Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Ninja Movie Weekend

It was another samurai movie weekend, or I should say Ninja Movie Weekend. This weekend I watched Shinobi No Mono 1 and 2.

Shinobi no Mono is a series of eight jidaigeki (Japanese historical dramas) which were released in Japan over a four year period from 1962 to 1966. The plot of these two films focuses on a ninja named Ishikawa Goemon and his struggle to survive during Japan's warring states period. The films star Ichikawa Raizo (from Sleepy Eyes of Death fame) who plays Ishikawa Goemon.

In the first film, Goemon is caught cheating with his masters wife. So the master forces him to kill the ninja's mortal enemy, the ruthless warlord Oda Nobunaga. I don't wan't to give away the story so I will just say that Goemon's goal of killing Nobunaga continued into the second film. Both films included a lot of kick ass ninja action.

These movies rocked. They included some awesome ninja and samurai action as well as several gruesome episodes such as a ninja getting his ears cut off. The second movie really followed the collapse of the Nobunaga regime and the rise of Hideyoshi. The movies will have more meaning if you have some background in this period of Japanese history. But even if you don't, they are some damn good ninja movies that I highly recommend.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Samurai, Warfare and the State in Early Medieval Japan

This book by Karl Friday covers the period prior to the Sengoku period. What is great about this book is how it attempts to reveal what the early samurai were really like, not how they are portrayed in many modern movies or popular culture. Fridays' book overturns many of the popular stereotypes of the samurai.

There are many romantic stereotypes of the samurai such as that during battles, fighting centered on one-on-one duels; or samurai selected suitable opponents during battle by self-introduction; or the honorable treatment of captured enemy or the safety of non-combatants. The common belief that medieval samurai would do anything for their clan.

However, most of these stereotypes are not based in reality. Medieval samurai often used deception or surprise to defeat an enemy. Samurai fought not just for honor but usually for very clear rewards.

One of the biggest myths of the samurai is that the samurai sword was his primary weapon, the soul of the samurai. However, during most of samurai history, it was the bow and arrow that was the true weapon of the samurai. It is true they carried a sword but it was a back-up weapon. Similar to modern soldier whose primary weapon is a rifle but they also carry a sidearm. It was not until the 250 years of peace during Edo period under the rule of the Tokugawa shoguns where the samurai considered the sword to be their soul.

This book does an excellent job in explaining the true aspects of the medieval samurai as well as detailing some of the weapons used during that time.

(Any readers who find inaccurate historical information in this post, please correct me with references)

Monday, August 24, 2009

Another Samurai Movie Weekend

This past weekend I watched two samurai movies, Hiroshi Inagaki's Chushingura and Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood.

Chushingura movie poster

Chushingura is an account of the famous story of the 47 Ronin. A couple of weeks ago I saw another version of the 47 Ronin called Swords of Vengeance: Fall of Ako Castle. Ako Castle is a newer version released in 1978 while Chushingura was released in 1962. Both versions were very similar of course since they were retelling the same famous story. But they were also different in many ways. Chushingura spent a lot more time leading up to the event where Lord Asano of the Ako clan finally loses his cool and attempts to kill Lord Kira for his repeated insults. Whereas Ako Castle had the movie open up with Asano attacking Kira. Chushingura was more emotional and Ako Castle spent more time following the loyal ronin as they planned for two years their goal of taking Lord Kira's head. I liked both versions although Chushingura was really long. I liked how Fall of Ako Castle got right to the ronin's two years of planning and I really like the final battle scene from Fall of Ako Castle. But I also liked the emotional aspect of Chushingura and the final battle scene was impressive as well.

