Samurai Shakespeare: Extract

SAMURAI SHAKESPEARE: Early Modern Tragedy in Feudal Japan

Graham Holderness


Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1

The Samurai . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3

Narrow Road to the Deep North . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11

You Only Live Twice . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12

The Last Samurai . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20

Tales from Shakespeare . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25

Shakespeare into Japan . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 28

Samurai Shakespeare . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 31

Chapter One: Hamlet . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 33

Hamlet in Japan . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 33

Hamlet and the 47 Ronin . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 36

47 Ronin . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 48

Yukio Ninagawa’s Hamlets . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 50

Hamlet and Revenge . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 54

Samurai Hamlet: Castle of Flames . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 65

Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 72

Chapter Two: Macbeth . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 75

Samurai Macbeth: Throne of Blood . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 75

Macbeth and History . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 97

NINAGAWA Macbeth . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 103

Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 112

Chapter Three: King Lear . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 115

Samurai King Lear: Ran . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 115

King Lear . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 135

Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 148

Afterword: Door in the Wall . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 153

The Door in the Wall . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 154

Floating World . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 156

Swords . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 158

‘Sato’s Sword’ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 160

Fragments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 162

Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 163



‘Almost any liar writes more convincingly than the man who was there’.

– Ernest Hemingway, Across the River and Into the Trees

Think of this book as the work of an amateur. In its pejorative sense of course the term means unqualified, less than professional, only partially equipped for the task in hand. No-one would, I hope, dispute my qualification for writing another book about Shakespeare. But Japan? I have never visited the country. I do not speak or read Japanese. My knowledge of the history, the society, the culture is virtual: derived entirely from books, photographs, films, pictures, maps, art-objects, music, dance, drama, acquaintance with expatriate Japanese people. But it is the work of an amateur in the literal and best sense: a lover, a devotee, an enthusiast. It is the product of a long and varied love-affair with a distant, still in many ways remote, complex, difficult and intimidating culture.

Shakespeare too wrote about many countries, peoples, histories, on the basis of available contemporary knowledge, from the insularity of his island home. When he wrote of France, Spain, Italy, Greece, even perhaps the New World, he drew his knowledge from books, art-objects, maps, music, dance, expatriate people. For him it was enough. When some years ago I wrote about Shakespeare and Venice (Holderness 2010), it was from what I felt was, sociologically and culturally, a superior position: he never went there, where I had visited many times, spent much time there, had some access to the language, and had at my disposal a much longer and wider history of the city. Setting aside Shakespeare’s awe-inspiring, intuitive, disabling and demoralising genius, I convinced myself I had an advantage.

But in the end, the Venice that I found myself compelled to write about was not, after all, the Venice you can reach by EasyJet, or the A57, or the night-train from Cannes; not the Venice of the romantic weekend, the academic conference, the guided tour; but the Venice of Shakespeare’s imagination – something that only exists on paper, on the stage, on the screen, in books, and films, and voices, and bodies. The Japan that appears in the following pages is equally an imaginative construct, a figment of my own imagination, a fantasy if you prefer, derived from texts and images, dispossessed objects and diasporic people. It is an ukiyo, a virtual, ‘floating’ world (see Michener 1989).

Like most academics of my generation, before starting work as a lecturer I had no professional training, beyond a literary education and instruction in scholarly methods. As I had fallen under the spell of the formidable F.R. Leavis, even the latter seemed scarcely necessary. Nor was there anything like in-service training for university teachers. In order to assess my pedagogic abilities my Head of Department sat in on my first lecture. His only feedback was to advise me to read quotations more slowly. This was sound advice I have always followed, but hardly amounted to teacher-training. In another context he did, on the other hand, impart an exhortation that stuck with me – though at the time I regarded it with derision and not a little scorn – and that was that, in the end, all a teacher of literature can do is ‘communicate enthusiasm’. Looking back over a long career, with its inevitable mixture of failure and success, I find myself inclined to agree with him. As the title suggests, this book is about two discrete objects of enthusiasm which at some point became, in my mind, inseparably twinned: the samurai of Japan, and Shakespeare. To ‘communicate enthusiasm’  for examples of their convergence in 20th century film and stage productions is the principal objective of this book.

Of course no-one, at least until the invention of time-travel, can access the Japan of the samurai, the warrior caste who dominated the history, politics and culture of the country for at least six centuries. Not only is that world a thing of the very remote past, as far back as Angevin England: in one sense it always was, since the literary, historical and visual sources from which its history is derived tend, much like Shakespeare’s history plays, to be already retrospective, nostalgic celebrations of an already vanished world. My subject area is in any case much more limited, since it concerns literary, cinematic and theatrical convergences between the samurai and Shakespeare, who was unknown in Japan before the late 19th century. Much of the material in this book is selectively addressed to the work of two great Japanese directors, one in theatre and the other in film – Akira Kurosawa and Yukio Ninagawa – since my interest here is only in cinematic and theatrical adaptations that situate Shakespeare’s plays within the samurai era of Japanese history. Even within that restricted compass the book is highly selective, focusing only on three of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear. The book is nothing like an exhaustive study, or a comprehensive introduction to any of the areas and topics touched upon. I have addressed only those texts that most conveniently conform to my interests, and ignored everything else. I have used scholarship and criticism in a similarly predatory way, insofar as they serves my purposes, leaning heavily on a few writers who seem to me to have contributed most usefully to this field.

Perhaps the best way of characterising this book is to describe it as an essay: opinionated, idiosyncratic, individual, opportunistic. I have made little use of theoretical paradigms, or of specialised, technical methodologies, especially those that tend to be prevalent in film criticism. The predominant ‘intertextual’ method deployed, which I have practised extensively elsewhere, is derived from adaptation studies, though here used in a naïve and unsophisticated way. Each film or theatrical production is a of course a version of a Shakespearean text, but I have also taken account where possible of intervening texts such as screenplays that mediate between source and final composition. The critical methods deployed are relatively informal, impressionistic, reminiscent of the now antiquarian ‘practical criticism’ in which I was trained over half a century ago.  Each chapter includes a substantial essay on the Shakespeare tragedy under consideration, focusing on one theme relevant to the examples discussed: revenge in Hamlet, history in Macbeth; religion in King Lear.

The following Introduction sets out to tell the story of one man’s relationship with Japan, of the twisted and seemingly random circumstances that lie behind the writing of this book. But in order to clarify the field of exploration, it is first necessary to sketch a brief history of the samurai.

The Samurai

The history of the samurai is the history of Japan, at least from the 13th century up to 1868, and this section makes no pretensions toward comprehensiveness, but is rather a highly selective sketch of the main outlines of Japanese history during that period, concentrating on particularities only of relevance to the dramatic and cinematic works discussed below.

The samurai were of course the warrior caste of mediaeval Japan, a class of mounted soldiers initially serving the Emperor, which subsequently rose to power as retainers of feudal lords (the ‘daimyo’), as well as the military guard of the imperial court, and eventually established an entirely new political order that dominated Japan from 1603 to 1867. They began as tribal warriors, in the background during the zenith of imperial power in the Nara period (650-793), and then grew to dominate the state the emperors had shaped and formed. Eventually their military function merged with the requirements of the body politic. (see Friday 1992). Groups and individuals recognisable as samurai first emerge around the 8th century, as mounted archers whose military skills were harnessed to wage war on behalf of the emperor or a great landowner

The word ‘samurai’ starts to be used between the 9th and 11th centuries, meaning ‘those who serve’. The samurai are then prominent across six centuries of war, followed by three centuries of peace in which their military function gives way to the role of administrator and peacekeeper. This latter period, 1603-1868, when the state was rukled by, but no longer needed, belligerent clan warriors, is where the romantic image of the samurai, and the samurai code of ‘bushido’, a way of life based around values of physical courage, moral integrity, mental fortitude and unimpeachable loyalty, are fully developed. Here samurai history was recorded and performed in literature, theatre and the fine arts: in the stylised Noh drama, the more popular kabuki theatre, and in woodblock prints.

Groups and individuals recognisable as samurai first emerge around the 8th century, as mounted archers whose military skills were harnessed to wage war. The earliest written source, the historical chronicle Konjaku Monagatori (‘Anthology of Tales from the Past’), compiled in the late 11th or early 12th century, already describes the conduct of highly ritualized warfare between groups motivated by values of honour, loyalty and the demonstration of martial skill, particularly in archery.

