Young Samurai: Way of the Dragon and the Battle of Osaka

The third installment of Chris Bradford’s Young Samurai series shifts modes mid-book, when the action moves from the original Harry Potter-esque bildungsroman mode to the tragic — Young Jack is on the side of the Toyotomi, as it turns out — Battle of Osaka.

[More Spoilers Ahead]1

The book is considerably longer than the first two installments, a common feature of end-of-series climaxes, and continues with the cultural and historical bad habits noted in the first two works.2 At least, being a climactic moment, many of the historical alterations are clarified — if not well justified. There are two substantial changes to the historical record, which explain most of the other distortions: postponing the Tokugawa dominion of Japan until after the Battle of Osaka, and transforming the banning of Christianity into xenophobic nationalism and a popular movement, rather than a geo-political calculation.3 And ninja. Lots of ninja. I’m going to focus on the historiographical oddities this time, though I reserve the right to note new contextual and literary failings.

The action in this book runs from 1613 through the end of the Battle of Osaka, though the two campaigns are collapsed into a single sequence of battles mostly focused on the Battle of Tennōji,4 a little Winter Truce interlude,5 and the subsequent fall of Himeji Castle. The historical timeline leading up to this point is still a little murky in my mind, but it seems that the Battle of Sekigahara6 was the final battle in Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s unification campaign, after which he died, resulting in a surprisingly stable Council of Regents.7 (166-168) The Toyotomi8 house is the Imperial house, suggesting either that the imperial institution had a continuous martial tradition9 or that Hideyoshi actually took that last step10 and supplanted the Imperial house.11 The Battle of Osaka, then, is the real Sekigahara,12 though with the added element of having the Hideyoshi house actually participating. In this rendition, the Hideyoshi/Imperial heir is the “good guy” (also Christian): the Tokugawa house is a usurper whose forces are made up of opportunists, racists and ronin.13 Also, it was Tokugawa/Lord Kamakura’s decision to switch sides which determined the result of the Nakasendo battle, and we all know that switching sides is something that honorable samurai warlords never did. (82, 168) A literary rendition of the early 1600s from the Toyotomi perspective could be powerful stuff, exploration of still-unstable political and ethical ethos and real tragedy. Needless to say, that’s not what we’ve got here.

I suppose the vision of the Tokugawa house as religious and racial chauvinists could also be a matter of perspective: it’s true that the expulsion of Christianity from Japan was a violent process, though I don’t remember any sources that describe it as any sort of popular movement.14 In fact, in Bradford’s Japan, the Buddhist and Shinto religious leadership whom you’d expect to be at the forefront of an anti-foreign movement are largely agnostic on the question of Christianity. Also, oddly, the Tokugawa-ish Kamakura house never rhetorically connects the anti-foreign and anti-Toyotomi movements, though the fact that the “heir apparent” is a Christian (308) and working closely with the subversive Jesuits (320) would make it eminently sensible for them to use it as leverage; really, they’re just mean.15 The descriptions of the anti-Christian movement resemble the Boxer Rebellion or 1930s Germany more than the actual historical events which left non-Catholic foreigners alone. (253) I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again here: the actual historical events are more than sufficiently dramatic to be interesting; distorting them through a modern pseudo-fascist lens is gilding the lily, at best. Curiously, the anti-foreign Tokugawa forces are much better equipped with firearms and cannon than the Jesuit-supported Toyotomi side. (335, 392, etc.)16

The identity of the über-ninja Dokuganryu is revealed early on in the book (50-51), and while I’m sure this was intentional from the beginning, I still think that Bradford both missed an opportunity and did great damage to the biography of historical figures. Actually, the identity would have been obvious if I had paid more attention to the common nicknames of daimyo, because the “One-Eyed Dragon” moniker is associated with smallpox-scarred Date Masamune, whose disfigurement and family history the character share. However, Bradford changes the name to Hattori, a name associated in real life with both ninja and the Tokugawa house, taking Date’s life in a very strange direction at the time of Sekigahara,17 and ignoring the real history and character of Date Masamune himself, who lived and served the Tokugawa ably into the 1630s. In this version, the ninja pulls the strings, using the xenophobia of the Kamakura/Tokugawa as leverage to take vengeance on the Toyotomi/Hasegawa and Masamoto/Miyamoto.

In the end, the vast majority of the characters die in battle, which is likely to be somewhat emotionally wrenching given the Harry Potterish way in which nobody important dies (after the initial onslaught that orphans Jack) despite spending two and a half books playing with weapons, attempting deadly challenges and fighting off ninja. Even the super-ninja Dokuganryu appears to die, though Jack doesn’t have time to verify the ninja’s death, which takes the combined effort of both a ninja-trained young woman18 and a number of other of Jack’s colleagues. However, the survival of Jack (plus his romantic interest, of course) means sequels,19 and sequels means that Jack needs a worthy enemy. Jack’s chief student nemesis also survives; like Gollum, due to the mercy of the protagonist (473). In an amusingly implausible bit of historical preservation, Masamoto/Miyamoto survives his Horatio-at-the-bridge last stand and is forced into retirement by the Tokugawa/Kamakura: he takes the tonsure, which will allow him to do the writing he’s always wanted.20