Throne of Blood movie poster

Throne of Blood is a famous 1957 film from Akira Kurosawa and is a film adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth. This is another impressive Kurosawa film. If you are a Kurosawa fan or just a samurai film fan, this is a must see. The film stars Toshiro Mifune as Washizu Taketoki. Washizu is somewhat less evil than Macbeth and he does not die in a duel at the end of the film. However, he meets his end in a pretty impressive scene in which he is shot dozens of times by his own archers, finally succumbing when an arrow pierces his neck. The castle exteriors were filmed on the slopes of Mt. Fuji which is also where Kurosawa later filmed Ran. This movie is often mentioned by critics as one of the best film adaptations of Macbeth.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Samurai William

A few weeks ago I completed another book, this one called Samurai William. This book follows the adventures of William Adams, the first Englishman to set foot in Japan.

Portrait of William Adams

Adams was a crewman on a small fleet of Dutch ships attempting to open trade with the Far East by sailing across the Pacific. The book follows their adventures across the oceans including their encounters with the "11 or 12 foot tall savages" at the southern tip of South America. According the these sailors of the time, the vast majority of the savages appeared to be cannibals.

Adams and a group of nearly dead survivors finally made it to Japan where they landed at a place on the Izu peninsula near present day Shizuoka. They became curiosities at first to shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. But the shogun quickly realized that Adams, the anjin or pilot, was an intelligent and skilled man.

Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu

Though not formally educated, his technical and geographic knowledge was substantial. And his ability with languages was to become a key factor in the subsequent history of Japan. William Adams, an English Protestant, eventually became the European translator for the most powerful man in Japan. He gave the Shogun new insights into the world of the Europeans (especially the ongoing war between Protestants and Catholics). Adams was so important to Ieyasu that Ieyasu even awarded him hatamoto status. Adams essentially became the equivalent of a high ranking samurai retainer to the Shogun.

But for Adams, all this was at a cost. Though given lands, honors, and a new family in Japan, the Shogun forbid William Adams from returning home to England. Adams ended up living in Japan for close to 20 years and eventually he died in Japan, never again seeing his family in England.

A couple of years after Adams’ arrival in Japan, other Englishman arrived in order to set up a trading company, which they were able to do. Adams ended up joining the English company in Hirado and the book follows much of the adventures of the company and its members.

It was an interesting book and it revealed an aspect of Japanese history that I had not read about yet, that of some of the first foreigners to visit Japan. One thing about the book, although it is a book about the life of William Adams in Japan, much of the book actually was less about him and more about the English company (factory) and its Chief Factor, Richard Cocks.

The character Blackthorne in James' Clavell's book Shogun is based on William Adams. In August, the town of Shizuoka holds a festival celebrating the event when Adams and his fellow sailors arrived in Japan near Shizuoka.

All in all it was an interesting book though and I learned more about the eventual persecutions of the Christians in Japan.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Samurai Banners - Furin Kazan

Last Sunday I watched Samurai Banners (
Furin Kazan). This movie is a samurai historical drama based on the sengoku period battle strategist Yamamoto Kansuke, a general for the great warlord Takeda Shingen. The movie stared Toshiro Mifune who played Kansuke. Furin Kazan means "wind, forest, fire and mountain" and was the battle standard of Takeda Shingen. It comes from Sun Tzu's The Art of War and essentially means "Move as swift as a wind, stay as silent as forest, attack as fierce as fire, undefeatable defense like a mountain."

The ruthless yet brilliant strategist Kansuke advises Shingen on much of his battle strategy and helps the Takeda to expand their power and control over various neighboring clans. However, the movie culminates with the famous 4th Battle of Kawanakajima against Uesugi Kenshin in which Kansuke makes a fatal error in strategy. The blunder nearly causes defeat for the Takeda. Although the Takeda were not defeated, they also failed in their long quest to crush Kenshin's armies and to march into the Uesugi territory of Echigo.

This was another good samurai movie even though there is actually relatively little samurai action. Most of the action takes place in the final battle at Kawanakajima. The movie included the famous account of Uesugi Kenshin breaking through the Takeda lines and personally attacking Takeda Shingen as Shingen sits on his camp stool. Shingen calmly thwarts Kenshin's sword attacks with his battle fan. Kenshin was unable to take Shingen's head but as Kenshin retreats, he looks back at Shingen with a smile. There is doubt among many historians as to whether this confrontation between two of the most famous samurai warlords actually took place, but it was still a cool scene nonetheless.

