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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #1 (January 3, 2006), page 17.

Sharply described swordfights highlight historical mystery

Valley of the Broken Cherry Trees

By Lensey Namioka

Tuttle Publishing, 2005

Paperback, 256 pages, $7.95

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

Ronin — independent, masterless samurai — are typically depicted in fiction as either swashbuckling cutthroats or dangerous men for hire, disgruntled castoffs from a dying class system. In fact, samurai sometimes chose to be ronin, either to escape the restrictions a master might impose on them, or to find their own way in the world. Some ronin assisted the poor or defenseless, and it is this kind of charitable masterless samurai who are the heroes of Lensey Namioka’s six-book series about Zenta and Matsuzo. Living in 16th-century Japan, a time of constantly warring states, these two ronin wander the countryside, doing good deeds and solving mysteries, employing their nimble brains as often as their sharp and deadly swords.

Valley of the Broken Cherry Trees is the third book in Namioka’s series for middle readers, and it centers around Zenta and Matsuzo’s springtime visit to a valley renowned for its grove of beautiful cherry trees. They arrive to find two powerful warlords in the area, causing no small amount of tension among the innkeeper’s family. Additionally, someone has been brutally hacking off the limbs of the cherry trees, a senseless act that inspires the two ronin to find the perpetrator, in the process becoming involved in the backstabbing politics of feudal Japan.

Zenta is the older of the two ronin, serving both as mentor and stabilizing force to the hotheaded Matsuzo. Zenta, a ronin for the good part of a decade, agreed to take on Matsuzo as a pupil when the younger samurai’s master was killed. Before taking on his pupil, however, Zenta had saved the life of the innkeeper in the valley of the cherry trees, driving back some looting soldiers who were on the verge of slaughtering the innkeeper and his family. While Zenta’s good deed is remembered, the presence of Lord Ohmori means that there is no room at the inn for them. Zenta and Matsuzo are therefore invited to stay in the inn’s teahouse, which is currently occupied by the artist Bunkei and another samurai, the mysterious Gonzaemon, a relative of the innkeeper’s current wife.

After Zenta promises to get to the bottom of the vandal who is mutilating the valley’s beautiful cherry trees, he learns that a rival warlord, Lord Kawai, is staying at a temple nearby and evidently negotiating an alliance with Lord Ohmori. This points to a larger political plot afoot and further adds to the excitement and intrigue in the small valley. When Zenta unwittingly agrees to teach swordsmanship to Lord Kawai’s only son, he is quickly embroiled in the machinations between the two families, and finds that the broken cherry trees are not the only mysterious happenings in the area.

Densely packed with both historical detail and rich, colorful description, Valley of the Broken Cherry Trees is an informative and convoluted mystery story that may escape some of the younger readers who will be drawn to it. Namioka is to be commended for aiming high with her prose, but many ten-year-olds may find the vocabulary and complex storyline to be tough going. There is sufficient action and suspense to retain their interest, how- ever, and any efforts they make will be richly rewarded.

Namioka’s vision of 16th-century Japan is starkly realistic, and readers will learn about everything from feudal Japanese history to the procedure for hara-kiri, the samurai’s honorable suicide ceremony. Zenta’s passion for finding the party responsible for the demolished cherry trees, for example, reveals the reverence in which the aesthetic value of these trees is held. It is hard to imagine a contemporary hero embarking on a mission for such intangible reasons.

But the realism Namioka creates has its downside, too. She does not gloss over the swordfighting details, and young martial arts aficionados will enjoy reading her battle scenes. But squeamish children (and their parents) may find these descriptions to be a bit too much for their tastes. This is no brutal bloodbath, and Namioka does not offer eviscerating details, but children unprepared for such levels of violence might wish to direct their attention to lighter fare.

Thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish, and sophisticated enough for adults as well as middle readers, The Valley of the Broken Cherry Trees should provide a refreshing change of pace for children tired of the same old chapter books. Originally published in 1980, the book is now back in print, and should prove a valuable addition to libraries at home or school. With writing that dazzles and a plot packed with subtle twists, Namioka’s book is sure to draw young samurai fans into the realistic, edifying, and entertaining world of the good-hearted ronin, Zenta and Matsuzo.

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