During the Heian period (794–1185) Japan was ruled by a succession of emperors in a polity modelled on the Chinese state. National politics were dominated by the powerful Fujiwara clan, who maintained influence by imperial intermarriage and by monopolising positions of authority.  As the samurai class rose in power through the 11th century the Fujiwara gradually lost control, to be replaced by the Taira clan who following the Gempei war (1180-5) dominated the early part of the Kamakura period (1185-1333), but eventually lost power to the rival Minamoto clan. Minamoto no Yoritomo established the Kamakura shogunate in 1195, thus placing the samurai at the apex of power, a system that was to last for 800 years. (see Piggott 1997). The shogun was a military dictator, nominally appointed by the emperor and ruling on his behalf, but in practice acting as de facto ruler of the country from his power base in Kamakura, while the emperor presided from the capital Kyoto. The samurai had taken control of Japan, and formally established the samurai feudal system in which the daimyo, the landowners, were subject to the shogun.

Yoritomo remained resolutely in Kamakura where he found himself in possession of a unique organisation that was capable of assuming all the functions of government. This organisation was the samurai feudal system which clans like the Minamoto had used for many years. Yoritomo was to apply it to the whole nation. His most decisive step was to have himself proclaimed shogun in 1192. The shogun commission to go forth and make war on the emperor’s enemies before always had been a temporary one, but the commission that Yoritomo received in 1192 was to be finally handed back to the Japanese emperor in 1868 … the samurai had triumphed. (Turnbull 1982, 36).

The primary literary source for the Kamukura period is The Tale of the Heike, which chronicles the rise and fall of the Taira clan. This epic poem is a long moralizing Buddhist parable, in which the Taira are seen as doomed because of their evil deeds. Their leader Taira no Kiyomori is depicted as a villain, not unlike Shakespeare’s Macbeth, haunted by his own karma. A famous mid-19th century woodcut by Ando Hiroshige, ‘The Spectral Vision of Kaira no Kiyomori’, shows the warlord, clasping his sword, seeing the skulls of those he has killed emerging from the heaped snowdrifts of his garden. The Tale of the Heike begins:

The arrogant do not long endure:

They are like a dream one night in spring.

The bold and the brave perish in the end:

They are as dust before the wind. (Tyler 2014, 3)

– and ends with a petition to Amitaba Buddha, deity of the ‘Pure Land’ (see Chapter Three below for a discussion of Pure Land Buddhism). At the same time the eclipse of the Taira is mourned, in a nostalgic lament for the extinguishing of a heroic way of life. This mixture of moralistic critique and nostalgic commemoration is typical of samurai literature, and feeds into the modern examples discussed below. (see Farris 1995).

The Kamakura period saw a balance of power between emperor and samurai. Kyoto remained the cultural centre of the nation, the seat of the emperor and the nobility while Kamakura, the base of the shogun, formed the apex of the feudal hierarchy in the samurai homelands. Here over time an alternative culture also emerged. Kamakura saw the emergence of a new religious centre, as the Minamoto established the worship of their clan war-god Hachiman, a Shinto god of war, at the shrine of Surugaoka, which became a centre of religious pilgrimage (see below, Chapter Three for a discussion of Hachiman). When Kublai Khan’s Mongols launched their second invasion of Japan in 1281, the samurai, ‘the sons of Hachiman’ took to the battlefield, while in Kyoto an imperial envoy was sent to the Great Shrine of Ise in Kyoto to petition the Sun Goddess to destroy the enemy. Their joint efforts clearly worked, when a violent tornado destroyed the Mongol fleet. The victorious samurai named the storm the kami-kaze or ‘divine wind’, a term that came to haunt later Japanese history.

During the 13th century the samurai came under the influence of Zen Buddhism, the meditative sect that encouraged personal enlightenment and rejected the scholasticism of Buddhist monastic sects. Rigorous military training merged with strict spiritual discipline, producing an enlightenment that would enable the samurai to be in the world but apart from it, free from attachment and anxiety, ready to risk everything in combat, prepared even for death. Unlike previous more monastic and contemplative sects. The Buddhist tendencies that emerged during the Kamakura and Ashikaga periods preached the certainty of salvation and its potential availability to all (Kitagawa 1966, 111). Pure Land, Nichiren and Zen Buddhism placed a pragmatic and practical emphasis on this world rather than the next. ‘Zen Buddhism so identifies the transcendent with the immanent, the “other shore” with “this shore”, that there is no reason for people to raise their vision above the level of this empirical world’ (McMullan 1984, 280-1). The Zen disciple, writes Dumoulin, ‘does not seek the absolute outside himself … he finds in himself the Buddha-nature as the foundation of his own being’ (Dumoulin 1963, 167). Enlightenment is to be found by penetrating the delusions that mask the truly impermanent nature of corporal reality and the material world. ‘To Zen the enlightened mind is the truly natural mind, the mind allows to be itself apart from all delusion and desire. It is awakened in meditation but is ultimately demonstrated in all arenas of life: work, caring for others, artistic creativity’ (Ellwood and Pilgrim 1985, 119). Dumoulin speaks of enlightenment as a state of ‘motionless rest, where no wind blows, the fire is quenched, the light is extinguished, the stars have set, and the saint has died’, and admits that such words and images suggest annihilation. (Dumoulin 1963, 14). In fact, this state of liberation from suffering and the cycle of rebirths ‘furnishes the basis for a supreme wisdom and a commitment to the world’ (Dumoulin 1963, 25). This insight is exemplified in Musashi: ‘When your spirit is not in the least clouded, when the clouds of bewilderment clear away, there is the true void … Know well this spirit, act with forthrightness as the foundation and the true spirit of the Way’. (Musashi 1987, 95). While other Pure Land Buddhism and the Nichiren school were more widely adopted in Japan, Zen provided the samurai with exactly the religion they needed for their occupation. (See below Chapter Two for further discussion of Zen).

The next period (1338-1573) is known alternately as the Ashikaga period, from the name of the ruling clan (a branch of the Minamoto) which suppressed an attempted coup by the emperor and captured Kyoto, or the Muromachi period after the district of Kyoto from which the Ashikaga ruled. In a series of wars, the struggle for power between the samurai and forces loyal to the emperor Go-Daigo concluded in uncontested samurai supremacy. It was at this time that an increase in hand to hand fighting in wooded country saw the emergence of the sword, rather than the bow, as the premier samurai weapon, the long no-dachi (tachi) replacing the long-bladed naginata. Gradually the sword became the defining samurai weapon both functionally and symbolically, eventually becoming a badge of rank when only the samurai were permitted to wear two swords, the longer blade katana, and the shorter wakizashi. The third category of blade, the short tanto, was in much more common use, though employed ceremonially in the practice of ritual suicide or seppuku (commonly known by the crude term hara-kiri, ‘belly-cutting’), which is recorded from as far back as the 12th century as a means for a defeated samurai to avoid shame and dishonour. The Tale of the Heike describes for example the suicide of Yorimasa Minamoto, who on his defeat by the Taira composed a farewell poem, written on the back of a fan, then cut two long slits in his abdomen, the most painful form of death imaginable.

This period witnessed a cultural revival: it saw the building of the Golden Pavilion in 1397, the elevation of the tea ceremony from a small gathering of friends to an art form of the utmost elegance; the development of suiboku ink-painting; the establishment of the famous Daisen-in Zen garden in 1473. The classical Noh drama theatre also developed in this time, much patronized by samurai. Noh took its subjects from samurai legend, in particular the heroes of the Gempei War. Noh enacted stories of heroic battles and tragic deaths, hauntings by ghosts, uplifting tales of self-sacrificing retainers. All these art-forms show the influence of Zen Buddhism.

From 1490 we now enter the Sengoku, the ‘Age of the Country at War’ which overlaps with the Muromachi period, provides the setting for most of the examples discussed in this book, lasted for over a hundred years, and ended in the unification of Japan under Tokugawa Ieyasu. (See Turnbull 1997). The daimyo had become powerful local leaders, constantly jockeying for position and power, and both the emperor and the shogun proved powerless to control this chaos of social upheavals. 