Monday, August 17, 2009

iPhones for the Warring States Period

If daimyo lords from the Sengoku or Warring States period of Japan carried iPhones, they probably would have carried them in these:

According to the Los Angeles Times article, in Japan, a set of the above handmade cases is being offered for the phone. Each case is covered in a special lacquer and gold dust. The most likely warlord to have carried one of these would have been Toyotomi Hideyoshi and probably the least likely would have been Uesugi Kenshin and his heir Uesugi Kagekatsu. Hideyoshi was very fond of things gold, he even had a gold tea room.

The five designs were inspired by the Sengoku period which ran from the 15th to the 17th centuries. In one of the cases you can see a faint outline of a warrior in black. Each case takes about a month to produce and comes with a booklet describing its historical context.

The cases are offered by SoftBank BB and they cost about $1,000 each.

The original article comes from the tech site CrunchGear.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Swords of Vengeance: Fall of Ako Castle

Friday night I watched Swords of Vengeance: Fall of Ako Castle (Ako-jo Danzetsu). Starring in this movie is Shinichi "Sonny" Chiba and Toshiro Mifune and was filmed in 1978. This samurai movie is about the Chushingura or Loyal 47 Ronin. The story of the 47 Ronin is probably the most famous samurai story in Japanese history. The story is supposed to be the classic example of samurai loyalty and honor. Of course the story has been sensationalized and glorified in the over 300 years since the incident.

Basically in a real simple explanation, the Lord of the Ako domain was gravely insulted by court official in the Shogun's castle. The enraged lord pulled his knife and attacked the court official but failed to kill him. It was a grave offense to pull your weapon in the Shogun's castle, especially against a shogunal official. The lord was sentenced to commit seppuku and his fief was confiscated and his loyal samurai retainers then became ronin or masterless samurai. A group of the ronin vowed vengeance on the court official who they felt was responsible. They planned for two years and finally the day came for them to act. They attacked the court official's heavily guarded compound and finally killed him. All the surviving ronin were then sentenced to commit seppuku.

And that is what this movie was about. It was an entertaining movie even though all of the intense samurai action took place at the end of the movie. During the final battle scenes I could feel myself moving my body as I really got into the fight scenes. This is the only movie I have seen based on the 47 Ronin so although there may be others that are better, this movie was pretty good.

Earlier this year I read the book called The Dog Shogun by Beatrice Bodart-Bailey which is about the life of shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi. It was during Tsunayoshi's reign that the Ako Vendetta, as it is also called, took place. This was a great book and it did a great job analyzing the 47 Ronin incident. It was very interesting how, even though the 47 Ronin are a national legend, Bailey logically explained the faults of the Lord of Ako as well as the loyal retainers. See the post for that book here.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Samurai Movie Weekend: Ran

The third movie of the Samurai Movie Weekend was Akira Kurosawa's Ran.

Ran is a classic tragedy which is fed by Shakespeare's King Lear, Noh theater and a samurai epic, all in one. The tragedy unfolds after Lord Hidetora cedes his empire to his sons. But soon this is followed by an avalanche of betrayal and bloodshed. The old lord is full of contempt for his two oldest sons who begin to turn against him. Behind both of them is the evil Lady Kaede. Lady Kaede is one psychotic, crazy (insert appropriate word here).

My favorite character is Kyoami, a girlish court jester who goads his master Lord Hidetora but is also very loyal. Kyoami has a way of seeing things clearly and he translates what he sees and understands into his silly songs and dances.

