I have always been fascinated by almost everything Japanese. Anime, geography, culture, history, art, music, language, technology, motorcycles, gadgets, cooking, food, knives etc. I guess I am a Japanophile! Is that even a word? (The answer is yes). They seem to be other worldly in everything they do, from their past even until today. It is definitely refreshingly different compared to many other things on offer today.
I probably didn’t know it back then but my first encounter with anything Japanese was probably watching the Japanese anime Akira. I don’t think I was supposed to be watching it when I did, all of 10 years old but I did and it sure left an impression. The visuals, the violence, the music, the stark contrast to anything I had seen until then. It was, simply put, an experiential bomb. One can say that almost anything could be like that for a 10 year old, but then there aren’t too many things from my childhood that I remember so vividly.
I am not writing this to talk about anime, per se. I want to write about the ‘Samurai’. It’s one of those mythical words that inspire awe, draw you into another fantasy world that seems alien but was as real as our own. The imagery is of a masked warrior clad in ancient armor, with piercing eyes that strikes fear, skilled in swordsmanship and steeped in the ‘Bushido Code’ of honor, discipline and loyalty.
I want to write about how I ended up my version or image of a Samurai. What have been the things that I have seen, experienced that created and shaped the ‘Samurai’ my brain conjures up each time I think of one.
Reaching far into my memory, I couldn’t exactly pick out the very first time I heard of a samurai. It would have to have been a book or a newspaper article mentioning it. It’s unlikely to have been on television based on the content I was exposed to back then, but then it is hard to really pin this one down. Instead I will list all the references to a Samurai that I can think of that I knew I came across.
Suzuki Samurai. This was a motorcycle manufactured by Suzuki and sold in India. I think it was a 2 stroke motorcycle. It was a simple bike with a round chrome headlight, mudguards, black metal tank and orange graphics that had a sword, a katana most likely, linking it to a samurai. I used to like that bike. It was trendy when it came out. The only thing that trumped it was the Suzuki Shogun that looked meaner in all black with a fairing around the square headlights and an extra gear. The fairing on the headlight resembled a Samurai’s headgear. At least to me. It was more expensive and rarer than the Samurai, sort of following the class hierarchy between a Samurai and a Shogun. I have since found out that there is another Suzuki Samurai. It is a small 4 wheel drive off road mini SUV sold in the USA. The rest of the world called it the Suzuki Jimny. India was lucky to get its own iconic name for this rugged vehicle, the Maruti Suzuki Gypsy.
The Seven Samurais by Akira Kurosawa. I only recently saw this movie and quite liked it too. But I had heard about it many years ago in reference to the movie that inspired the classic western ‘The Magnificent Seven’. It is a move in black and white but very rich in color. Akira Kurosawa has artfully told the story of seven Samurai hired by a group of farmers to protect them against bandits that have been terrorizing their village. In this age of instant gratification and tiktok videos the deliberate slowness, the lengthy pauses and the extended focus on character development and the actors’ emotions was very refreshing and a reminder of the blinding pace with which we live our lives.
Samurai Jack. As much as I hold Japanese anime in the highest regards and find western animation mostly pandering to kids and teenagers, once in a while I stumble across some gems in western animation. Samurai Jack, one of such gems, created by Genndy Tartakovsky, has great storyboarding and artwork by Korean artists and some equally good voice acting. I have rewatched the show multiple times. Even though it was neutered by Cartoon Network to not show any blood and gore the creators circumvented that by showing the characters beat, slice and dice mechanical fiends that spewed and spurted dark oil instead of blood, tore open sinewy wires instead of muscles and bones. Since then, however, western animation has matured and has lot more content geared towards adults that doesn’t hide behind innuendos. The last season released recently on Adult Swim, though not at the same level as the first few from a decade or so ago, didn’t hesitate to show blood and gore. Though, I will say this, Samurai Jack didn’t teach me much about Samurais. It’s, mostly, only a backstory for Jack.
Samurai Champloo. This is another great anime that I decided to watch just because it was directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, the director of Cowboy Bebop, one of my all time favorite anime. I was not let down one bit. This anime had a great story set in the Edo period, with great characters and voice acting stitched together with well chosen hip hop music. Samurai Champloo is a story of two wandering Samurais who join a young girl’s quest to find her father. It gave me a closer look at the Samurai culture, the concept of a Ronin, a usually disgraced Samurai whose lord has passed or whom he has failed and the different periods in Japanese history. The Edo or the Tokugawa Shogunate period which stretches from the seventeenth to mid nineteenth century is where this drama unfolds. The anachronistic soundtrack simply enhances the experience.
The Last Samurai. It seems odd to list this seemingly culture misappropriating, white man saves the day movie as something that shaped my image of a Samurai but it very much did. The production quality was simply mind blowing as it rendered in color and high definition and brought to life some of the Samurai and Japanese culture, rituals, clothing, warfare and the famed Samurai code of honor. This movie is set in the mid to late nineteenth century towards the very end of the Edo period giving its way to the Meiji period. I just find it odd that, in the movie, the ferociously xenophobic and closed to outsiders Japanese society allowed a white man, Tom Cruise, to join them and become a Samurai warrior. There must have been a convincing plot for how this came to be.
On further reading it turns out that over the years there have been a few instances of foreigners being granted the Samurai status in Japan.
Age of Samurai : Battle for Japan. This is a documentary that I just watched which brought back the Samurais to my mind. It’s an American documentary retelling by re-enactment, the various events in the late sixteenth century feudal Japan that led to the end of the Sengoku period and the start of the Edo. It tells a riveting tale of Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, three Samurais and Daimyos, and their grapple for power and unification of feudal Japan under one banner. It’s definitely more complex than what I have surmised here and that is exactly what got me excited about diving deeper into this part of Japanese history.
There is a lot to the Samurai culture and it’s influence on Japan and vice versa. Media, in its perennial search for a good story, has extended this influence to the west and through it to any other culture that consumes western media, which is practically the rest of the world. They have whetted my appetite and I am hungry to learn more!
I am sure that there are many other times and places that I must have read, heard, seen references to the Samurais. I will probably add them to this list when they come to me.
- The anime ‘Afro Samurai’.