Japan entered one of its periodic purges of noble houses: once-great names sank with the declining fortunes of their families, and entire clans were wiped out. The emperor, of course was powerless to intervene and the shogun unable to fulfil the conditions of his title. The country would not stabilize again until a single individual could gather together all the fragmented clans of domains and unite them all, thereby allowing for the proclamation of a new shogunate. The rise of such an individual would take a century, as the small clans fought and merged to from bigger clan, until eventually all Japan was split into only a handful of rival factions, fighting to determine who was the ruler. (Clements 2010, 169).

During the Sengoku period the nature of samurai warfare changed with the widespread adoption of firearms. The first guns, the matchlock arquebus, were acquired from trade with the Portuguese in the 1540s on the island of Tanegashima. Despite resistance from more conservative samurai, who thought them a passing fad and inferior to the bow, they were soon adopted by samurai armies. The Japanese were not unfamiliar with gunpowder, but the deployment of a portable arquebus was an innovation. The weapons were named tanegashima after the site of their initial ‘discovery’. In warfare the centrality of the skilled bowman or swordsman inevitably declined in favour of large numbers of infantry armed with muskets. One of the warlords involved in the civil strife of the 16th century, Takeda Shingen, acquired large supplies of the arqebus, and in 1575 declared the musket ‘the most important weapon’ for the samurai:

Hereafter, guns will be the most important weapons. Therefore, decrease the number of spears, and have the most capable men carry guns. Furthermore, when you assemble your soldiers, test their marksmanship and order that a selection of gunners be in accordance with the results. (Quoted Clements 2010, 172).

Armour was developed and tested in this period to withstand the impact of a musket ball. Ironically Shingen fell victim to a sniper and was killed, an incident dramatized by Kurosawa in Kagemusha. Kurosawa often used the sudden startling death of a shot samurai to dramatic effect, for example in The Seven Samurai, and not least in Ran, where sieges and pitched battles often involve massed volleys of musket fire, and where the young hero, the Cordelia figure, is killed by a sniper.

Shingen was one of the great daimyo whose military adventures helped to bring about a unified Japan. Shingen’s life is a classic story of the Sengoku period: an accomplished poet in his youth, he rebelled against his father to take control of his clan. In a battle with his rival Uesugi Kenshin, Shinghen is reputed to have engaged his rival defending himself only with a fan. He entered into an alliance with Oda Nobunaga, who later joined with Tokugawa Ieyasu to fight against Shingen. Encouraged by the Ashikaga shogun, Shingen took Kyoto and brought the Muromachi period to an end. The next period is known as the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1574-1600) named after the castles of Nobunaga and his successor Hideyoshi, who dominated Japanese politics from 1568 to 1603. Hideyoshi took the reins of power not as shogun, but as imperial regent (kampaku) with power donated from the emperor, becoming ‘military master of all Japan’ (Clements 2010, 180).

Tokugawa Ieyasu, the third of Japan’s ‘Great Unifiers’ along with Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, defeated all rivals at the Battle of Sekighara in 1600, and became supreme military ruler of all Japan. He consolidated the feudal system by distributing land to his supporters; enemy leaders were executed or forced to commit suicide; the populace was disarmed; and he died in 1616, the same year as Shakespeare, having established a political order that lasted until the Meiji Restoration of 1868.  The samurai became hegemonic by removing the primary reason for their existence, as warriors required to defend the emperor, the daimyo or the nation.

During the long Tokugawa shogunate Japan remained relatively, though never completely, closed to the outside world, and it was here that the romantic culture of the samurai legend was fully developed. The great classics of Bushido, the samurai warrior code, were composed in this period: Minamoto Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings (Musashi 1974), written around 1643; and Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure, written in the 18th century. The perception that the great age of the samurai had long since vanished before their power was finally assured permeates the era. When the poet Basho on his journey to the north came across the ruins of Takadachi Fort, where Yoshitsune, half-brother to Yoritomo, and his Minamoto followers had made their last stand in 1189, he was moved to write an elegy for a longed-for, impossibly vanished past:

The summer grasses

As if the warriors were a dream.

(Basho quoted Clements 2010, 253).

This romantic mood of melancholy, nostalgic contemplation, which characterises much of the modern samurai fiction discussed below, can here be found eloquently articulated as far back as the 17th century. Nonetheless the samurai government of the Tokugawas remained in place until his mid-19th century, when a new Japan, stimulated by internal discontents and external opportunities, brought together an alliance of samurai powerful enough to overthrow the shogunate and restore the empire. The Emperor left Kyoto and moved to Edo, now renamed ‘Tokyo’. The old feudal dominions were abolished, their lords re-titled along the lines of European nobility. By 1873 the Meiji government had established a new army, so the samurai warrior elite were no longer needed. The distinctive dress of the samurai began to disappear and was eventually outlawed, along with the top-knot and their right to bear two swords and to execute non-samurai who offended them. In 1877 the government removed the rice stipend from samurai, depriving them of their centuries-old assured income. In the course of few years the samurai class that had dominated Japan had been abolished. The last gasp of their indomitable spirit was the Satsuma rebellion of Saigo Takamori, who led some 20,000 followers in a provincial revolt. The new imperial army defeated the rebels, and Saigo either committed suicide or died from a bullet wound. For avoidance of doubt a retainer decapitated him, so as to provide proof of the obligatory honourable death.

Traditional Japanese culture became an object of great admiration for the West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1900 the Japanese lecturer Nitobe Inazo wrote, in English, a book called Bushido: The Soul of Japan, codifying the ‘way of the warrior’ for subsequent generations:

This ethical and spiritual legacy we call Bushido, which literally signifies Fighting-Knight-Ways, or better translated, Teachings of Knightly Behaviour. It was the moral code of the samurai – the class of knights whose badge and privilege it was to wear two swords. Do not imagine that they were only swaggering, bloodthirsty youths. The sword was called the soul of the samurai. (Quoted Clements 2010, 300).

In the West this idealized image of the samurai as kindred to the knights of chivalric romance, or as enlightened Renaissance men, quickly caught on. H.G. Wells in his 1905 novel A Modern Utopia called his enlightened rulers ‘samurai’. Within Japan itself this survival became a dangerous legacy: embarked on a war with America in 1941, Japan called on its entire people to embrace the spirit of the samurai, to sacrifice themselves in battle, to never accept defeat and never plan for retreat. People were told to advance to battle in the conviction that they were already dead, following Musashi – ‘the Way of the warrior is resolute acceptance  of death’ (Musashi 1974, 38) – and the Hagakure – ‘by the Way of the warrior is meant death … this means choosing death whenever there is a choice between life and death’ (Tsunetome 1979, 17). The Shinpu Tokubetsu Kagekitai (‘Divine Wind Special Attack Unit’) pilots who were instructed to fly their planes into US battleships were awarded, by a code-switch between Chinese and Japanese readings of the character, the title kamikaze, recalling the divine wind that fought off the Mongol invasion. In the Pacific the US confronted an enemy that simply refused to retreat or surrender, a position resolved only by the use of atomic weapons. Emperor Hirohito addressed his people with the command to ‘endure the unendurable’ and lay down their arms. In his famous speech ‘the Declaration of Humanity’ he renounced his ancestral claim to be a child of the Sun Goddess and revealed himself to be no more than a man. Offensive warfare was renounced and Japan disarmed.

Naturally attitudes to the samurai were quickly and abruptly revised. The US War Department circulated a propaganda film Know Your Enemy: Japan (1945), which connected the officer class of the wartime military to the mediaeval samurai, particularly focusing on the symbolism of the sword. The samurai were denounced as an idle ruling class, distinguished by their right to carry swords and summarily execute commoners. Bushido was regarded as a code of absolute obedience to superiors, and an irrational commitment to victory at any cost. Thus the sword of the samurai was the symbol, it was argued, that more than anything else had prevented Japan from embracing the modern world.

