it, did it. Take from it what you will. Hard work will probably get you pretty far, so do the work, or go find a magical shortcut to learning Kanji, and good luck with that.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Thanks For Nothing, Dark Horse: The 47 Ronin Travesty

 Dark Horse Comics has accomplished much in its 25+ years of operation. It was one of the pioneers in allowing writers and artists to retain control of their original characters. The company wasn’t afraid to feature stories that tackled socially touchy issues or expressed unpopular viewpoints, and helped to transform comics into a medium for adults as well as children. They’ve also helped bring many of Japan’s most popular manga series to American shores. So when we heard that company founder and President Mike Richardson was going to be writing a series about the 47 Ronin, that extensive research had been done for it, and that it would be as historically accurate as possible, we were quite happy with the prospect. This began to dim when Stan Sakai was brought on board to illustrate the series, as his work is influenced far more by chanbara and manga than history. Still, Sakai has a real love for Japanese culture and has used his “Usagi Yojimbo” series to bring that love to his fan base and help spark interest among them for all things Japan. But now that the first issue of Dark Horse’s “47 Ronin” has been released, it’s obvious their ‘meticulously researched’ comic that was ‘as historically accurate as possible’ has turned out to be a big joke at the expense of their readers. It bears as much resemblance to the historical events as the Tom Cruise film “The Last Samurai” does to the life of Saigo Takamori. 

But before we pull the wings off of Richardson’s and Sakai’s sloppily researched farce, a couple of caveats. First, we’re not addressing the artistic merits and entertainment value of the book. If you just plan on reading the book to be entertained or to enjoy Sakai’s art, feel free to stop reading here-just be aware it’s a fictional account and has little to do with the historical event. But if you thought you were getting the real story or want to hear how wrong Dark Horse got it, read on. If Richardson and Sakai were writing an adaptation of the Chushingura plays and movies, we would have no problem with the comic. We own about 20 different films based on Chushingura and enjoy them all (especially 1994’s “Chushingura Gaiden Yotsuya Kaidan”-check it out if you can). But instead, they marketed their book based on the claim that it was an accurate representation of the historical events based on years of exhaustive research, and that’s simply a lie. They’ve lied to their readers, the majority of whom have little knowledge of the Ronin and have placed blind trust in the two to deliver on their promise-for example, this blurb from Comic Book Resources: 

“…Richardson and "Usagi Yojimbo" artist Stan Sakai launch "47 Ronin" -- a five-issue miniseries that tells a historically accurate account of warriors who laid in wait two years to avenge the tragic death of their master only to take their own lives to be buried beside him. One of the most famous stories in Japanese history, the story of the 47 has been mythologized and retold countless times over the centuries, but with this series Richardson and Sakai hope to bring Western comics its first accurate, intensive adaptation.” 

By the end of this article, not even the most diehard Richardson/Sakai supporters will be able to claim that the two worked hard to get things right. 

Second, there are a lot of aspects of the 47 Ronin story that are open to debate. What was Asano’s motivation for attempting to kill Lord Kira? Were the Ronin operating out of loyalty or looking to win positions with new clans by their ‘demonstration’ of loyalty? Was the vendetta really in keeping with Confucian thought (the scholars of the day were split on the matter)? Was this a stellar display of samurai loyalty and honor or just a spiteful feudal drive-by carried out by a group of thuggish murderers? These and many other questions can be debated until the end of time without any concrete answers. But in this article, we’re not going to bother with addressing anything that is open to debate. Instead, we’re only going to stick with factual issues-issues that are spelled out in contemporary documents, eyewitness accounts, official reports of the Shogunate, the Ronin’s writings while in captivity after the assault on Lord Kira’s mansion, and the like. Everything here will be just the most basic facts that even an amateur historian with no prior knowledge of the event would have been able to get right with a few hours of research. Why didn’t Richardson and Sakai? We don’t know. Apparently all their so-called ‘research’ was based on the Chushingura puppet and kabuki plays along with movies based on the plays, or perhaps from reading early English language accounts of the incident that mistakenly accepted the fiction of Chushingura as fact. All of the facts you are about to read can be easily verified in most any Japanese language book on the Ronin published in the last 20 years, or in the following English language sources. 