There are two new cultural themes which are bad enough to deserve note. First, swords get seriously weird. Swords in Bradford’s milieu have the makers’ names stamped on the blade, rather than hidden on the tang. (29-30, 75) Swords have characters which affect their wielders, and evil ones demand blood before resheathing. (29, 35-38, 48, 375) Finally, the sharper the blade, the more effective: in some ways that’s true, certainly, but a sharper blade doesn’t make you a better fighter. (433) Second, poetry is a running theme, and while Bradford uses some actual works from the period,21 the poetry competition is themeless and the poems prepared beforehand. (234, etc.) And at one point a Japanese character turns Aesop’s Tortoise and Hare into a haiku. (143) Poetry is associated with women (100, 147) and with the “soft, cultured features of a nobleman” (83-85) though most of the major (and minor) poets of the age were samurai-born men.22

Finally, for a work written by a martial artist, the descriptions of combat and battle are still oddly bad. Early on, an arrow passes “within a hair’s-breadth of his heart” (18) though clearly Jack doesn’t get a near-fatal chest wound at that point, not even a scratch. At one point “A cold steel blade was pressed against Jack’s throat” (150) though he had a cloth sack over his head which usually makes this sort of thing difficult. In a climactic scene, an arrow is shot through a hand which is holding a sword handle (473), an unlikely shot, at best. The elite Red Guard of the Kamakura/Tokugawa, vicious and effective warriors who give no quarter, are described late in the battle as “mean-looking.” (447) There are other little things: siege engines which are never described or used (405), the inexplicable explanatory chat break in the middle of a raging battle (377), the kiai shout as a mystical attack speciality of sohei warrior-monks (177), distinction between ashigaru, ronin and samurai (151, 159).23

Works like the Young Samurai series claim to be originalist, purist representations of a fine culture, but really they are presentist projections of ahistorical apologia which apparently require not just revisionism, but wholesale historical reorganization to be credible. Some of these changes are probably justified, in Bradford’s mind, as simplifications: the dual Emperor/Shogun system is a little counter-intuitive, and having the greatest samurai of the age participate in a civil war for less than pure, honorable reasons would obviate the martial culture Bradford is promoting. These are, at best, excuses and rationalizations, rather than adequate reasons. As I said before, no disclaimer can excuse a presentation this far removed from reality claiming educational value. At least, having read the books, I feel a little more prepared for the onslaught of error I’m going to be seeing in my students’ work and the popular press.

  1. I don’t really consider that a spoiler; it’s an actual event. Knowing how things turn out is fundamental to historical work. Though I must concede that Bradford’s willingness to mess with the timeline does raise some doubt. []
  2. The Way of the Warrior and The Way of the Sword. Also, the book jacket copy is unchanged. []
  3. Needless to say, the historical changes require substantial alterations to the characters of many historical figures. One can only hope that the bad pseudonyms shield young readers from connecting these caricatures with real people. At one point, the Miyamoto Musashi stand-in orders Jack to commit seppuku, then retracts it and calls it a “little joke.” (72) []
  4. very simplified, minus cavalry, with the addition of super-soldier elite troops []
  5. So the Tokugawa side can be made to look even more treacherous (350) []
  6. called Nakasendo here, after the highway []
  7. And no invasion of Korea! []
  8. called “Hasegawa” []
  9. And Hideyoshi, then wasn’t a commoner. []
  10. and given his pretensions to divinity, why not? It’s always a little tricky explaining to students why and how the imperial institution survived this era []
  11. Oddly, the living Hasegawa, Toyotomi Hideyori’s stand-in, is referred to as the “heir apparent” (167) which would mean that the throne is empty, which never happened. Child emperors with regencies were SOP. Also, “royal geisha.” (126) []
  12. Or Dan-no-ura, given the echoes of the Gempei war created by conflating the samurai and aristocratic traditions. (217, 308, etc.) []
  13. In the actual war of 1614-15, it’s the Toyotomi forces which were miscellaneous odds and ends, including ronin who, if they weren’t samurai, we’d more properly call mercenaries. []
  14. A lot of people outside of the xenophobic movement spend a lot of time being mildly racist (47, 55, 158) and apparently there’s a neutral term for foreigner — gaijin is considered derogatory — but we’re never told what it is. (129) []
  15. Their children are thuggish punks; their elite forces are implacable, nameless; and they don’t respect culture. Also, they use legalistic tactics. (350) []
  16. And Jack, who is supposed to be more experienced in these matters, apparently doesn’t realize that well-trained military forces know how to keep their powder dry in wet conditions and can keep using firearms and cannon in the rain. (390) []
  17. using the kagemusha dodge to allow him to appear dead while he joins the ninja (424), becomes an undefeatable assassin who somehow keeps losing. []
  18. among the least-surprising reveals of the book []
  19. at least three, apparently detailing Jack’s attempt to get to Nagasaki and escape Japan []
  20. Oddly, however, his home is not under surveillance after the battle, which allows Jack an avenue of escape that really wouldn’t exist if the Tokugawa were as effective and powerful as they’re portrayed here. []
  21. Historical poet Saigyo is called on to judge the contest. (197) []
  22. Since the imperial institution is conflated with the warlords, I’m not sure where these “soft” noblemen come from, either. []
  23. My favorite example is when one character challenges another to action with “Are you ashigaru or samurai?” (361) []

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