Narrow Road to the Deep North (Basho 1966)

The preceding sketch of samurai history is of course the product of academic study, though I emphasise again that this is not a work of history or of oriental scholarship. My personal relationship with Japan has a much longer history, and it is time now to recover some of that story. As a boy growing up in the northern city of Leeds in the 1950s and 1960s, I naturally read war comics, and later watched war films, including classics like Bridge on the River Kwai, and later American films about the War in the Pacific, The Halls of Montezuma or From Here to Eternity. The Japanese were the enemy, in the same category as the Nazis: a violent, militaristic nation, cruel and sadistic, implacably dedicated to the humiliation and destruction of their foes, utterly indifferent to the rules of conventional warfare. To me Japan was Alec Guinness sweating in solitary confinement; khaki uniforms and the distinctive peaked forage caps; officers carrying swords that were not ceremonial but anachronistically deployed as weapons; the guttural barking of orders; bombs falling on the fleet in Pearl Harbour; kamikaze pilots sending their planes hurtling downwards towards the deck of a US battleship. At the same time, of course, one could not but reserve some admiration for that exotic, implacable enemy. After all, the qualities they exhibited – courage, love of country, devotion to duty – were the same virtues we were taught to respect and value. Although I don’t recall coming across the word ‘samurai’, I remember being fascinated by the distinctive form of the Japanese sword, the apparently clumsy way it was worn slung from the belt, contrasted with the ease with which it would be whipped from its scabbard and put to deadly use.

This conventional exposure to post-war stereotypes then collided, in the most extreme fashion, in a starkly contrasting encounter. Around the age of fourteen I was recruited into the nascent Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), went on marches, and attending meetings screening documentary films that showed the aftermath of the atomic bomb detonations over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Suddenly the image of the Japanese people as arrogant, cruel and violent was abruptly replaced by the image of a people terribly subdued and defeated by what was presented as the worse atrocity ever visited by human beings upon their fellows. Although today I hold a more nuanced view of this event, and indeed of the role of nuclear deterrents in maintaining world peace, I’ve been haunted all my life by those grainy monochrome images of destruction and devastation, terrible injury and agonising death, lingering sickness and crippling mutation. Japan the aggressor became Japan the victim; fear and loathing was replaced by compassion and pity. As we shall see, that ambivalent image of a nation as both distributor and victim of excessive violence lies at the heart of the work of Akira Kurosawa.

The earlier impressions did not of course disappear overnight: I was never thoroughly brainwashed by doctrines such as unilateral disarmament. As we entered the 1960s, a grudging respect for the heroism and dedication of the Japanese military fed into a widely-shared admiration for a nation that could recover so quickly and so comprehensively from so devastating a defeat. Japan presented itself to the world as a mass of contradictions, at a time when I believed ‘contradiction’ to be, in the Marxist sense, the great driver of history. Here was an ultra-modern society, capable of staggering industrial development, leading the world in technological innovation and design, and yet everywhere permeated by what seemed an impossibly remote past of temples and castles, geishas and samurai, kimonos and cherry-blossom. It took me a while to appreciate that such cultural duality has been endemic to the Japanese experience of history from the Meiji restoration onwards, and remains so today.

You Only Live Twice

The next exposure to an influential version of Japan remains in my memory as the film of Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice, which came out in 1967. Already a Bond fan, having read the early novels in the 1960s, in an encounter I have described elsewhere (Holderness 2018). I was also an early enthusiast for the film versions, which I had already seen in cinemas between 1962 and 1965, and which were quickly becoming the defining interpretations of Bond for my generation as well as those of a later period. 

Whereas most Bond films involve location filming in several different countries, You Only Live Twice is singularly focused on Japan. Toho Studios, the producer of the great Akira Kurosawa films that dominate this study, provided sound stages, personnel and the female Japanese stars. The film richly represents a diverse range of Japanese locations, encompassing different facets of society, the present and the past, city and country, urban and rural. Early scenes show the famous Ginza district of Tokyo, at once brilliantly neon-lit and seedy. Bond’s first assignation takes place at a sumo wrestling match, conducted in the now-demolished sumo hall, the Kuramae Kokugikan. The sequence includes a cameo performance by an actual Sumo wrestler, Sadanoyama Shinmatsu, who meets Bond in the sumo training stable. The film shows a tournament in process, beginning with centuries-old rituals derived from Shinto, the ancient native Japanese religion. They include the wrestlers performing the shiko, or ‘sumo stamp’, intended to scare off demons, and the purification ritual known as shiomaki, the scattering of salt, while the referee, wearing the robes of a Shinto priest, is seen intoning ancient prayers. This was certainly very different from the all-in wrestling matches that were obligatory TV viewing at home. None of this topographical detail is relevant to the action of the film, and is there only to deepen the spectator’s immersion in Japanese tradition.

Ultra-modern industrial Japan is represented by the headquarters of ‘Osato Chemicals’, using Tokyo’s New Otani Hotel, and by the Port of Kobe in Osaka. The modern buildings are decorated internally with objects from the feudal past, samurai armour and weapons, displayed in museum-quality exhibits, as well as impressive pieces of modernist fine art. Bond’s associate Henderson, a long-term resident and partly Japanized, lives in a traditional Japanese house with sliding shoji paper partitions: he is also surrounded by beautiful artefacts displayed in an unfamiliar minimalist style. An intriguing sequence in which the newly-Japanized Bond fakes his marriage to ‘Kissy Suzuki’, shows an elaborate wedding ceremony conducted in a Shinto shrine. This was filmed in Nachi, in the south of Honshu, not far from the old capital of Nara, with some accuracy of detail, notwithstanding the grotesque anomaly of Bond’s ‘transformation’ into Japanese. Tiger Tanaka’s ninja training camp is housed in and around the magnificent 16th century Himeji Castle, and the coast of the Satsuma Peninsula, in southern Kyushu, was used to film the sequences involving the Ama (‘sea-women’) divers. Altogether the movie displays a sumptuous travelogue of Japanese locations, both ancient and modern, natural and metropolitan, filmed in a stunning technicolour medium.

The impact of this exposure to the fascinating complexity of Japanese culture on a young man who had never been out of England (I didn’t travel abroad until the mid-1970s) cannot be overestimated. Let me take only one example, the use of Himeji Castle. Built and remodelled over some three centuries, from 1333 to 1600, significantly expanded in 1581 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and again in the early 17th century by Ikeda Terumasa, a supporter of Tokugawa Ieyasu, Himeji (also known as ‘White Egret Castle’ or ‘White Heron Castle’ from its bird-like wings) was always an important defensive fortification. It remains one of Japan’s three premier castles, the most-visited in the country, and one of the first UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Bond approaches the castle by helicopter, so it is possible to see the whole structure, with its massive banked stone walls, the stacked wing-like towers, the extensive gardens; and also the surrounding conurbation that incongruously embraces it. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. Was it possible for such ravishing beauty in a building to co-exist with a fairly ordinary modern town? Could the past survive so unscathed into the present? Accustomed only to the mediaeval stone castles and Gothic cathedrals of the North, this building seemed to me literally fabulous, more like a castle of fairy-tale than a real fortification. An iconic emblem of traditional Japanese culture, and a representative example of samurai architecture, Himeji plays significant roles in Kurosawa’s Kagemusha and Ran.

After seeing the film I immediately read Ian Fleming’s 1964 novel, as soon as I could get hold of it. Although I possess a first edition, here I have cited references from the paperback edition I read in the 1960s (Fleming 1965). (So in the Bibliography I have cited You Only Live Twice – twice).

I soon realised that in this case the film version had taken significantly more liberty with its original source than had its predecessors, Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, and Thunderball, which by and large seemed to have adhered more closely to the books. The nuclear threat crisis that provides the plot of the film is present in the novel, though the culprit is not The Peoples’ Republic of China (which is not specifically identified in the movie, but was certainly obvious enough to everybody at the time) but from the Soviet Union, and targeted specifically at Britain rather than America. Here though the crisis never comes to anything, since information on the threat is discovered by Japanese intelligence and in a rare coup of international diplomacy facilitated by Bond, passed to the West. It is then resolved politically, by a combination of internal repressive measures in Britain (the government restricts the movements of all resident Soviet personnel), and an aggressive counter-threat against the USSR from President Kennedy of the United States. The whole thing is over by the end of Chapter Six. Typically for Fleming’s books, espionage and intelligence actually form a relatively minor element of the plot and action. You Only Live Twice evolves into something quite different, a revenge story involving Bond and his arch-enemy Blofeld (who had murdered his newly-wedded wife in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) combined with an immersive travelogue-style journey through Japan, and an extraordinary amount of expository talk.