 “THREE HUNDRED YEARS OF CHUSHINGURA" series in Monumenta Nipponica, 2003-06-Monumenta Nipponica is one of the most well respected academic sources on Japanese history, and their series of articles from 2003-2006 dealing with the 47 Ronin was groundbreaking, representing the first concentrated effort in the West to look at the real history behind the Chushingura legend 

Beatrice Bodart-Bailey-“The Dog Shogun”-this examines Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi and the falsehoods that sprang up about him. It also contains a chapter on the 47 Ronin that does an even better job of deflating the legend than we do 

Stephen Turnbull-“The Revenge of the 47 Ronin”-probably the best single book devoted to the 47 Ronin, inexpensive, loaded with pictures, and readily available 

Andrew Rankin-“Seppuku”-an excellent section on the Ronin with much of the latest scholarship, including the fact they didn’t commit seppuku 

Professor Henry Smith-the West’s most notable 47 Ronin scholar, his homepage on the Columbia University website is a gold mine of Ronin resources and articles 

So let’s get to it. On page 2, we’re introduced to Murakami Kiken, the ‘Satsuma Man’. No doubt his backstory will be revealed in future issues, but basically in the Ronin legend he’s a samurai who ran across the leader of the 47 Ronin, Oishi Kuranosuke, in Kyoto. Oishi was passed out drunk in an alley, part of his alleged ‘acting drunk to camouflage his intentions’ act (more on that later). A man from Satsuma province stumbled across him and became thoroughly disgusted, berating Oishi at length and telling him he was a disgrace and unfit to be a samurai. Months later Oishi led the attack on Lord Kira’s mansion. The Satsuma man realized his mistake and became stricken with grief that he had maligned such a fine example of samurai virtue-hence his attempts to atone at the Ronin’s graves pictured here. The problem is-the Satsuma Man never existed, as least as far as the Ronin were concerned. This was a case where an historical account (from a few years prior to the Ronin’s assault) that had nothing to do with the Ronin was grafted onto the tale years later by playwrights for dramatic impact-just like Richardson and Sakai do here, it makes for a great framing device to tell the story. But the real Satsuma man never met Oishi, never visited the Ronin’s gravesites, and his particular story took place years earlier. So scratch the Satsuma man. 

Page 6-a minor quibble is that Kiken would not be referring to Emperor Higashiyama by his posthumous name while he’s still alive-he would have used “Asahito”, if indeed he used a name at all. We’ll give the comic a pass on this as that’s pretty esoteric. 

There’s a charming interlude on pages 7-13 where Naganori Asano, daimyo of Ako han and the man who eventually will assault Lord Kira in Edo castle and spark off the 47 Ronin Vendetta, spends some quality time with his young daughter and wife before departing for the big city. Cute kid. Nicely illustrated touching scene. Total fiction. How do we know this? Asano’s wife and child wouldn’t be expressing regret on Asano leaving Ako for Edo. That’s because they’d BE in Edo. As part of the Shogun’s Sankin Kotai (alternate attendance) policy, a daimyo’s wife and young children were required to live in the capital city of Edo (symbolic hostages and a guarantee of good behavior by the daimyo). The comic even MENTIONS Sankin Kotai, but Richardson/Sakai apparently don’t realize its ramifications. So, we can strike all of this from the record. 

And that Asano-wow, he’s something. The comic portrays him as a compassionate family man, a man of many talents, an admired lord, a talented administrator of his lands, and the personification of idealized samurai virtues. Was he? Well, there just happens to be an excellent account of Asano’s behavior and character in the “Dokai Koshuki”, a report prepared in the 1690’s by agents of Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi concerning the lives and behavior of 243 daimyo (and prepared long before Asano’s assault on Kira in Edo castle). Asano seems to have been regarded with distaste by many of his peers, and indeed seen as a hothead. The report compliments him on his intelligence and strict punishment of offences within Ako domain, but after that it’s all downhill. The report derides him for "sexual profligacy” and also notes that he sunk to promoting and rewarding retainers based on their ability to procure attractive women for him (and otherwise feed his ego). It notes that he was "only concerned with his personal amusement" and left the government of his domain in the hands of his servants. 

The report calls his retainers (Oishi Yoshio-more on him soon-being one of these) to task for the poor job they had done and brands them as disloyal for not having trained Asano properly. Asano is noted for possessing neither literary nor military skills. It appears that the chief retainers of the Asano feared losing their positions of authority within the clan and did their best to ensure Asano occupied himself primarily by indulging his libido (leaving the direct control of the clan to them). He had no children until late in life, and then only as a result of a 1694 illness that almost killed him. Without an heir, his clan would have had to forfeit their lands, so clan elders convinced him to have children (although by this time Asano had adopted his younger brother and named him heir). However, the lecherous lord continued to party like it was 1799 and continued his wastrels’ ways. So Asano was certainly no devoted family man. He had no real talents to speak of, neglected the running of his fief, and was the subject of ridicule by his contemporaries in Edo. This ridicule increased after his failed assault on Kira, where his swordsmanship and inability to kill an old man he had attacked from behind was mocked in a popular song that made the rounds of Edo at that time. In effect, Asano was much like an Edo period drunken frat boy and the ‘Brick McBurly of his Day’. 

