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Hagakure: The Code of the Samurai: The Manga Edition

Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Sean Michael Wilson, William Scott Wilson, Chie Kutsuwada

(Kodansha International; US: Jan 2011)

Yamamoto Tsunetomo, a hereditary samurai of the Nabeshima clan, became a Zen priest in 1700 after the death of the clan’s third daimyo, Nabeshima Mitsushige. Therefore, when Tsunetomo began dictating his best-known work Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai in 1710, his life as a samurai was already ten years behind him.


For Japan as well, the great period of the samurai warrior lay in the past. Establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603 ushered in a period of peace contrasting with that of the Sengoku or “warring states” period which preceded it. By 1710 samurai still existed in Japan, but were rapidly becoming a class of administrators rather than warriors. Economic and social changes also increased the availability of material goods and offered samurai the chance to live in a less Spartan manner than their counterparts of previous generations, leading to familiar complaints that the younger generation was becoming soft and decadent.


It’s in this light that Tsunetomo’s Hagakure, a statement of the bushido or warrior code which is well-known in the West (it is frequently cited in the Jim Jarmusch film Ghost Dog, for instance) should be interpreted: not so much as a practical manual to situations the reader is likely to encounter, but as a compendium of parables which embody particular values the author felt relevant to contemporary society. 


Hagakure: The Code of the Samurai: The Manga Edition offers 32 selections from Hagakure, presented with a framing story in which a young scribe, Tsuramoto Tashiro, presents himself to Tsunetomo and requests to be taught by him. Tsunetomo’s instruction is presented in the form of parables drawn from the Hagakure and illustrated, manga-style, by Chie Kutsuwada. The text was adapted by Sean Michael Wilson from a translation by William Scott Wilson and presents the parables grouped into five categories: The Way of the Samurai, Loyalty, Revenge, Kaishaku and Seppuku, and Sincerity.


The first thing likely to strike the reader is how bloody these stories are: a good number of them incorporate stabbings, beheadings and the like. They often imply or state directly morals which may seem odd to modern Western minds: death is an appropriate punishment for rude behavior, seeking revenge is of paramount importance, a retainer owes absolute loyalty to his superior. Sometimes the meanings of cryptic phrases are explained in the parables (for instance “matters of great concern should be treated lightly” refers to preparation and consistency of philosophy, not to acting rashly) but many are not and may leave the reader scratching his head.


For this reason, William Scott Wilson’s afterword is invaluable as a guide to interpretation. If you’re not already familiar with Hagakure I’d recommend reading the afterword first, then reading the manga, then reading the afterword again. Besides providing some background information about Tsunetomo, Wilson also clarifies the basic philosophy of selflessness which is at the heart of Zen Buddhism as well as bushido. The oft-quoted saying “The way of the Samurai is found in death”, for instance, refers not so much to a literal death on the battlefield as to the death of self-interest which paradoxically liberates a person to live more abundantly.


Chie Kutsuwada’s illustrations are done in a style which will be familiar to readers of historical manga: simplified realism with stylized human figures and more detailed backgrounds. Her art is adequate to the task and is a good match to the deadpan tone of the text, but really offers nothing in the way of originality. Also, in stories with numerous men of similar age interacting, it’s sometimes difficult to tell them apart and you may find yourself backtracking in search of identifying characteristics so you can figure out who just cut off who’s head. On the positive side, she doesn’t stint on the bloodier aspects of these stories and seeing heads being severed from their bodies, with lots of splatter and emanata, communicates the elemental nature of such parables far more viscerally than verbal description ever can.


I have one quibble with the book’s title, which should really be something like Selections from Hagakure or A Hagakure Sampler. The reason: there are 1,300 parables or passages in the original, but only 32 in this volume. It’s understandable that so lengthy a treatise would be presented in abbreviated form, but the degree of excerpting should be made a little clearer, along perhaps with some statement about why these passages were selected and how they relate to the whole. This goes double because the target market for this volume would appear to be fans of manga and Japanese popular culture, not scholars of 18th century Japanese philosophy.


That quibble aside, Hagakure: The Code of the Samurai: The Manga Edition offers a lively presentation of some selections from an influential historical work. As such it is enjoyable for its own sake and should also prove to be an effective “gateway drug” to tempt readers so inclined to undertake a deeper investigation of Japanese history and culture.

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