The narrative is thickly furnished with topographical details about Japanese society, mostly focused on the kind of cultural traditions favoured by tourist visitors to Japan. In the opening chapter we meet Bond and the head of the Japanese secret service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka, in a Tokyo geisha house, drinking sake and discussing topics such as sumo wrestling. (Later Tanaka will discuss with Bond haiku verses and the work of Basho, which Bond makes lame efforts to imitate). Tanaka himself is described as having a ‘formidable, cruel, samurai face’ (Fleming 1965,14), while the ‘Madam’ of the geisha house is ‘so thickly made up that she looks like a character out of a Noh play’ (14). Bond’s associate Henderson, an impossibly stereotyped blunt Australian, has taught Bond to hold a kind of exasperated respect for this impenetrable culture, which perpetually countermands and defeats Western notions of order and propriety:

‘The bloody Japs to do everything the wrong way round. Read the old instruction books wrong, I daresay. Light switches go up instead of down. Taps turn to the left. Door handles likewise. Why, they even race their horses clockwise instead of anticlockwise like civilised people. As for Tokyo, it’s bloody awful. It’s either too hot or too cold or pouring with rain. And there’s an earthquake about every day. But don’t worry about them. They just make you feel slightly drunk. The typhoons are worse’. (Fleming 1965, 38)

Henderson’s irritable grumbling about the apparently counter-intuitive nature of Japanese society is coupled with a grudging respect for the Japanese themselves, who are in his view utterly different from the modern, democratic peoples of the ‘civilised’ west:

‘Underneath the stiff collars and striped pants in the government departments, there’s still plenty of the old samurai tucked away’. (Fleming 1965, 38)

This difference is then explained in a full-blown orientalist diatribe that again characterises the Japanese as still wedded to that autocratic, violent past, the era of the samurai, whose legacy drove them to military ambition and crushing defeat in the recent world war.

‘The Japanese are a separate human species. They’ve only been operating as a civilised people, in the debased sense we talk about it in the West, for fifty, at the most a hundred years. Scratch a Japanese and you’ll find a samurai’. (Fleming 1965, 42)

A ‘separate species’ does not of course mean an inferior race, and Henderson takes care to convey to Bond both the need to respect Oriental conventions, and not to underestimate these inscrutable and resourceful partners. And it is of course the Japanese who save Britain from potential nuclear attack of the kind they themselves had only recently endured at the hands of their new allies,

The Japanese perspective is provided by Tanaka, who is as forthright in defending his culture as Henderson is in attacking it. Tanaka served in the war, and remains an admirer of his country’s military capability and fighting spirit. Working as an intelligence officer in Europe, he follows the fortunes of the war as American advances through the Pacific begin to threaten Japan. He learns of the kamikaze initiative, and harbours the ambition to die as a fighter pilot carrying the force of the ‘divine wind’ to the enemy.

‘I listened to the accounts of this brilliant invention, the corps of kami-kaze. That is the “Divine Wind” that saved my country from invasion by Kublai Khan in the thirteenth century by destroying his fleet. I said to myself that that was the way to die – no medals, total death, suicide if you like, but at enormous cost to the enemy. It seemed to me the most heroic form of personal combat that had ever been invented’. (Fleming 1965, 87)

Tanaka defends the nobility and self-sacrifice of this suicidal military tactic as buried deep in the Japanese spirit: ‘suicide is a most unfortunate aspect of the Japanese way of life’. (70) This leads the conversation on to a discussion of suicide and its place in Japanese tradition, which Tanaka exemplifies by reference to the story of the 47 Ronin, the partial subject of my next chapter.

‘Our word for suicide is jisatsu, literally “self-murder”, and although it is a violent solution to a personal problem, it carries no stigma as it would in your country. In fact, one of our most famous folktales, known to all children, is of the forty-seven ronin, or bodyguards. Through their negligence, their Lord, Asano, was assassinated. They swore to avenge him and they did so. But then they came together at a place called Ako and all committed seppuku to expiate their negligence. This is what you know as hara-kiri, which is a vulgar term meaning ‘belly cutting’. Today, at the time of the festival at the Ako shrine, special trains have to be laid on to accommodate the respectful pilgrims’. (Fleming 1965, 71)

Fleming has attributed to Tanaka an unlikely error in relaying this well-known narrative – Asano was not assassinated, but forced to commit seppuku himself – as well as a mistranslation of ronin – ‘masterless samurai’ – as ‘bodyguards’. Tanaka defends ritual suicide as a quasi-judicial custom, citing the example of Admiral Ohnishi, who invented the kamikaze corps and sent many young pilots to certain death, and who in defeat committed seppuku in the most gruesome way imaginable, or as Tanaka puts it, ‘in a most honourable fashion’ (89), clearly following the example of Yorimasa Minamoto:

‘When you commit seppuku you invite two of your best friends to be present to finish you off if you fail. The Admiral executed the cross cut from left to right of the belly, and then the upward cut to the breastbone, most admirably. But it did not kill him. Yet he refused the coup de grace. He sat there contemplating his insides for a whole day before he finally died. A most sincere gesture of apology to the Emperor’. (Fleming 1965, 89)

The issue of suicide and its long history in Japanese culture provides the background, as we shall see, for the novel’s main plot. Tanaka remains quite unapologetic about Japanese military ambitions, making it clear to Bond that in his view the war could have gone very differently, with Japan perhaps left in control of Australasia:

‘You were lucky that we struck at Pearl Harbour rather than Australia. Can you doubt that we would have occupied that country and New Zealand if we had done otherwise? These are big and important land spaces, insufficiently developed, you could not have defended them’. (Fleming 1965, 48)

Fleming would have known that this assertion was of course accurate, and indeed the Allies are reputed (so I was told by Peter Holbrook of the University of Queensland) to have a plan with the codename ‘the Brisbane line’, which involved, in the event of Japanese invasion, surrendering the northern half of Australia, and concentrating defence capability in the south. Tanaka’s national pride is matched by a contempt for the West, and its growing influence on Japanese culture:

‘We are being subjected to what I can best describe as the “scuola di Coca-Cola”. Baseball, amusement arcades, hot dogs, hideously large bosoms, neon lighting – these are the part of our payment for defeat in battle. They are the tepid tea of the way of life we know under the name of the demokorasu. They are a frenzied denial of the official scapegoats for our defeat – a denial of the spirit of the samurai as expressed in the kami-kaze, a denial of our ancestors, a denial of our gods’. (Fleming 1965, 59)

He extends this impatience to a searching critique of Western attitudes to Japan, insisting to Bond that Britain has thrown away its great empire, and transferred power from the government to the trades unions (77). He then explicitly identifies the American approach to Japan as what we would now call ‘Orientalism’, an admiration based on ignorance and projected fantasy:

‘Our American residents are the sympathetic type – on a low level of course. They enjoy the subservience, which I may say is only superficial, of our women. They enjoy the remaining strict patterns of our life – the symmetry, compared with the chaos that reigns in America. They enjoy our simplicity, with its underlying hint of deep meaning, as expressed for instance in the tea ceremony, flower arrangements, Noh plays – none of which of course they understand. They also enjoy, because they have no ancestors and probably no family life worth speaking of, our veneration of the old and worship of the past’. (Fleming 1965, 59)

The reason for this focus on aspects of the Japanese past – samurai culture and ritual suicide – provide the real central action of the novel, understandably rejected in the making of the film. Bond’s old enemy Blofeld has been drawn to Japan by exactly these features of the national life. He has acquired an old castle, and created a garden filled with toxic plants and poisonous animals, designed to lure in candidates for suicide. This grotesque idea is presented as another of Blofeld’s insane strokes of criminal genius. ‘It is very difficult’, he says, ‘to invent something that is entirely new in the history of the world’, and feels that he has done so in constructing this garden of suicide, or as his partner Irma Blunt calls it, ‘a Disneyland of Death’. (154)  Blofeld patrols his estate in what Fleming describes as ‘mediaeval chain armour with the jagged, winged helmet of ancient Japanese warriors’. It is by no means clear what access Fleming had to antique arms and armour while he was in Japan, and his descriptions are certainly ambiguous. For instance Blofeld carries ‘a wide bladed samurai sword’, when no such thing existed.