In the garden interlude we also meet Oishi Yoshio. The comic refers to him by his title, Kuranosuke-either name is fine. Yoshio is shown as a serious and capable retainer. In a conversation with Asano, Yoshio cautions him about all the drinking, gambling, corruption, and excesses to be found in Edo. He stresses that Asano must keep his mind firmly on his duties and returning home to his family without incident. Now, given Asano’s predilection for drinking and whoring, the whole idea of Edo probably looked pretty damn good to him-a daimyo ‘Spring Break’, so Yoshio’s speech comes off as somewhat humorous. There also would have been no reason for a speech like that. Remember the Sankin Kotai policy? Asano would have already been in Edo many, many times, spent virtually half of his adult life there, and would be very familiar with the conditions inside the city and Shogun’s court. 

And Oishi was pretty much Asano’s match in the arena of partying. As Andrew Rankin lays out in his book “Seppuku”, “Today an untouchable hero, he was not always known for brilliance. As a young administrator he was nicknamed ‘daytime lantern’ (hiru-andon); in other words, he was useless. He was not good with money, and needed assistance from senior retainers when handling anything financial. His first talent seems to have been for heavy drinking”. He was also one of the vassals condemned by the “Dokai Koshuki” for neglecting Asano’s training and keeping him distracted by supplying him with women. Oishi was the mastermind of a plan where clan leadership issued devalued currency in order to boost their treasury. When the fief was confiscated as a result of Asano’s attack, everyone stuck holding this currency lost half its face value. While this won’t show up in the comic for another couple of issues, after becoming a ronin Oishi was supposed to have put on an elaborate act by consorting with prostitutes and Geisha, getting drunk every single night, and using the remnants of the clan treasury to finance it all. This was supposed to have been a ruse to convince anyone watching he had no intention of taking revenge on Kira. However, it’s far more likely he was just picking up where he left off-it was certainly no act-perhaps his title should have been Kusanosuke. 

Finally, the comic moves to Edo and we meet Kira. There are a couple of minor cultural issues on Pg. 14-one of Kira’s retainers knocks on the shoji to gain entrance, whereas he would never do anything so rude in real life. He’d be announced by a bodyguard sitting outside. Sakai also renders Japanese books incorrectly, giving them a covered spine like Western books would have. No big deal, really, but just indicative of the proceedings. 

Here it would probably be useful to explain the Japanese tradition of gift giving. The comic presents it as a ‘bribe’, corrupt and beneath a real samurai. However, gift giving was (and STILL is) a very important aspect of Japanese society. It was a big part of the samurai lifestyle. As Beatrice Bodart-Bailey explains in “The Dog Shogun,” ”Then as now in Japanese culture it is a form of payment for services rendered or hoped for where no formal system of remuneration exists”. In the comic, Asano at one point bluntly tells Kira that “…let ME be clear…under no circumstance will I pay a bribe to you or any other man”. But let US be clear-you can bet in real life he did, and often. And no one would have seen it as being inappropriate or out of the ordinary. One aspect of the Ronin legend that has consistently amazed us over the years is that no one seems to realize that Asano, as lord of a wealthy province, would constantly be receiving elaborate and costly gifts-or bribes-from vassals, merchants, and others seeking favor with him. So if you want to characterize gift giving as bribes and corrupt, you can start your list alphabetically with Asano. 

But on to Kira-Kira Yoshinaka, according to the comic. But Richardson/Sakai haven’t done their homework here either, since his name is actually Kira Yoshihisa. A letter written in 1703 specified this, and Kira’s own stylized Kao signature preserved at Kezo Temple confirms it. Either way, the comic has him as the most unpleasant, corrupt, grasping and arrogant individual this side of Snidely Whiplash. And once again, they’re wrong. For starters, no evidence exists that Kira demanded a bribe from Asano, that Asano refused him, or that it was the motivation for Asano’s attack. None. Zero. Ziltch. Everything that purports otherwise is a fictional account written years after the fact. There is nothing in Kira’s record to suggest he was anything but what he appeared to be a-a rather typical Edo period bureaucrat who did an excellent job in the performance of his duties. Far from being greedy, he seems to have been quite generous. While not a daimyo and hence not responsible for a fief, Kira made large unsolicited contributions for public works in the area near his country mansion. Kira was certainly no heroic figure, as evidenced by trying to escape Asano’s assault and not attempting to defend himself (something that made him a subject of derision from his contemporaries). Still, Kira was no villain. He was made into one because (Bodart-Bailey again, speaking on the vilification of Kira at the hands of playwrights) “Lauding the slaying of Kira meant praising an act of breaking the law. Hence Kira’s vilification was necessary to justify such illegal behavior as being provoked by an even worse state of affairs”. 

