Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai

  • Written by Yamamoto Tsunetomo/Illustrated by Chie Kutsuwada
  • Kodansha International
  • 144 pp.

Two reviewers―a professor and an artist―consider a new graphic version of a Japanese classic about the samurai code.

Review by a professor:

By Paul Schalow

Many students of Japanese culture who enroll in my college class on “The Samurai Tradition in Japanese Literature and Film” are familiar with Hagakure and admire its inspiring message to uphold loyalty and honor even in the face of certain death. For them, Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s text defines the essence of bushido, the “way of the warrior.” The new manga edition, based on William Scott Wilson’s 1979 translation, provides a welcome new format for Hagakure and will no doubt popularize Tsunetomo’s text for a new generation of readers. But Hagakure in the 21st century is not exactly what it seems.

Yamamoto Tsunetomo (1659–1719) lived in the middle of the Edo period (1601–1868), a peaceful age when warfare had been all but eliminated by the strict rule of the Tokugawa shoguns. Urban centers such as Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo (modern-day Tokyo) swelled, and a mercantile economy brought prosperity to the emerging middle class. After the constant warfare and social chaos of the period of Warring States (sengoku jidai) in the 16th century, the Tokugawa peace of the 17th century was a welcome change for farmers, merchants, and artisans alike. That condition of change and peace was smoothly implemented by the shogun’s policy of transforming the samurai from a class of warriors into a class of administrators.

As a retainer serving the lord of the Nabeshima clan, in Hizen province (modern-day Saga and Nagasaki prefectures) on the southernmost main island of Kyushu, Yamamoto Tsunetomo lived far from the shogun’s seat of power in Edo. He was one of many samurai who resented the gradual shift from warrior to administrator; in an era of peace, they yearned for an earlier time when death on the battlefield provided simple proof of their honor. Tsunetomo and his sympathizers came to despise the shogun’s attempts to assert a new and bureaucratic Confucian orthodoxy on the samurai of Hizen and surrounding provinces.

Yamamoto Tsunetomo adhered to a traditional conception of bushido, but his own lord, Mitsushige, embraced the evolving new model of samurai as administrator. For example, a lord’s closest retainers observed the practice of oibara (or junshi)―committing seppuku (hara-kiri) at the death of their lord as a way of showing their loyalty. Mitsushige banned oibara in the Nabeshima clan in 1661. His intention seems to have been to preserve the most experienced retainers from death so that they could ensure administrative continuity within the clan. He disliked the practice of oibara in part because after the death of his father, Katsushige, 26 of his father’s ablest retainers followed him in death. The young Mitsushige abhorred the loss of them.

Tsunetomo himself was prevented from following Mitsushige in death in 1700 by his lord’s edict against it. The only honorable alternative left to Tsunetomo was the symbolic death of taking Buddhist vows and living in isolation at a temple in the remote hills of Hizen, and he did so beginning in 1701. It was there that, in about 1710, a samurai named Tashiro Tsuramoto, almost 20 years his junior, sought him out and began recording their conversations. The result is the book we know as Hagakure [Hidden Among the Leaves]. The original Hagakure consisted of 11 volumes. In the first two volumes, Tsuramoto recorded Tsunetomo’s teachings; the remaining nine volumes contained true stories of samurai behavior—whether exemplary or shameful—that came from Hizen and the surrounding provinces, as remembered by Tsunetomo and others. The book was probably completed by 1716, and Tsunetomo died shortly thereafter, in 1719.

Hagakure: The Code of the Samurai (The Manga Edition) is artfully adapted by screenwriter Sean Wilson and given a new fictional framework. In it, the young Tsuramoto is depicted as paying repeated visits to the master, Tsunetomo, to learn from him about warrior ideals. Each chapter records teachings and stories organized under five topics or headings: 1) The Way of the Samurai; 2) Loyalty; 3) Revenge; 4) Kaishaku and Seppuku, and 5) Sincerity. Some of these teachings will astonish modern readers by their brutality; other teachings will be readily understood. As a whole, the stories and illustrations, by manga artist Chie Kutsuwada, provide visually interesting insight into the way of the warrior as envisioned by Tsunetomo.