Blofeld, in his gleaming chain armour and grotesquely spiked and winged helmet of steel, its visor closed, was something out of Wagner, or, because of the oriental style of his armour, a Japanese Kabuki play. His armoured right hand rested easily on a long naked samurai sword … (Fleming 1965, 151)

The Wagnerian allusion is out of place, and no-one would carry an unsheathed samurai sword. Later Fleming describes Blofeld’s sword as resembling a ‘scimitar’, quite a different style of sword, and refers to it as possessing a ‘boss’. Inside the Edo period fortification Blofeld finds protection and the freedom to indulge his masochistic appetite for murder; while the armour affords him both protection from his own toxic herbarium, and the desired anonymity. He expresses his contempt for Bond, and his readiness to kill, by assimilating himself to the ancient code of the samurai:

‘Have you ever heard the Japanese expression kirisute gomen? … It dates from the time of the samurai. It means literally “killing and going away”. If a low person hindered the samurai’s passage along the road or failed to show him the proper respect, the samurai was within his rights to lop off the man’s head. I regard myself as a latter-day samurai’. (Fleming 1965, 171)

Thus the revenge story and the Japan-based travelogue coalesce in a an improvised action, in which Bond (typically) has no plan or strategy other than to reach Blofeld and kill him. As is usual in such narratives, his arduous and intricate undercover journey, in this case a protracted ocean swim, simply lands him in captivity and in the enemy’s power. Nonetheless he manages to kill both Blofeld and Irma Bunt in hand-to-hand combat, and to escape from the castle suspended from a convenient helium balloon.

Both novel and film in their different ways effected an eye-opening introduction to Japan for a Western observer. I was immediately conscious of the intricate, disconnected relationship between the two, and the fact that the original novel-based stories typical of the earlier films had in this case been supplanted by a recycling of the plot of Dr No. Later this process proved to be an interesting test-case of adaptation. The screenplay was written by Roald Dahl, who thought You Only Live Twice to be Fleming’s worst book – more like a travel book than a novel, completely unfilmable – and felt obliged to rewrite it by poaching an earlier Fleming plot.

Dahl was correct: Fleming in fact initiated the novel out of his own travel writing, since his first three-day visit to Japan in 1959 was on behalf of the Sunday Times. He was accompanied by his associate Richard Hughes, Sunday Times correspondent in the Far East, and Tora Saito, a Japanese journalist nicknamed ‘Tiger’, who supplied the basis for the characters of Henderson and Tanaka in the novel. Fleming had stipulated that on his trip there were to be ‘no politicians, museums, temples, Imperial Palaces or Noh plays, let alone tea ceremonies’. Fleming wanted to see real life rather than tourist heritage. He had a list of things he did want to experience, including visits to a judo academy, in pursuit of his interest in ju-jitsu, and a Japanese fortune-teller. (Lycett 1994, 357) Visits to a massage parlour and a geisha house, both borderline sex-trade facilities, supplied some of the detail used in the novel, and further developed in the film.

Fleming returned to Japan for three weeks in 1962 with a view to researching for the book. Again, Fleming enjoyed the company of Hughes and Sato, informing them they would provide the basis for the characters in the novel. At one point the three companions could be found relaxing in a huge bath, drinking sake. On this trip Fleming was clearly searching for detailed information that would be of use in the writing of the book, as he investigated locations and probed into local customs, such as the system of giving and receiving favours, and methods of producing beef, both of which feature in the book. He visited the Mikimoto pearl-diving operation in Ise, which of course supplied much of the background for the operation against Blofeld, and visited the Shinto Ise Grand Shrine. From there he went to Matsusaka, centre of the famous specialist beef-rearing business. When based in Kyoto he visited the Jinya, the preserved samurai district in Takayama City, near Nijo Castle (another UNESCO World Heritage site), and took a keen interest in the workings of the Shimabara brothel district, now a tourist destination. His trip ended at the active volcano Mount Aso, which in the film houses Blofeld’s underground missile operation.

Fleming’s novel proved to be a useful introduction to Japan and Japanese history, not merely for its detailed observations of modern Japanese society, but for its witness to the complex and ambivalent rapprochement between present and past. In addition, two dominant perspectives on the samurai emerge from the novel: the early 20th century Western fascination with the samurai, casting them as the romantic counterparts of Arthurian knights; and the harsh Western propaganda of the immediate post-war period, which saw the samurai as an incongruous survival of mediaeval barbarism. Tiger Tanaka retains a positive view of the samurai as ‘the soul of Japan’, while Blofeld adopts and appropriates only the cruelty, the insane pride of privilege, contempt for the people, and reliance on mediaeval methods of warfare and despotic social control. Fleming’s book weaves together in a complex tapestry the idealism of Nitobe Inazo, and the simplistic antipathy of post-war American propaganda.

The Last Samurai

The catalyst for my third major rapprochement with ‘virtual’ Japan was Edward Zwick’s 2003 film The Last Samurai. Bear in mind that in my first encounter, with the war films of the 1950s, the Japanese military, heirs of the samurai, were negatively orientalised as a cruel, implacable enemy. Now the wheel had come full circle, and in a new millennium the samurai were positively projected as an idealised, alluring Other, representing a highly ethical, spiritualised life of nobility and discipline that could serve as an antidote to modern Western imperialism, capitalism, and secular materialism. The Last Samurai notoriously centres on the character of Nathan Algren, played by Tom Cruise, an invented American cavalry officer who in the 1870s accepts a commission to train the new Imperial Army of the Meiji emperor. Algren is a physical and mental wreck, afflicted with alcoholism and traumatic stress disorder after his experiences in the Civil War, and in the 7th cavalry in the Indian Wars, specifically a brutal massacre of native American women and children, which supplies his recurrent nightmares. (The screenplay identifies this massacre as the ‘Battle of Washita River’, an 1868 raid on a Cheyenne camp subsequently labelled a ‘massacre of the innocents’). Algren frequently alludes to the Battle of the Little Bighorn of 1876, which he regards as a strategic disaster undertaken by a deluded commander ‘in love with his own legend’. We meet him initially involved in the arms trade, working for the Winchester Company doing sales promotions for a new rifle. Sacked for his erratic and dangerous behaviour, he is persuaded by an old army comrade to take the job in Japan, obliged to serve again under the officer who led the massacre of the Cheyenne, an object of Algren’s implacable hatred.

Meiji Japan is presented reasonably accurately as a nation newly opened to trade with the west, with an agenda of industrial technological and commercial modernisation, but struggling to contain civil unrest from vested interests of the past, notably the samurai.

Like all Japan, Yokohama is at the cusp of a new era. Ancient sampans and wooden schooners beside freighters and steamships … In the bustling streets, white-face-painted geishas walk alongside bearded Russians. Traditional Japanese kimonos alongside European suits and hats; a schizophrenic world of ancient Japan versus modern commercialism.  (Logan 2003, scenes 12, 14)

The Americans are competing for influence and trade access with European powers such as France and Britain. The Japanese government, effectively run by a corrupt and ruthless group of former samurai, led by the treacherous and mendacious Mr Omura, with the young Emperor apparently powerless and kept in the background, has established a conscript army, and needs foreign specialists to train them. Their immediate purpose is to face an insurrection led by former government minister Katsumoto and his army of disaffected samurai, who disappointed at the Meiji government’s resolute rejection of the traditional political order and way of life, are organising a rebellion. An expatriate Englishman Graham, who acts as Algren’s guide, explains the context:

‘Katsumoto was [once] the Emperor’s teacher and his most trusted advisor. You must understand, for centuries it was the Samurai who guarded Japan and fought her wars. But now the creation of a modern army … the Samurai, well, some have accepted the change, taken money instead. But some just couldn’t bring themselves to do it. Thus, the rebellion’. (scene 27)

Algren finds the new conscripted army hopelessly unprepared, and advises against leading them into action. His counsels are overruled, and he is forced to lead them against Katsumoto. On the way Algren witnesses an example of the new progressive Japan, in the form of a traditional village torn down and burned to make space for a railway which, we learn, will have the advantage of enriching Omura. Predictably the troops are easily defeated and routed in a surprise attack by the formidable samurai, and Algren is taken prisoner, though not before Katsumoto observes his courage in battle, and immediately begins to respect him as a fellow warrior. The screenplay envisages an earlier scene in Edo/Tokyo in which we see Katsumoto’s chief retainer Ujio behead two men in the street as punishment for their disrespect towards him, thus exercising the samurai privilege of kirisute gomen, discussed in You Only Live Twice by Blofeld. Wisely the scene was cancelled, and the mystique of the samurai held in reserve for the powerful scene in which the warriors ambush the Imperial Army by riding out of the fog: 

Algren can see nothing through the dense fog. The tension is unbearable. Then a FORM APPEARS on horseback… GHOSTLY… like some sort of medieval monster. A horned helmet. Like something from a nightmare. And then another figure, and another … A terrible, beautiful moment of absolute stasis. The Samurai suddenly CHARGE, emerging from the fog in a great wave — roaring out ancient war-cries that chill the blood — sweeping forward like a tsunami – swords and spears flashing. (scene 38)

In the aftermath of the skirmish Algren witnesses, to his disgust, the general of the imperial army, a samurai who has chosen to serve in the imperial army, obliged to commit seppuku, assisted by Katsumoto who beheads him.

