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Ask a Book Question: The Fourteenth in a Series (Samurai Book)

By posted at 11:06 am on March 17, 2004 0

Billy writes in, his interest piqued by the big screen version of The Last Samurai, looking for books about Japan’s wandering warriors:

After the movie The Last Samurai, I became intrigued by the true life and history of these people. Don’t want a cheesy rendition of the movie. Any advice?

I didn’t see the film, but I was pretty sure that it was at least loosely based on a book. That’s not quite true. It turns out that the film is based on a true story, and that a book that gives a more historically accurate account of that true story was released around the same time that the film was released in theaters. That book, by Emory University professor of history and Director of East Asian Studies Mark Ravina, is called The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori. From what I understand it’s an enlightening portrait of the period covered in the movie, but it is perhaps too dense and scholarly to be a starting point to learn about the samurai. Although maybe it is since, after investigating my usual sources, it doesn’t appear as though there is a good and broad accounting of the samurai period. Most of the books out there seem designed either for scholars or hobbyists (particularly those who have a fascination with the armor and weapons of the period). Nonetheless, some of these might be an interesting way to broaden your understanding of the subject. From the hobbyist side of things Samurai: An Illustrated History by Mitsuo Kure sounds like a good pick. It is filled with illustrations of armor and weapons as well as battle maps and diagrams. It actually sounds pretty interesting for those who learn visually. From among the scholarly books, most of which seem to be broader histories of Japan with big sections on the samurai period, I would recommend The Making of Modern Japan by Marius B. Jansen. It is a very readable overview of Japanese history from 1600 to the present. Still, it probably doesn’t give much insight into the samurai themselves. For that, you might want to try Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, which, though it has acquired a cultish following in recent years, is perhaps the only surviving work by an actual samurai. The book outlines the philosophy of the samurai and it has in recent years been touted by those who believe its lessons are applicable to modern times. Finally, if you interested in reading some fiction that takes feudal Japan as its setting, read James Clavell’s Shogun. People don’t really read Clavell much anymore but this book was a blockbuster when it first came out and is by all accounts a great read.

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