What should not be forgotten, however, is that Tsunetomo’s conception of bushido defied the official version that Confucian teachers promulgated in those days. Whereas the shogun deliberately de-emphasized the loyalty between retainer and lord in favor of loyalty to the Tokugawa state, Tsunetomo insisted that the bond between lord and retainer was paramount; he rejected attempts to deny retainers a chance to die for their lord’s honor, which he identified as being at the core of the warrior spirit. For that reason, Hagakure was suppressed as a dissident text during the Edo period and circulated only in secret until the late 19th century. It did not achieve respectable status until the 1930s in the lead-up to the Pacific War, when Japan’s militarists used Tsunetomo’s radical teachings as a means of inspiring the citizenry to go off and die willingly for their emperor. It is no small irony that in the 21st century, Hagakure is now circulated freely in the form of this new manga edition and has come to define orthodox samurai ideals for so many readers.

Paul Schalow is a professor of Japanese at Rutgers University, where he teaches classes on fiction related to the atomic bomb, Japanese women’s writing and East Asian civilization. He received his doctorate from Harvard University in 1985.

Review by an artist:

By C. R. Jamison

Anime and manga, despite their immense and contemporary popularity in the West, have their origins in the ancient East. It is difficult for artists and fans of manga to look at the art form’s style and media today without recognizing the distance between them and their original counterparts, as pioneered by the masterful Hokusai in Japan’s Edo Period. Manga often takes form in the notebooks of schoolchildren who try to copy the styles of their admired artists, down to each spike of hair and each pointy chin. Often in manga’s popularity, the further it gets from its roots, the more it becomes aesthetically derivative.

Despite its Western popularity, manga admirably maintains its roots in traditional Japanese mythology and culture. The manga adaptation of the Hagakure: The Code of the Samurai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo is an ideal example of this stylization of traditional culture. Translated by William Scott Wilson and illustrated by Chie Kutsuwada, this manga edition of Hagakure uses modern drawing and storytelling techniques to narrate the bushido code―the code of the samurai.

Hokusai, the father of manga, and the other artists of Edo Japan, stimulated the viewer by a certain economy of line: a line that varies in weight and quality with each confident stroke and that elicits a variety of forms and textures in as simple a manner as possible. It may be a tall order to expect today’s Chie Kutsuwada to compare favorably with those old masters, but because of the nature of this edition’s material, I think it’s a fair comparison. While Kutsuwada’s characters are likable and expressive, they perhaps lack distinction, slightly diminishing their individuality and experiences.

However, as one would expect with manga, the art shines in its visual storytelling. Sean Michael Wilson’s adaptation is often read in short bursts, as if one is actually listening to the wisdom-filled poems of a real monk. Kutsuwada’s paneling and storytelling read in this same slow and even pace. The scenes of violence within this manga form of Hagakure are few, but are told with enough distinction to excite the reader. Yet they have a detachment that keeps the violence from being glorified. Unlike many other graphic narratives, this manga adaptation of the Hagakure does not present its characters’ motivations and feelings by inner monologue. Only through the storytelling and its shifts in view and distance does the viewer glimpse the characters’ personalities, zooming and panning like the cinematography of an epic fantasy film.

Hagakure: The Code of the Samurai (The Manga Edition) is a worthwhile read. The interpretation seems honest and unconcerned with conforming itself and its idealism to the expectations of the modern day. It is, however, important to distinguish between drawing and storytelling. The drawing of the manga, while it has impressive moments, fails to give testament to the inner workings of the characters. The storytelling does succeed in creating a pace that is contemplative yet engaging, and that fills in the gaps left by the drawing. The intention of this manga was to use a modern storytelling medium to help the reader connect and empathize with a people and a tradition of the past. When all is said and done, and the dust clears, this Hagakure accomplishes its intention.

Chris Jamison graduated from the Corcoran College of Art + Design, where he is now completing a master’s degree in arts education. He teaches cartooning, sequential storytelling and Buddhist practices, and also creates his own comic characters.

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