Compelled to spend the winter among the samurai, Algren quickly however develops a deep respect for their way of life, growing to affection and eventually love – for both Katsumoto himself, and the leader’s sister who is forced to play host to him. Disaffected from his own culture, Algren finds in the samurai village values and principles his own society seems to have lost, as described in the screenplay:

This is the other Japan. The Japan we have not yet seen. After the turmoil of Tokyo, this place seems a bucolic paradise. A valley below with rice fields. The sense of harmony so markedly absent from the cities. (scene 38)

The setting for this Japanese ‘bucolic paradise’ had to be found in the unspoiled countryside of New Zealand, where the film was shot. Algren’s observations are recorded in a journal, extracts of which are conveyed to the spectator in voice-over, inviting an obvious comparison with Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1990), in which a Union soldier finds an expatriate home among the Lakota tribe, coming to regard the ethnic Other as immeasurably superior in every way to his own society and culture. Similarly Algren has nothing but admiration for the samurai way of life. He sees the warriors practising kendo, jujitsu, kyudo (archery, or ‘the way of the bow’), and observes Katsumoto often kneeling in prayer before a statue of the Buddha, or seated in Zen Buddhist contemplation. Katsumoto explains that the temple in which he prays has been his family’s shrine for thousands of years. Katsumoto is often also seen writing, and confides to Algren that he writes poetry. He is intellectually curious, showing a great interest in ethnography, questioning Algren about the ‘Red Indians’. And he is an aesthete, celebrating the transient perfection of the cherry blossom:


‘A perfect blossom is a rare thing’ … Katsumoto sits, zazen-style, meditating … ‘You could spend your life looking for one. And it would not be a wasted life’. (scene 116)

In short, Katsumoto is the perfect samurai: skilled in martial arts and strategy, poet and philosopher, aesthete, respecter of tradition, ancestors, and the past.

‘And then I come to this place of my ancestors. And I remember… like these blossoms, we are all dying. (looks back at him) To know life in every breath. Every cup of tea. Every life we take. That is the way of the warrior … That is Bushido’. (scene 116)

During his enforced sojourn in the village Algren becomes more and more like Katsumoto, dressing in Japanese costume, learning ‘bushido’ and eventually, for the final battle, inheriting the armour of the man he killed. When Katsumoto returns to Edo to meet the Emperor, Algren is released: but observing the marked transformations in Japanese society that are acting to the detriment of the samurai – the laws prohibiting the wearing of two swords and the samurai top-knot – as well as Omura’s treachery, he decides to throw in his lot with the rebels and returns to the village with them. From their base the samurai organise a defensive operation to meet the Imperial army. By now Algren has become Katsumoto’s firm friend and strategic adviser, and both agree that a heroic defence, though with little chance of survival, is worth undertaking. Algren tells Katsumoto about the Battle of Thermopylae, when three hundred Spartans, in a desperate last-ditch defence of their homeland, held out against the vastly superior Persian army. The samurai fight bravely and with some success, but eventually are resigned to a last suicidal cavalry charge against the new howitzers and machine guns acquired by the Imperial army. Algren manages to kill his former commanding officer, thus taking revenge on behalf of the Cheyenne as well as the samurai. Seriously, perhaps fatally wounded, Katsumoto is assisted in taking his own life by Algren, who survives to carry a message to the Emperor. Presenting the ruler with Katsumoto’s sword, Algren appears to succeed in re-establishing a more appropriate respect for samurai culture as Japan’s true character.


‘My ancestors have ruled Japan for 2,000 years. For all that time we have slept. During my sleep I have dreamed. I dreamed of a unified Japan. Of a country strong and independent and modern… (touches the sword lovingly) And now we are awake. We have railroads and cannon and Western clothing. But we cannot forget who we are. Or where we come from … Ambassador Swanbeck, I have concluded that your treaty is not in the best interests of my people’. (scene 179)

The Emperor refuses to sign a trade deal with the US, the corrupt Omura is removed from office, and Algren returns to Katsumoto’s village to resume life with the samurai community.

The film has been roundly condemned, as period fictions often are, for its distortions of history. Algren is based on a historical figure: but the real one was French, not American. Jules Brunet was sent to Japan in 1866 to train the new army, and when ordered to return home refused, instead fighting on the imperial side in the Boshin War against the shogunate, which defeated the Tokugawa government and brought the Meiji to power. The Last Samurai thus conflates quite different moments of civil unrest, the Boshin War of the 1860s and the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, into one action, as well as giving America an improbable role in the history. Katsumoto is based on Saigo Takamori, the prominent leader of the imperial faction who later led the Satsuma Rebellion against the Meiji government. But as many commentators have pointed out, to depict the samurai as motivated entirely by honour, piety and loyalty to tradition distorts Takamori’s role in crushing the Tokugawa shogunate, the four-centuries old samurai regime. Furthermore, this latter rebellion was triggered by nothing more disinterested than the loss of samurai privilege, while many other samurai accepted the new dispensation and served the new government. Perhaps the most extreme example of the fictional distortion of history is the rejection of firearms by Katsumoto, clearly invented simply to provide a suicidally heroic ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ glamour to the final battle. The samurai were using firearms as early as the 16th century, and Takamori’s army was well supplied with rifles and even field artillery, though short of ammunition (as indeed was the imperial army).

While admitting that the plot of the film is broadly based on history, critics have condemned the film as purveying a ‘white saviour’ narrative in which a bankable celebrity Hollywood star is credited with saving the soul of the Japanese nation. Viewers of the film on Sky Cinema are met with a warning that the seventeen year old film ‘may contain outdated attitudes’ that might ‘offend the viewer’. Algren is responsible for bearing the symbolic message of Katsumoto’s legacy and persuading the Emperor to acknowledge the samurai as ‘the soul of Japan’.

Allowing for the necessary fictionalisation of history, and accepting the centrality of a star such as Cruise as the unavoidable condition of a big-budget movie, The Last Samurai succeeds in a broad-brush introduction to this historical moment. Perhaps the most significant factor in its reception, notwithstanding the agonizing of western critics over cultural appropriation and white saviour narratives, is that it generated higher box office receipts in Japan than in the US, and met there with a generally positive critical reception. Japanese sources praised the film for meticulous historical research, accuracy in the use of costumes, armour and weapons, the use of prominent Japanese actors in the major roles, the employment of dialogue coaches to secure idiomatic accuracy. Insofar as the film was criticised in Japan, in an echo of much earlier national controversies, it was for its idealised and romantic view of the samurai, who in reality were much more self-serving and wedded to privilege.

Shakespeare into Japan

Thus, the samurai. And now to Shakespeare. In Britain, from the 19th century onwards, the default ‘setting’ for Shakespeare’s plays (by which I mean costume, mis-en-scene, and assumed historical and cultural context) has been mediaeval and early modern: the time of the plays’ composition (late 16th and early 17th centuries) or the time of their historical location (mediaeval Britain or Europe, ancient Greece or Rome etc.). In this visual and physical context Twelfth Night would normally be performed or imagined in Elizabethan or Jacobean, Macbeth and Hamlet in mediaeval, Julius Caesar in ancient Roman, dress and settings.  In the historical context of their original production, the plays were performed in contemporary dress with minimal mis-en-scene; through the Restoration and 18th century in fashionable modern dress and increasingly naturalistic settings. Today in Britain Shakespeare can be performed in any style of costume, setting and cultural context, from the time of the plays’ reference to the immediate contemporary present, and often in an eclectic blend of some or all. But strong forces of tradition and cultural memory tie the plays, in their visual and physical realisation as well as their language, to the mediaeval and early modern past. We dress Shakespeare in the costumes of all the ages; but we know that he truly belongs, as in the various portraits, in doublet and ruff.

