I almost didn’t check Chris Bradford‘s Young Samurai: The Way of the Warrior out of the library when I saw it, but some instinct told me that it was something I should read. Perhaps it was the realization that Young Samurai was the first book in a series — oddly, though, there was no information on the other books1 — and therefore likely to have some serious publicity support from the publisher. Perhaps it was the realization that the publisher was Disney/Hyperion, which more or less guarantees a pretty substantial distribution and readership. Perhaps it was the hope that I might find, finally, some historical fiction worth recommending…..
The book is about a young English boy who’s shipwrecked in Japan in 1611, and gets adopted by a samurai family, while being stalked by the ninja pirates who killed his father and crewmates. So it was a bit Karate Kid and a bit of the story of Will Adams (more Samurai William than Shogun); nothing surprising, really, but all a bit familiar. Aside from fairly predictable ahistorical elements,2 commonplaces of martial arts fiction, and the implausible interpersonal relationships, nothing out of the ordinary.
I was about halfway through the book, though, when I realized what I was reading: it was the scene where Jack, the young Englishman, shows up at the school of his adopted father/patron — a formidable warrior — and all the students are introduced to the instructors at a big banquet. I put down the book, walked into the other room and said to my wife, “It’s Harry Potter in Japan!”
[spoilers, of course, under the fold]
“That’s too bad,” she said, “since you liked Harry Potter so much.” She’s right: I read all the books, but never stopped complaining about them. In fairness, my chief complaint about the Harry Potter series was Rowling’s failure to develop a remotely plausible social or historical context for the action; Bradford has adopted an actual place and time, so he should have a perfectly workable milieu, if he doesn’t muck it up.3 I also thought that Rowling dragged the story on interminably; Bradford only has a trilogy planned.
What elements does it share with Harry Potter? The characters and narratives are so structurally similar that I’m surprised it took me so long to see it: orphaned boy enters new cultural world, discovers new skills for which he has a natural talent, attracts the ire of a mysterious and dangerous enemy who has some connection to himself, defeats his enemies with the aid of his fellow students, has a mentor/protector who’s the only person powerful enough to defeat his nemesis and they have a history of conflict, a female friend who is also better-informed and ambiguously interested, a school with multiple instructors (introduced, as I said, at a big banquet), class and purity-based discrimination, and contests of skill which are ultimately decided by the good character — and preternaturally appropriate skills — of the protagonist. I could go on.
Some of the similarities are more or less coincidental: class and ethnicity are common forms of prejudice, certainly present in Japan as much as England, and some martial arts schools did have specialist instructors, and all of them had hierarchical systems. Using the immensely successful Rowling series as a model isn’t really a flaw, I suppose: “fish out of water goes to school” is a literary frame that allows the author to educate the reader along with the protagonist in an almost naturalistic way. But the nemesis/mentor pair, the orphan with a mixed blessing from deceased parents protagonist, the tight circle of misfit/nerdy friends and allies, the unlikely triumphs from first principles and good character, the secret/conspiracy that stretches over multiple books, even the climactic inter-school trial of skill are all there. Rowling should be proud: she’s spawned a genre!
I have historical and cultural issues as well, most of which can be summed up as the result of placing later practices too early. Most of the dojo scenes are like that, depicting 20th century martial arts ettiquette (but, very oddly, glossing over the sempai-kohai seniority structure). The cultural role of the Imperial institution as depicted isn’t plausible until Mito School thought develops in the late 18th and early 19th century.4 The female characters, and Jack’s egalitarianism, are really only possible in a 21st century rewriting of the history.5 There’s an odd bit when the characters are explaining sohei warrior monks to Jack: they are simultaneously supernatural practitioners of incomparable skill (201) and overweening power-mongers who are obliterated by Oda Nobunaga in his apparently justified attempt to take Kyoto. (164-165) There are several places where practices are described as “Japanese” when they are distinctly samurai class issues. It’s an historical hash.