Why, then, did Asano attack him? Certainly there had to be some reason. But the cold, hard truth is that no one knows. Asano refused to tell anyone the reason, and only he knew it. This indicates that divulging the reason would cause him to be seen in an even more negative light. Stephen Turnbull’s “The Revenge of the 47 Ronin” gives a very likely scenario. "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". Asano would very likely have been reprimanded sternly by Kira for slackness in his studies, and it’s very easy to imagine he would have chafed and done a slow burn over it, resulting in his backstabbing ambush of Kira. In all fairness, it has to be pointed out that this is also just idle speculation-however, it’s speculation that makes more sense than the Chushingura version. 

And then there's Kamei-sama-or since Richardson/Sakai seem to think ‘Sama’ is a name and not the honorific suffix it is, Kamei Sama. In the comic, Kamei is an even bigger hothead than Asano. He’s always wanting to protect Asano’s honor and reaching for his sword to attack Kira, but always talked down by Asano. Luckily for Kamei, his vassals, unknown to him, have given that evil ‘ol Kira the bribes he craves-so he’s in Kira’s favor. Now, historically, Kamei-sama is quite important. He’s important because any 47 Ronin account that contains him can easily be relegated to the realm of fiction. You see, there was no Kamei-sama assisting Asano. No, Kamei Korechika, the lord of Tsuwano domain in Iwami province, had held in 1698 the position Asano held in 1701. Historically, assisting Asano was Date Muneharu (also known as Muratoyo), the daimyo of Yoshida han in Iyo province. So we can also scratch Kamei Sama from our august proceedings. 

We can also discount the story of Kamei’s vassals gifting Kira without their Lord’s knowledge. This fictional account first appeared in a Chushingura play almost 50 years after the fact in 1748, and was said to have taken place in 1698 when Kamei really was under Kira’s tutelage (but of course, there’s no documentation for it-even the Kamei family records fail to mention it). Further betraying its bogus nature, the incident with Kamei-sama was quickly moved by various works of fiction to 1701 and replaced Date Muneharu to give the episode more impact. 

Kira’s evil nature is further underlined on page 19 when Kira ‘reminds’ Asano he needs to replace 200 tatami mats in the receiving hall by tomorrow. The dastardly villain had earlier told Asano they didn’t need to be replaced, but that was before he didn’t get his bribe, y’know. So Asano is faced with a seemingly impossible task (which humorously causes Kamei Sama to reach for his sword again), but Asano’s such a tremendously talented administrator and inspires such confidence in his vassals, and yes, even the little men that make tatami mats, that he pulls it off. You know where this is going, don’t you? Yep-another totally fictional episode, presented most memorably in Inagaki Hiroshi’s 1962 film version of Chushingura (where 500 mats needed to be replaced and only accomplished by having an Asano vassal substitute himself for a matmaker in a drinking contest). It’s a beautiful, well done and stirring movie, but it’s also a work of unadulterated fiction.

But for real jaw-dropping, stupefying, “what orifice did they pull this out of” impact, nothing can top the account of Asano’s actual attack on Lord Kira detailed on pages 22-26. Here’s the Dark Horse version. Kira enters a room full of assembled dignitaries and thanks them all for their hard work. Everyone, that is, except for Asano, who he (among other pleasantries) calls ‘less gifted, ‘less able’, a lousy listener who does lousy work, and an embarrassment. Our old friend Kamei-sama goes to draw his sword to stick up for his pal but is dissuaded by the stalwart Asano. As Asano exits the room, Kira can’t resist a parting shot and calls him a stupid country farmer. NOW Asano draws his sword and charges Kira, but drops it and apologizes profusely when Kira reminds him of the consequences of drawing his sword in the Shogun’s castle. Well, that mean ol’ bastard Kira walks right up to Asano and kicks him in the face, then strolls off chortling and heaping more verbal abuse on him! Asano throws his short sword at Kira to get his attention, burying it in the woodwork next to his head. Then he pulls his long sword (Sakai mistakenly portrays all the samurai wearing two swords, whereas indoors they would only be carrying their short sword) and charges Kira, wounding him in the face. Other samurai restrain Asano while Kamei Sama bleats out a protest (he’s quite the busybody for someone who didn’t exist). Asano calmly tells Kamei to stand down and stoically states he will accept the consequences of his actions. Hoo-boy. We’re surprised Kira wasn’t shown dancing a celebratory jig from “Riverdance” as Asano was escorted out. 

Now, as it happens, there exists an eyewitness account of Asano’s assault. It was written by one Kajikawa Yosobei, who was a supervisory official in the Ooku (the women’s quarters of Edo Castle). Yosobei was chatting to Kira regarding rescheduling the giving of gifts from the Shogun’s consort to the Emperor’s representatives. Here’s his account of the attack: Asano appeared from nowhere, began screaming, and attacked Kira from behind, slightly wounding him in the back. Shocked, Kira whirled around to face Asano, began to back pedal, and was slightly wounded again on his face, causing him to fall to the ground. Kajikawa restrained Asano. The other samurai in the room came to Kajikawa’s aid and drug Asano into the Willow Room, with the daimyo of Ako screaming the whole time. 