Hidetora was played by Tatsuya Nakadai, who first appeared in a Kurosawa movie in Seven Samurai. Nakadai did an incredible job as he went from the great lord to senile old man who has lost his mind. His face became more and more tortured as he descended into madness, his face becoming a real life Noh mask. The burning castle that Hidetora emerges from was a great scene and was really impressive once the castle was fully engulfed.

This was a great samurai movie weekend. I plan to watch several more next weekend. On my list is a movie about the Chushingura, the famous story of the 47 Samurai.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Samurai Movie Weekend: Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island

The second movie of the weekend was Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (Miyamoto Musashi kanketsuhen: kettō Ganryujima - 宮本武蔵完結編 決闘巌流島).

This is the last of Hiroshi Inagaki's samurai trilogy about Miyamoto Musashi and I think the best. Unlike the first two films which were a lot more action oriented, the final film shows Musashi struggling with questions as much as opponents. The most important question which is: what makes a warrior worthy of renown-strength, and the number of victories, or something more?

Victorious in 60 duels, Musashi has become known throughout Japan. His only rival is the ambitious samurai Kojiro. The two do not meet in combat until the film's final scenes but they are clearly in competition from the beginning. The difference between the two are reflected in their methods. Having proved himself in combat, Musashi seeks a way to cope with the regret that he feels over the death he has caused, while Kojiro slays and maims without any conscience. Kojiro baits Musashi by slaughtering 4 hapless samurai.

But Musashi turns his back on this life by returning to his roots of farming while Kojiro goes into the service of the Shogun. Musashi drives off a band of murderous brigands and achieves a sort of grandeur very similar to that of the heroes of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. Meanwhile, Kojiro has become famous using his sword on behalf of the Shogun and their long awaited duel is finally set and fought on a small island.

My favorite scene occurs when Musashi, interrupted from his meal by a ruffian, shocks the man into silence by showing his skill--not with his sword, but by plucking flies out of the air with his chopsticks (he got some clean chopsticks before continuing to eat of course). The final duel with Kojiro shows how Musashi has changed. Musashi chooses to fight Kojiro with a wooden staff rather then his sword.

The films do a pretty good job following the reality of Musashi's life. The real Musashi was a man of many different parts, both cruel and brutal, but also articulate and reflective. In the film he is shown creating several carvings of Amida Buddha. He was a gifted painter and writer. The real Musashi did have a vendetta against the Yoshioka school and he did injure and humble its leader Seijuro and killed Seijuro's two brothers. He defeated Kojiro Sasaki on a small island in 1612. Musashi later participated in the 1614 siege of Osaka castle against the surviving elements of the Toyotomi regime on whose side he had previously fought at Sekigahara. Later, he was also a participant in the destruction of the Christian community on the island of Kyushu. Musashi also apparently fought many of his duels with a wooden sword and after the duel of Ganryu Island, it was his only weapon. During the final years of his life he withdrew to a monk-like existence and wrote Go Rin No Sho (A Book of Five Rings), as a legacy to those who would follow him.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Samuari Movie Weekend - Samurai II: Duel at Ichimonji Temple

My family is out of town for a few weeks so I have been watching some samurai movies. Last weekend was Samurai I and Kagemusha. This weekend I finished the Samurai trilogy about Miyamoto Musashi, Samurai II and Samurai III as well as the great Kurosawa film Ran. I will write about Samurai II here.

Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (Zoku Miyamoto Musashi: Ichijōji no kettō - 続宮本武蔵一乗寺決闘)

Although the title would make it seem that this is an action film, it is more then that. Yes, there are many incredible duels, especially between Musashi and the chain-and-sickle master at the beginning is one of the more violent scenes in the trilogy, but also shows the two-sword fighting technique that Musashi mastered. Also, the attempted ambush by 80 followers of Seijiro Yoshioka is amazing.

