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From The Asian Reporter, V17, #13 (March 27, 2007), page 16.
The Bamboo Sword is no blunt instrument
The Bamboo Sword and Other Samurai Tales
By Shuhei Fujisawa
Kodansha International, 2006
Hardcover, 254 pages, $22.00
By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter
The period in which Japanese artists set their historical dramas will tell you much about the themes of these dramas. Filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, for example, favored the Sengoku period, the turbulent times before the Tokugawa shogunate unified Japan. As a result, his films are typically swashbuckling affairs highlighting traditional Japanese martial values of courage, loyalty, and honor. Writer Shuhei Fujisawa, along with his cinematic cousin Yoji Yamada, sets his stories in the Tokugawa period, when widespread civil war had ceased and most samurai turned their hands towards non-martial activities. Fujisawa’s stories therefore question the very same values that artists such as Kurosawa celebrate; his characters tend towards melancholy and are torn between their emotions and their sense of duty.
Fujisawa’s The Bamboo Sword fits in perfectly with this dichotomy, exploring various permutations of the ninjo-giri (emotion vs. duty) conflict, although the stories are far less martial than the subtitle might indicate. These are samurai tales, to be sure, but the samurai are more often craftsmen than assassins. When they are the latter, more likely than not they will change for the better or suffer the consequences. Fujisawa is less interested in the well-trodden territory of what a samurai does on the battlefield than in what the samurai does when he leaves the battlefield, or when the battlefield is no more.
If you liked Yoji Yamada’s brooding films The Twilight Samurai (2002) and The Hidden Blade (2004), you will love this book, as Fujisawa’s work inspired those movies. The title story was a strong influence on The Hidden Blade, even as it shares its central image with Masaki Kobayashi’s masterful antiestablishment film Harakiri (1962). The other stories in The Bamboo Sword show a similar stance towards samurai culture, questioning the value of mindless commitment to duty, and elevating family above the needs of the clan. When Fujisawa’s samurai kill, it is often reluctantly and because they have no other choice; they are soldiers out of context, and even their central purpose — killing — is no longer a straightforward decision.
"Shinza, The Samurai" is an excellent example of a samurai out of his element, the warrior come home from battle to a world he no longer knows. Shinza was a highly respected swordsman, but is now a lowly chief guard of his clan’s battle standard, a largely ceremonial position. His gruff manner is completely out of step with the subtle machinations required in the new Tokugawa Era, and his eligible daughter remains unmarried because of Shinza’s confrontational reputation. When a neighbor woos his daughter, Shinza initially despises the man’s non-martial, disrespectful attitude, but soon learns the importance of his future son-in-law’s political savvy.
In "Kozuru," the samurai of the story’s title sees echoes of his warrior past in an amnesiac girl he finds in the city one day, and when he attempts to adopt her, those painful memories come flooding back. Kakichi, the burglar in "A Passing Shower," is also pursued by his own shameful past, but both Kakichi and Kozuru turn towards virtue as a result. For all the melancholy in Fujisawa’s characters, their humanity is most important, and one is left feeling uplifted, although in a decidedly unsentimental way. Even in "All For a Melon," the emergence of class snobbery and disregard comes across as comedy and not melodrama.
That’s not to say that The Bamboo Sword is a feel-good, happy-ending, Disneyfied version of life in the Tokugawa Period. There are tragic downturns and thwarted plans, but what one feels the most upon finishing this collection is the triumph of the human spirit, even when set against the unflinching and callous bureaucracy or the fickle finger of fate. Like many postwar Japanese artists, Fujisawa sees far more importance in individual choice than in blind obedience, and elevates the emotional ties to one’s family far above the dutiful ties to clan and society.
Gavin Frew’s translation is letter-perfect, and Fujisawa makes even those who aren’t familiar with the subtleties of Japanese culture feel at home in his world. Brief explanations of unfamiliar concepts are artfully couched within the narrative, never feeling like exposition, but informing the reader nonetheless. Lovers of samurai culture and film should put this on their reading list immediately, although it will also appeal to anyone interested in the real human conflicts inherent in life in Tokugawa Japan. Though its title refers to a blunt substitute for a real sword, this collection cuts as deeply as a finely honed katana.