When Shakespeare was first imported into Japan, in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, following the opening of Japan to the outside world effected by the Meiji empire, these cultural attachments to the plays’ own past did not travel with them. Though it would have seemed natural for Shakespeare productions to be set back into the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1574-1600), aligned with Shakespeare’s own time or the time of the plays’ reference, in practice this didn’t happen. Although initially from the 1880s the stories of Shakespeare’s plays – derived from Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, often mediated through Japanese novels – were adapted into Kabuki, Shakespearean drama proper, in the form of complete translations, was received in Japan as the work of a modern Western dramatist more aligned with the present than with the past. ‘Shakespeare first arrived in Japan with Ibsen, Chekhov, Gorky, George Bernard Shaw and trams’. (Kishi and Bradshaw 2005, 2). Nor was there any immediate synthesis between translated Shakespeare and the native traditions of Japanese theatre, Noh and Kabuki, although Kabuki began in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and Noh emerged in the Middle Ages.

Thus early Japanese Shakespeare was assimilated to the modernising and westernising tendencies of the Meiji regime, and kept well away from that very recent but dangerous feudal past to which at least some of the plays should surely have been seen to belong; even though, as Kishi and Bradshaw point out, ‘Shakespearean poetic drama is closer to traditional Japanese drama like Noh or kabuki than it is to modern Western realistic or naturalistic dramas like that of Ibsen or Shaw’, and ‘the Japanese were politically and socially far closer to feudalism than contemporary British or American readers and audiences’ (Kishi and Bradshaw 2005, 3).

Although some early productions saw Shakespeare adapted into kabuki (such as an 1885 kabuki adaptation of The Merchant of Venice based on a Japanese novel, in turn a version of Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare) dominant forces in Japanese theatre, like those in society in general, were relentlessly modernising and westernising. In 1886 the Engeki Kairyo Kai (Society for the Reformation of Theatre) was formed in order to shift the drama away from tradition and towards modernity. The theatre became dominated by the Shingeki (New Drama) movement, and Shakespeare was incorporated into this climate of reform.

This conflict between native and foreign theatrical traditions is the story of Shakespeare in Japan, a story in which Shakespeare is seen alternately as a welcome ambassadorial gift, or a hostile colonial imposition, but always as the modern counterpart of Ibsen and Shaw, Gorky and Chekhov.  And overall the modernist tendencies continually triumph. The Shingeki movement, which assimilated Shakespeare to western modernity, has been correctly identified as ‘a form of deference towards the west, rather than the discovery of a culturally relevant idiom’ (Mulryne 1998, 4),  yet dominated both early (1900-1914) and later (post-World War II) Japanese Shakespeare. Between the two World Wars Shakespeare faded away in Japan with the rise of nationalism and the resurgence of militarism and xenophobia. By the 1960s, once Japan had recovered from the damages of World War II and acquired a new economic self-confidence (see Senda 1998,17), theatrical practitioners returned to Shakespeare, but were more interested in aligning Shakespeare with modern Japan than with an increasingly distant tradition. Shakespeare’s plays were re-imagined into modern contexts of contemporary Japanese business and crime, or the Vietnam war, or colonial Hong Kong. 

Japanese society is everywhere presented as quintessentially modern, urban, commercial and industrial, technologically sophisticated, not least by the Japanese themselves. And yet, as Mulryne observes, ‘a peculiar mix of past and present … characterises Japanese society today’ (Mulryne 1998, 2). Even within the great cities, and more so beyond them, the past is lovingly preserved, reproduced, even reconstructed, and displayed. Almost 30 million international tourists enter Japan each year to visit the old capitals of Kyoto and Nara, drawn by the magic of castles, ancient temples, swords and samurai, geishas and sumo, maple leaves and cherry blossom. Where in all this is the real Japanese Shakespeare, the equivalent of our Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatist in doublet and ruff? Where is ‘Samurai Shakespeare?’

1955 saw the first Shakespeare post-war production in Japan, a Shingeki version of Hamlet translated and directed by Tsuneari Fukuda. In 1957 Fukuda directed his own play Akechi Mitsuhide, a story of murder, betrayal and revenge among 16th century samurai lords. The story is drawn from history, but modelled on the plot of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. By connecting Shakespeare to the Japanese past, Fukuda set out to ‘transplant Shakespeare to Japanese soil’ (Kishi and Bradshaw 2005, 47-49, 129).

In the same year Akira Kurosawa released his great film of Macbeth, Kumonosujo, known in the west as Throne of Blood, which I have praised as ‘the most complete translation of Shakespeare into film’ (Holderness 1986, 189). Here the plot of Macbeth, without Shakespeare’s language, is brilliantly relocated to feudal Japan. Kurosawa followed his version of Macbeth up in 1960 with a modernised film of Hamlet – The Bad Sleep Well – and much later in 1985 with his samurai version of King Lear, Ran.

Meanwhile in the theatre Yukio Ninagawa, who began working with Shakespeare in the 1970s, staged in 1980 what is perhaps the greatest ever Japanese production of Shakespeare, his Macbeth set in mediaeval Japan. Ninagawa deployed the full panoply of Japanese cultural traditions to anchor Shakespeare into the past: ancient costumes and armaments, cherry blossom, sliding doors, the framing device of a Buddhist altar. (see Senda 1998, 22-5, and Kishi 1998, 115-118). Later Ninagawa produced The Tempest in an equally traditional style, as ‘A Rehearsal of a Noh Play on the Island of Sado’ (the island to which Zeami, the great playwright of Noh, was exiled). (Kishi and Bradshaw 2005, 85-6)

Across that period of 30 years (1957-1987) these great theatre and cinema artists finally resolved the conflicts between Shakespeare and Japan by setting the plays back into their own beloved but disputed past. These ‘Samurai Shakespeare’ productions were initially received in the west and in Japan with wild enthusiasm, though not without some critical reflection on the dangers of ‘exoticism’ and ‘orientalism’ (see Kishi and Bradshaw 80, 95-6). Kishi even uses the term ‘samurai Shakespeare’ as a critical reservation, and puts Kurosawa’s Ran  together with The Last Samurai as a piece of ‘inflated but hollow magniloquence’ (see Kishi and Bradshaw 2005, 136 and 142).

After this great florescence of ‘samurai Shakespeare’ (1957-1987), the theatre in Japan returned to its Shingeki roots, preferring modernity to tradition. But the phenomenon of samurai Shakespeare became a definitive cultural moment, and many subsequent  productions allude or pay homage to the work of Fukuda, Kurosawa and Ninagawa. However ultra-modern a Japanese Shakespeare production may be, it will also have the facility to acknowledge the country’s own past as one of Shakespeare’s multiple global histories. 

Samurai Shakespeare

These then are the constituent elements of this book: a personal interest in the history of Japan, and an enthusiasm for stories of the samurai; a professional engagement with intercultural exchange, the ways in which English classics are absorbed into a foreign culture, and a historical investment in the specific example of Shakespeare’s arrival in Japan in the late 19th century. Hence, I am exclusively concerned with adaptations of Shakespeare that set the plays back into Japanese history, usually the Sengoku period. Much critical work on Shakespeare and Japan by western scholars is haunted by fears of misrepresentation, natural enough when confronted by so bewitching and alien a culture, but also potentially destabilising and demoralising to an honest appraisal. I have been as open a possible about the cultural conditioning of my own perspective, while letting the Japanese artists responsible for these adaptations speak for themselves. I will attempt to show that the ambivalent view of the samurai with which I grew up is as Japanese as it is western, visible as early as the epic poems and historical chronicles that created the legend of the samurai in the Middle Ages, and crystallised into an urgent national debate at key moments of Japanese history, such as the Meiji Restoration and the end of the Second World War. Were the samurai romantic heroes, or tyrants consumed by ambition? Were they the saviours of the nation, or enslavers of the people? Were they, as Clements puts it, ‘blinkered fools who opposed modernization in favour of an impossible mediaeval time warp?’ Or did they represent rather ‘the indomitable will to reform, which led the opponents of the Tokugawa to topple the shogun, restore the Emperor are last and modernize Japan as his willing “servants”?’ (Clements 2010, 318). These controversies are actively and energetically put to work in the Shakespeare adaptations studied in the following pages: hybrid, intercultural works of art which will prove to be as consistent with our own western engagements with Japan, as they are true to the spirit of Japanese culture.

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