But the movie mainly deals with Musashi's quests for spiritual enlightenment. Samurai II deals with Musashi's progress from mere warrior to samurai as well as the failures of his fellow samurai as shown by the dishonorable acts of the followers of the Yoshioka school. Throughout the movie, Musashi moves to a more thoughtful and gentler use of his sword while his samurai rivals deteriorate into undisciplined thugs and the Yoshioka school is transformed into rabble. Musashi learns from his challenges and combat while his rivals are destroyed by those same challenges. One can see Musashi's continuing transformation most vividly when he finally faces the leader of the Yoshioka. Musashi overwhelms his opponent but when the moment comes when Musashi is prepared to finish him off, he stops realizing that killing him would be wrong. Musashi leaves his defeated opponent alive.

Musashi can only reach his problems of spirit through the gauntlet of threats. He is a pilgrim in search of answers to his questions. Since this is the second installment of the trilogy, it is missing any major resolutions. But the film compensates with fierce battle scenes and incredible dueling sequences.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Samurai Battles of Kawanakajima, Nagashino & Sekigahara

I recently finished reading two books by Stephen Turnbull, a prolific author of samurai history as well as another book by the author Anthony Bryant about the famous battle of Sekigahara.

The first book was called "Kawanakajima 1553-64: Samurai Power Struggle".

The book detailed a series of five battles between two of the most famous samurai warlords in Japanese history, Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin. The book described the battles in pretty good detail laying out the tactics and strategies of both armies. One of the things I especially liked about the book were the detailed battle drawings. They were very realistic and may be fairly accurate as to how samurai battle might have looked like. One issue for me is the author's relative lack of references. Other than that it was a very interesting book.

The second book I read from this author is called "Nagashino 1575: Slaughter at the Barricades".

This book was also very interesting. This book was about the battle at Nagashino castle between the forces of the Takeda clan led by Takeda Katsuyori, Takeda Shingen's heir, and the combined forces of Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu, whose territory the Takeda invaded. This book, like the first one, provided good detail about the famous battle that eventually led to the collapse of the Takeda some years later. The book described how the Oda/Tokugawa forces utilized 3,000 gunners but many historians now feel that the real number of gunners were closer to 1,000. Whatever the real number was, the outcome was that the Takeda forces were annihilated and the survivors had to retreat back to their home province of Kai. The Takeda never again were a threat outside their borders and the clan was finally completely destroyed in 1582 by Ieyasu and Nobunaga. Once again, a lack of many references from the author is one of the issues I had.

The third samurai battle book I read was called "Sekigahara 1600: The Final Struggle for Power".

Sekigahara is the great battle between the eastern alliance led by Tokugawa Ieyasu and the Western alliance led by Ishida Mitsunari following the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi who had ruled Japan since Oda Nobunaga's death in 1582. Ieyasu was victorious which allowed him to claim the title of Shogun three years later in 1603. This book by Anthony Bryant was in a similar format to those by Turnbull. It also explained the battle and the tactics involved in great detail. One thing I thought was a little cheesy was the author's use of photos from the outdoor Sekigahara War World attraction. He admits the place is a little cheeky at the end of the book but I think the pictures are pretty goofy. See a couple pics below:

Overall this book was pretty good. The maps and diagrams of the battle were excellent. Since I think this is the most important samurai battle in Japanese history, I recommend those interested to read this book.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Samurai I:Miyamoto Musashi 宮本武蔵

Last weekend I watched Samurai I (Miyamoto Musashi 宮本武蔵) a film by Inagaki Hiroshi with Toshiro Mifune playing the character of Miyamoto Musashi, one of Japan's most famous samurai swordsman. Samurai I is the first of three and I plan to watch Samurai II and III this weekend. Samurai I was pretty entertaining. It followed the young Musashi, at that time known as Shinmen Takezo, as he fought for the losing side at the battle of Sekigahara and later how he tried to elude the authorities who were searching for him. Eventually he was befriended by a monk and taken to Himeji castle where he is locked up in a room to contemplate himself. He is eventually released and is then given the samurai name Miyamoto Musashi.