Now tell us- 

1) If you claim to be writing a historically accurate account, how in the world do you totally ignore the ONLY EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT OF THE ASSAULT? 

2) Even worse, why would you come up with an alternate universe where VIRTUALLY NOTHING happens the way it did? The Dark Horse account is even more fanciful than the most hero-worshipping of the 47 Ronin films or plays. 

3) Asano sure sounds like a psycho, doesn’t he? Lousy swordsman, too, just like the Shogunal report said. 

Ironically, the book ends with Kamei-sama stating “I fear this can only end badly”. He’s certainly right if he’s talking about the comic series. 

For most of this stuff, we put the onus on Richardson as he’s the writer. However, Sakai has more than his share of culpability. Let’s take a look at a single panel-the nice looking splash page featuring the Shogun’s Palace (actually the Shogun’s Castle) from page 13. It contains a multitude of cultural and historical errors ranging from the minor to ridiculously obvious. For starters, Sakai has town buildings and shops located directly outside of Edo castle’s walls. This is incorrect-there were daimyo mansions ringing Edo castle’s outer walls, part of its defense plan. And even they wouldn’t have been next to the walls-the castle had (still has) massive moats. Sakai has the walls with gun loopholes that were built out of plaster constructed out of stone instead. He has the tenshu of Edo castle right next to the outer walls when it would have been located far, far beyond them with a maze of enclosures and other buildings in between. He has the Edo Castle tenshu rendered as a double structure (much like the current versions of Odawara or Nagoya castle) instead of the single five story structure it was. But that really doesn’t matter, because in 1701 EDO CASTLE DIDN’T HAVE A TENSHU. It burned down in the great Edo fire of 1657 and was never rebuilt. Sakai does state in an interview given for the book that “I learned that that part of the castle has burned down twice since this (Asano’s assault on Lord Kira) happened”, but it appears he was talking about the Hall Of Pines and not the tenshu. Sakai later goes on to add that “most of it I just made up”. He also states that “The 47 were ordered to commit seppuku by the Shogunate, and they did it at Sengakuji Temple.” In fact, only 46 were sentenced to death and only one of them committed seppuku, the rest being beheaded in mock seppuku ceremonies. And NONE of their deaths happened at Sengakuji Temple (hard as it is to believe ;) , Buddhist temples aren’t particularly happy being used as execution grounds), but at the four separate daimyo mansions they were being held in. So much for Sakai’s self-styled rigorous research ethic and “tremendous research library”. While Sakai does seem marginally better informed than Richardson about the actual history of the Ronin, for some reason he didn’t feel the need to let Mike in on the secret. Why? Probably because he had little interest in sticking to a historically accurate representation of the Ronin, wanting instead to do a standard jidaigeki-fueled fantasy treatment. 

We’re not going to be reviewing the last four issues of this series-frankly, our heart wouldn’t be able to take the strain and our head would explode. But here are a few fearless predictions of what you’ll probably see (FANTASY) followed by what really was (FACT): 

FANTASY: The Ronin will invade Kira’s heavily fortified fortress, swarming with elite guards and booby traps. They take great care to spare innocent servants. Even though heavily outnumbered, they’ll decimate the opposition and ferret out Kira’s spider hole. 

FACT: Kira’s mansion was just a standard Edo period hatamoto mansion-no traps, no fortifications other than an outside wall that they all had. The Ronin outnumbered Kira’s guards by anywhere from 2-1 to 16-1 (depending on what account you believe-2-1 actually seems the most likely). They slaughtered several household staff. They did, however, decimate the opposition and ferret out Kira’s spider hole. Having armor and arms and being awake when your enemy is sleeping, unarmed, and unarmored does that. 

FANTASY: Terasaka Kichiemon, the 47th Ronin will after the assault be ordered by Oishi to carry news of their success to Asano’s widow. Terasaka this way avoids being sentenced to death with the other 46. 

FACT: Terasaka was ordered to leave the group right before the raid, not to inform anyone of anything but rather because the Ronin as a whole decided his rank was too low for him to be part of the group. This is borne out by the Ronin’s own writings while in captivity and awaiting sentencing. He did indeed avoid their fate. There’s an excellent episode of the TV drama ‘Abarenbo Shogun’ where Terasaka royally rips the Ronin and Asano for not thinking of their families and vassals when pursuing their violent goals. 

