The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 20 | “Hagakure, Code of the Samurai: The Manga Edition” review

Leaving Proof 20 | “Hagakure, Code of the Samurai: The Manga Edition” review
Published on Wednesday, January 5, 2011 by
Hagakure, Code of the Samurai: The Manga Edition

  • (Kodansha International, 2010; 144 pages)
  • An adaptation by Sean Michael Wilson (from the English translation of the original text by William Scott Wilson) of the book written by Yamamoto Tsunetomo
  • Illustrator: Chie Kutsuwada
  • Cover Price: $14.95 US

The Hagakure is a collection of commentaries and anecdotes from the early 18th century attributed to the hereditary samurai Yamamoto Tsunetomo, as he related them to the young scribe Tsuramoto Tashiro. In his comments and stories, Yamamoto outlines the way a samurai/retainer ought to act in everyday situations as well as in extenuating circumstances.

A recurring theme in many of his stories is absolute loyalty to one’s daimyo (feudal lord). Indeed, Yamamoto’s loyalty to the Nabeshima clan which he served was such that his dying wish was that no prayers be said for his soul, so that he would not gain enlightenment and release from the perpetual cycle of death and rebirth, instead preferring an eternity of being re-born into the clan’s service. While it is not the only treatise on “the way of the samurai,” it is perhaps the most well-known outside of Japan, having been translated into English a number of times and even serving as the inspiration for the 1999 Palme d’Or-nominated gangster film Ghost Dog directed by Jim Jarmusch and starring Forest Whitaker.

The Hagakure was written during a relatively stable era within the Edo Period, a time of change for many samurai, many of whom had to make the transition from being warriors to bureaucrats in a stage in Japanese history that was largely free from major internal or external military threats and had a reduced need for full-time, professional warriors. Yamamoto himself had become a Zen Buddhist priest by the time he related the Hagakure to Tsuramoto, having been prevented from performing junshi (the ritual suicide of retainers at their master’s demise) at his master Nabeshima Mitsushige’s death by order of the feudal lord himself.

Yamamoto felt that younger samurai, living in the relative peace of the early 18th century, were losing touch with the old martial ways of  the samurai class and the Hagakure‘s goal was to provide examples of how samurai were to conduct themselves. To Sean Michael Wilson’s credit, he doesn’t edit the content of the Hagakure to better align with 20th century sensibilities or fit in with the romanticized notions of the samurai class as presented to us in historically inaccurate films and literature. The idiosyncrasies of the Edo Period’s rigid social caste system and the samurai’s brutality and conditioned sense of entitlement are presented unfiltered.

If there’s one major misgiving I have with this volume, it is the lack of any distinct features that make it more appealing than extant translations of the Hagakure, aside from the novelty of it being illustrated in a manga style. The adaptation, such as it is, seems largely to be an abbreviated transcript of the original translation. Given that a public domain English translation of the Hagakure (not the same as the one by William Scott Wilson, which is not in the public domain) can be readily found on the World Wide Web and read for free, a detailed article or two explaining the historical context the Hagakure was written in, how it influenced later Japanese martial philosophy (like say, how its fundamental precepts were distorted by people like Araki Sadao and incorporated into the unique blend of Japanese bushido and European fascism that characterized Imperial Japan’s 20th century militarism), and how the ideas expressed by Yamamoto in the Hagakure continue to manifest themselves in contemporary Japanese culture would have gone a long way in justifying this adaptation’s existence. The UK-based Chie Kutsuwada’s art (which is somewhat reminiscent of that of Rumiko Takahashi’s) is quite pleasing and brings a sense of dynamism that would have been absent in a pure text piece, but I am unsure if it alone is worth the price of admission.

Just to be totally clear, the Hagakure isn’t a samurai epic or a stylized, action-packed narrative. It is as I described it earlier, a collection of comments and anecdotes illustrating how a samurai should act in certain situations and circumstances. Think of it as “Miss Manners for the 18th century Japanese Feudal Warrior.” It is, at times, self-contradictory, and contains many period-specific prescriptions that have long passed into irrelevance. For the reader interested in learning more about the Edo/Tokugawa era samurai class however, the Hagakure provides an unparalleled insider’s look into the martial thinking of the period. But keep in mind that the Hagakure‘s primary intent was to inform, not to entertain.

If you’ve always wanted to have your own copy of the Hagakure, Kodansha International’s Hagakure, Code of the Samurai: The Manga Edition is a decent alternative to the more traditional texts. Kutsuwada’s art certainly makes the drier passages livelier, and the adaptation’s content is in no way “dumbed down” or edited to target any particular demographic that might be suggested by the art style. Just don’t go in expecting anything in the way of DVD-style extra features. If you already own a translated copy of the Hagakure though, I would find very little reason to recommend this volume beyond the novelty of it being an illustrated version.

Discuss this article in the Column Forum or e-mail zuludelta (please put “Leaving Proof” in your e-mail’s subject line)   
One Response

Connect With Us!
The Geeksverse on Instagram

- Instagram feed not found.
Recent Comments