Musashi is probably most famous for his book "The Book of Five Rings" a book on strategy, tactics and philosophy that is still studied today. I have not yet read the book but I just picked it up at the Little Tokyo Library here in downtown Los Angeles. I will start reading it this weekend since I just finished reading the book called "Samurai William" which follows the adventures of William Adams, the first Englishmen in Japan who became a retainer to Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu.

I think I will also pick up Ran, another great Akira Kurosawa film that I last saw a few years ago.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Company shows off new robot suit in Tokyo

This is really cool. I can see the future when these types of suits can help a paraplegic to walk or to assist people in lifting heavy objects.


Company shows off new robot suit in Tokyo
Device equipped with sensors that read brain signals directing limbs
The Associated Press
updated 6:45 a.m. PT, Tues., Aug 4, 2009

TOKYO - Employees of a Japanese robotics company have been showing off a rehabilitation suit designed to help people with mobility problems on the streets of downtown Tokyo.

Cyberdyne said its 22 pound (10 kilogram) HAL — short for hybrid assistive limb — is equipped with sensors that read brain signals directing limb movement through the skin.

Wearing HAL, the three people took an hour-long train ride Monday from Tsukuba, north of the Japanese capital, to downtown Tokyo.

"HAL is to help people with weak leg muscles and mobility problems ... We wanted to show HAL is very useful for our daily life," said company official Takatoshi Kuno.

Belted to the waist, HAL relays brain signals to mechanical leg braces strapped to the thighs and knees, which then provide robotic assistance to people with weak limbs.

HAL comes in three sizes — small, medium and large — and has a one-leg version for a 150,000 yen ($1,570) monthly rental fee, while a two-leg unit goes for 220,000 yen ($2,300) a month. It was unclear when HAL would go on sale to the public or what the price tag will be.

The robotics company declined to say how much it cost to manufacture HAL.

Cyberdyne said the United States and some European nations have expressed interest, but it did not elaborate further.

HAL may have far-reaching benefits for the disabled and elderly. Japan is grappling with a rapidly aging society. About one-fifth of the population of 128 million is 65 or older, and that figure is expected to double in the next 30 years.

URL: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32282749/ns/technology_and_science-innovation/

Monday, August 03, 2009

August Metro Poster

Here is the August Tokyo Metro poster.

I am not sure what they are requesting people to do at the beach. Either that couple is drunk, or that man is trying to shove the lady off the platform, or he is fondling his girlfriend which she seems to enjoy. I am not sure they should be doing that at the beach either.

The couple should be more worried about the the two zombies right behind them.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha

This weekend I watched Kurosawa's samurai classic Kagemusha. Kagemusha is about the fall of the great Takeda clan at the end of the warring states period. The great clan warlord Takeda Shingen, who was feared even by Oda Nobunaga, was killed in 1573. But the clan generals fearing that their enemies Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga would take advantage of Shingen's death and attack the Takeda, decided to hide his death. They employed a double or shadow warrior which is what Kagemusha means.

It was interesting to watch this movie since I have been reading about this time period. I just finished reading the book by Stephen Turnbull about the battle of Nagashino which was the decisive battle that essentially destroyed the Takeda clan.

In the movie, the clan fooled both Nobunaga and Ieyasu by employing the double for almost three years. However, Shingen's son, Takeda Katsuyori, was impatient and tired of living in his father's shadow. Against the will of his late father and against the advice of his generals, Katsuyori marched his army into Ieyasu's domain and attacked Nagashino castle. Iyeasu and Nobunaga came to the aid of the castle with almost 40,000 soldiers, including 3,000 soldiers with matchlock firearms. The Takeda were famous for their mounted samurai but they were no match for Nobunaga's guns. The Takeda mounted samurai were annihilated. The battle of Nagashino was a turning point in samurai history where the gun completely changed how samurai warfare would be fought.

The final scenes of the movie were pretty grotesque as the extent of the slaughter was revealed. The movie is long but pretty good, especially if you like Japanese history.