FANTASY: It will be gleefully reported that Kira’s grandson, Yoshichika, was forced to commit seppuku for not having successfully defended his grandfather (despite incurring several wounds in doing so). The Uesugi family (Kira’s relatives by marriage) will be said to have had its domain cut almost in half for not sending troops to attack the Ronin at Sengakuji Temple after the raid. 

FACT: The document this was based on has been shown to be a forgery prepared much later. Instead, Yoshichika was banished to Kai province and the Kira family lost its hereditary position as ‘Master Of Shogunal Ceremony’. They later regained their hatamoto status but didn’t regain the office, as it was now the hereditary post of another clan. Nothing happened to the Uesugi clan. The last thing the Shogunate would have wanted was to have unsanctioned warfare and chaos break out on the streets of Edo. 

FANTASY: The Ronin will be shown stoically and heroically performing seppuku (ritual suicide). It seems Sakai plans to have this happen at Sengakuji. 

FACT: As we outlined above, the deaths of the Ronin occurred at the four separate daimyo mansions they were being held at. Only one of the 46 actually committed seppuku. The remaining 45 were beheaded in mock seppuku ceremonies. This is borne out by the official accounts given by the presiding officials at each mansion. Now, given that the comic is pure fantasy, that Koike Kazuo is listed as an editorial consultant and he’s the creator of “Lone Wolf And Cub”-wouldn’t it kick ass to have Shogunal Executioner Ogami Itto carrying out the executions ? It’d be worth picking up just for that. 

So thanks for nothing, Dark Horse. You had a chance to live up to your reputation and help bring the real story of the Ronin to a mass market audience. Instead, you couldn’t even keep the promises of historical accuracy you made in your press releases and gave thousands of readers a fantasy account that they’ll believe because you told them they can. Richardson and Sakai should be ashamed of themselves. If as they claim they truly believe in the virtues that the fantasy version of the Ronin represent (like honor and personal responsibility) they’d at least put a disclaimer on the inside cover of future issues that declares their adaptation is based on the Chushingura plays and movies and not on historical fact. Even a cad who’s as evil, corrupt, and jaded as say…the historical Asano would think that’s fair.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

When Seven Samurai Just Weren’t Enough-Animeigo’s “Eleven Samurai”

 Halloween may be over, but the ‘claret continues to flow’. It’s another dose of in-your-face, bloody group vengeance in Animeigo’s release of “Eleven Samurai” (“Ju-ichinin No Samurai”, Toei 1966) the final film in Kudo Eiichi’s “Samurai Trilogy”. The first two films in the trilogy, the original “13 Assassins” and “The Great Killing”, both featured meticulous plans to ambush the numerically superior enemy. They’re often compared to Kurosawa Akira’s “Seven Samurai” for this reason. “Eleven Samurai” also includes this aspect, but this is after all Japanese film-there’s no guarantee that the third time will be the charm. With an army of samurai retainers forming the opposition rather than the Kurosawa film’s ragtag band of bandits, seven samurai would not be enough. Bring on the Eleven Samurai!

The film wastes no time getting the plot rolling. The time is 1839 and Nariatsu, brother of the Shogun and Lord of Tatebayashi (who is shown in Animeigo’s historical notes to likely be modeled on Matsudaira Nariyoshi, who died under vague circumstances in 1839), is out hunting for sport. Angry over the day’s poor catch and his poor performance with the bow when shooting at a deer, the Lord charges after the fleeing animal and despite warnings from his vassals continues his pursuit across the han boundary into the neighboring fief of Oshi. When an elderly woodcutter climbs onto the side of the road and attempts to help his wife clamber up, Nariatsu’s horse is spooked and stops the pursuit. An enraged Nariatsu instead chases down the peasant and strikes him down to the horror of his vassals. In one of those incredible coincidences that only happens in film, the Lord of Oshi, Abe Bungo-No-Kami Masayori, just happens to be riding nearby and chastises the petulant Nariatsu for entering his fief without permission and setting a poor example by striking down the peasant. You know something bad is going to happen when Nariatsu nervously fingers an arrow on his bow…and sure enough, even though Masayori states he will overlook the infraction because of Nariatsu’s high status, the arrow finds flight and buries itself in Masayori’s eye. Nariatsu retreats back to his own fief, leaving the dead Masayori’s vassals to seek legal redress for the cowardly act. 

However, it’s GOOD being Shogun-or even his brother. Not only does the Bakufu ignore Oshi fief’s request that Nariatsu be punished, but Chief Minister Mizuno Echizen concocts a twisted version of the incident that has Masayori invading Nariatsu’s fief and being killed by a ‘stray arrow’. As punishment for this imagined crime, the Oshi fief is confiscated. Oshi Minister Tatewaki manages to put off the confiscation of the fief for a month by telling Echizen that he needs the time to bring the vassals under control, implying that otherwise there will be ‘rash acts’ of violence against the Bakufu. 