The language of Bushido is a little anachronistic, but not as bad as the actual Japanese which is used in the book, which is thoroughly modern. I understand why, more or less, but there are times when more accurate renderings might have been more dramatic: For example, the Japanese students use the late 19th/20th century gaijin as a derogatory term for Jack, but the Japanese of the time would have been more likely to use an actually derogatory term like yabanjin [savage, barbarian] or nanbanjin [Southern barbarian] or ketoujin [hairy chinese barbarian] or komojin [red-hairs].6
One of the odder aspects of the book is that the head of the school, and Jack’s adopted father, is explicitly modeled on Miyamoto Musashi, the great swordsman and strategist, but Bradford changes his name — Masamoto — and alters significant components of his history, including, most notably, the fact that Musashi only ran a school for a short while and certainly wasn’t a big fan of Bushido as it developed later. Conveniently, Musashi’s school-running days were right around the time that Jack has shown up, which was just in time to see the famous duel involving the oar.7 Bradford’s Masamoto is, like Musashi, a two-sword master with a side-speciality in throwing things, but doesn’t seem to have the philosophical side of the historical swordsman. He does, however, have a complicated relationship with his sons. The eldest, Tenno, was killed by the ninja master Dokugan Ryu; the younger, Yamato, is trying to fill the gap, but failing, and his struggle — along with Jack’s outsider issues — forms the emotional core of the book.8
Do I have any good things to say about it? Well, it’s a quick read, broken up into 44 chapters, and the writing is pretty good. The ethical and personal lessons learned are worthwhile; though the reiteration of those lessons by Masamoto gets heavy-handed, it certainly sounds like many a “martial arts is about character” lecture I’ve heard and read. I can’t say, though, that I’ve found an historical fiction which pleases me, though.
- As near as I can tell from the websites, the second book is coming out in the UK shortly, with the third book scheduled for next year and a TV deal in the works, but nothing on the US side about when the sequels might be available here. [↩]
- ninja, yes, and wakou pirates (who are also ninja) off the coast of eastern Japan in 1611, and the post-Enlightenment attitudes of the protagonist [↩]
- He certainly has educational aspirations [PDF] [↩]
- The social connections to the Imperial house are flat-out absurd: one daimyo is described as a “second cousin to the Imperial Line” (183), which boggles the mind almost as much as the idea that the Imperial sigil is the “sun” instead of the chrysanthemum. An imperial official shows up to officiate at the inter-school contest later, which culminates in a race to Kiyomizudera, which is the resting place for a magical sword which is Japan’s great protection against danger. Yeah. [↩]
- Yes, samurai women learned how to fight. Mostly with dagger and spear, and the incessant invocation of Tomoe Gozen as a feminist heroine clearly comes out of 21st century concerns. The idea that a 17th century Englishman with a naval background would be surprised or discomfited by the concept of classes is just a bit of a stretch, too. [↩]
- and the use of “gaijin-lover” as an epithet for Jack’s female friend just doesn’t ring true. Even as foolhardy and dense as the mean kids in this book are, they would be unlikely to accuse the daughter of their teacher of being an outcaste among prostitutes, and she’d be unlikely to take it as calmly as she does. Akiko is an odd duck, though, who practices pearl-diving in her spare time (without revealing anything), but takes samurai ettiquette very seriously. [↩]
- though Bradford’s version is much longer than any other I’ve read, and the oar is a stopgap measure rather than a premeditated decision: these are the kinds of changes he’s making [↩]
- The names almost drove me to drop the book in the first few chapters. The idea of naming a child “Emperor” or “Japan” made me worry that the whole book would be like that. The ninja master’s name is translated in the book as “Dragon Eye” though “One-eyed Dragon” is much more accurate. Also, the green eye clearly means that Dokugan Ryu is of foreign origin, though nobody mentions it and we’ll have to wait for book three to find out for sure. [↩]