Instead, Tatewaki plans to use his month to have Nariatsu killed, an act which would likely lead to a reversal of Echizen’s decree. You see, much like the earlier two films, the Bakufu would cover up the assassination in order to not appear impotent-and that would necessitate not taking the Oshi lands. Tatewaki enlists his childhood friend, Sengoku Hayato, to put together a team and plan the assassination. Hayato figures he’ll need about 10 good men to pull it off. He takes a unique stance on finding them-he has clan officials notified that no harm must come to Lord Nariatsu and that anyone who does otherwise should be ordered to commit seppuku. When this inevitably happens, Hayato confronts the group and when they proceed to attempt to carry out their sentence, becomes convinced of their courage and recruits them to his cause. The addition of the ‘hotheads’-leader Mitamura, Hoshina, Aragane, Kuga, Adachi, Junnosuke, and Lady Nui (who was fulfilling her dead brother’s promise to join the group)-swells his ranks to eight. Needing money to carry out their plan, they recruit a clan accountant, Ichihashi Yajiro. The nine set out separately for Edo to catch up with Lord Nariatsu. As if he hasn’t already established himself as a Grade A scumbag, he’s traveling to Edo without permission to demand that the confiscated Oshi fief be added to his own! 

Upon arriving in Edo, Nariatsu continues to add to his resume by ducking out of his mansion and visiting the red light district in Yoshiwara, stumbling around in a drunken stupor with half the area courtesans and geisha in tow. Hayato’s group decides to take this opportunity to strike at Nariatsu while he’s undefended. They lay in wait for him at the stairs of the Geisha house he’s staying at. However, when Nariatsu proves to be too drunk to climb the stairs and tumbles down them (earning the title of “Brick McBurly of his Day”), giving him just enough time to be saved by the arrival of his Chamberlain Akiyoshi Gyobu. Gyobu is not convinced by the stories out of Oshi that Hayato’s group was sentenced to seppuku or exiled for stealing clan funds. Despite a constant stream of abuse from Nariatsu (who at one point in the film tells Gyobu he’d rather take the risks than bother with listening to him), Gyobu continues to do his best to protect his Lord-because, y’know, that’s just part of the whole filmatic Bushido thang. 

Gyobu’s not the only one struggling with the contradictions of Bushido. Hayato’s group takes refuge in an old dwelling where the hothead faction clashes with Hayato over how things are being handled. They accuse him of being standoffish, happy to set up shop with Lady Nui and not taking the opportunities presented them. Things seemingly get worse when it’s revealed that a scruffy ronin, Ido Daijyurou, has overheard their conversation and deduces what their objective is, but he proves sent from the gods when a group of Nariatsu’s samurai suddenly attack. With his help, the Oshi ronin make their escape. 

After returning home, Hayato is confronted by his brother in law, Kyonosuke-and Hayato’s wife Orei. The two can’t believe that Hayato suddenly disappeared and set up shop with another woman. Kyonosuke declares Hayato a disgrace and sets off to kill Lord Nariatsu on his own. However, the Tatebayashi samurai have expected an assault and capture him easily, torturing him before Lord Nariatsu kills him. Hayato has attempted to prevent his assault, knowing it will likely bring about the immediate confiscation of Oshi Han. He fails and returns crestfallen to Orei, who has heard the entire story of what’s going on from Lady Nui. Her faith in her husband restored, they have a touching interlude that ends in unexpected tragedy. Daijyurou reappears and is finally accepted into the group, giving them ten. 

Lord Nariatsu, having gotten a promise that he will be awarded Oshi fief, prepares to return to Tatebayashi. Hayato’s group decides to make their stand in an Imperial forest east of Edo along the steep hillsides flanking the narrow road through. They set up an elaborate ambush, planning to separate and trap Nariatsu’s procession by dropping trees into their path. Using Daijyurou’s knowledge of gunpowder weapons, they make bamboo cannons to shell the assemblage before attacking on foot. It seemingly can’t miss!

But back in Edo, Elder Echizen and Gyobu scheme to ensure Nariatsu’s safety. They infer to Chamberlain Tatewaki that the decision to confiscate the fief will be rescinded, and that if anything were to happen to Lord Nariatsu, the original verdict would instead be allowed to stand. Tatewaki sends his aide Todo to the site of the ambush with the news, ordering the assault to be called off. This brings the group to 11, but also presents them with a huge decision to make. Should they ignore the order and continue with their plan to avenge their lord? Or is the fief’s survival paramount? The film cleverly allows them to ‘try’ both, but you’ll have to see for yourself how that little trick is pulled off. 

The film superficially resembles the previous two ‘Samurai Trilogy’ entries, “13 Assassins” and “The Great Killing”, but in spirit is more akin to a Chushingura/47 Ronin film. Here the samurai are working outside the law to gain revenge for the death of their Lord and the subsequent confiscation of their fief (an insult compounded by having it awarded to the man who killed their Lord in a fit of pique). It’s particularly mirrored in the moral dilemma of whether to work towards revenge or the restoration of their clan. 

Much of the cast for “Eleven Samurai” had appeared in the previous two films-two of them, Satomi Koutaro (playing Mitamura Kenshin, leader of the hotheads) and Nishimura Ko (playing ronin Ido Daijyurou) are probably best known for essaying the title role in the “Mito Komon” TV series. Suga Kantaro is the surly Nariatsu, in effect reprising his role from “13 Assassins”. While at times he goes a bit over the top in acting despicably, he certainly succeeds in making his character come across as an entitled, petulant and sadistic rich boy who takes everything for granted and treats even his vassals as disposable objects. This is one guy you really, REALLY want to see get killed. Otomo Ryutaro played the evil lord’s loyal samurai Akiyoshi Gyobu after being the prime baddie in “The Great Killing”-he also appeared in the first example of ‘samurai group assault’ films, “Seventeen Ninja”. Having a cast that was used to working with the director and each other gave the film solid performances even for the smaller parts. 

One of the more interesting aspects of the film is the portrayal of the relationship between Hayato (Natsuyagi Isao) and Orei (Miyazono Junko). It’s very affectionate and much more up-front than similar relationships in most chanbara films and is given a good chunk of time to play out as a subplot in the film. Shots of Hayato’s hands lovingly caressing Orei’s face and his obvious sense of shame when she believes him to have taken up with another woman give a real sense of two people who care deeply for each other. Someone at Toei obviously thought so, as the two went on to appear together in “Samurai Wolf” and “Samurai Wolf II”. Miyazono later starred in “Quick Draw Okatsu”, one of the best ‘swordswoman’ films to come out of Japan (not to mention costarring the awesome Oshida Reiko as a ninja babe). Natsuyagi is still active in Japanese film, recently appearing in the Azuchi Castle/Nobunaga jidaigeki opus “Castle Under Fiery Skies”. 

Director Kudo seems have to found the perfect balance in his third effort at a ‘group assault’ film. “13 Assassins” was cold and calculating, precise and surgical in its planning and counter-planning. “The Great Killing” was an exercise in chaos, from the opening that drew in a character totally unrelated to the plot to the closing assault that didn’t look at first to have succeeded. “Eleven Samurai” blends these disparate approaches and adds the Hayato/Orei relationship, an aspect that was somewhat missing in the first two films (especially 13 Assassins). There are some excellent shots and composition in the film, particularly in the massive, almost expressionistic Imperial forest that the ambush is to take place in. Light and shadow is used to great effect and there are nice flourishes, such as letting a billowing wave of fog effect a virtual wipe of the screen. Kudo is also smart enough to give his leads a bit of screen time to flesh out their characters, not just the Hayato/Orei/Nui angle but Hayato’s position as an outsider among the ‘hotheads’, Gyobu’s travails as Nariatsu’s Chamberlain, and Daijyourou’s scathing indictments of the samurai lifestyle. 

The music is composed by Ifukube Akira. While it’s striking, powerful, and does a good job underscoring the events onscreen, it sounds far too much like his memorable score for the classic “Godzilla”. While we’re no music expert, many passages sounded as if they were note for note and simply recycled. This has the unfortunate side effect of being a distraction for anyone who’s seen “Godzilla” a few times. 

Extras are light this time around-trailers for the three films in Kudo’s ‘Samurai Trilogy’, a handful of historical notes, short bios of some of the cast and crew, and a small image gallery (only five images). Toei must not have had much archival material on the film since not only is there a lack of stills on the disc but the trailer is one that Animeigo put together themselves. Otherwise, the disc is what we’ve all come to expect from Animeigo-a top rate translation with cultural notes onscreen, the best possible transfer, and solid sound. 

In the less innocent and more skeptical world of the 1960’s, it wouldn’t be Seven Samurai that would get the job done. It called for Eleven...Eleven Samurai who fought themselves and their clan leadership as much as they did the enemy. But when everything was said and done, they pulled together to attack their common enemy, concluding the Samurai Trilogy with an appropriately brutal and bloody finale. It combines the best of the classic jidaigeki of the 50’s with the increasingly violent large scale chanbara films of the 60’s.You can pick up Eleven Samurai at a discount on the Animeigo website or on Amazon. Speaking of brutal and bloody, while you’re there check out the “Lone Wolf & Cub” Blu-ray set-all six films in one nice package! We’ll be reviewing that in a couple of weeks. 

All Eleven Samurai Photos Courtesy and Copyright 1967 Toei Studios