I can think of two things that most immediately piqued my interest in Japan: their movies and their popular fiction. My first “Akira” was Kurosawa, not the Akira of Neo-Tokyo, so when I finally did come to anime and manga—the most common forms of Japanese popular culture that non-Japanese encounter—I’d already had some education into what fascinated the Japanese natively. It’s been said many times before that most of their own popular culture wasn’t intended to be appreciated by any other audience, which makes it all the more surprising for them when it does happen.
And happen it has, in little ways as well as big. It’s not just the fact that anime is a big sell for TV networks now, but publishing companies like Vertical have brought popular authors like Kōji Suzuki (of Ring infamy) and Randy Taguchi into the English language with good results. But there still remain broad swathes of the Japanese popular-culture landscape largely unexplored by the non-Japanese. Among them are bestselling works derived from Japan’s own turbulent past, of which I can think of only one offhand that has achieved anything like commercial success here: Eiji Yoshikawa’s Musashi, a novelization (shilling for romanticizing) of the life of the legendary swordsman. Some are only known to culture buffs, like Futaro Yamada—the man essentially responsible for the modern-day ninja mythology as we know it—and some are only known to scholars, like Bakin Takizawa’s retellings of Chinese epics. Few, if any, are in English.
Another to add to the list would have been Yasushi Inoue, a writer who until his death in 1991 was revered as a living national treasure and was the recipient of every single major prize in Japanese literature, but remained wholly unknown in any English-speaking country. Enter Yoko Riley, a professor of Japanese culture at the University of Calgary, whose enthusiasm for Inoue’s work prompted her to translate one of his most widely-read and influential books. The Samurai Banners of Furin Kazan (or simply Furin Kazan [風林火山], as it was known in Japan) was popular enough to merit a movie adaptation that has in turn become a favorite of samurai-film buffs, even when the original book remained an unknown.
Riley’s English translation makes it clear why this has been such a perennial favorite: it’s not just a good book but a great one, as much about the psychology and complexity of its characters as it is a reconstruction of the battles they fought in a compelling narrative. There have been enough treatments of this same story that seemed content to simply run through the whole thing as an adventure story. Heaven and Earth, for instance, took some of the same basic happenings but left behind the personal quirks, and what we got was nothing more than a static mock-Kurosawa tableau. This has not happened here.
The story itself is set during the turbulent 16th century, when Japan was split into a number of mutually warring factions. One of them was Takeda Shingen, whose ambitions to conquer the land are well-documented. The book deals not with him directly but with one of his generals, Yamamoto Kansuke—originally a ronin, a fiercely ugly man with one eye and a gimpy leg, whose ambition and military acumen so impress the up-and-coming Shingen that he hires the man in as his war strategist. The filmed version of the story gave us Toshiro Mifune as Kansuke, but as I read the book I imagined Takeshi Kitano, all tics and mannerisms and laconic bluntness, nicely inhabiting the same character’s skin.
Kansuke and Shingen quickly see in each other not only great collaborators but potential rivals. They are both cunning and remarkably willing to do what is needed to win: at one point they broker a truce with a potential enemy, invite him over for supper, and then have Kansuke assassinate the man while watching a ceremonial dance. Kansuke is quite unpretentious about his ambitions, too; he rather enjoys what he does, and in the opening chapters he ruminates happily about what his career with Shingen will bring him (he murmurs “Capturing castles, capturing castles” to himself like a mantra).
One of those captured castles yields up a prize—the daughter of a defeated clan lord, Princess Yuu. She is quite ready to die rather then be disgraced, but Kansuke stops her from doing so, and hauls her off as a prize. But his reaction quite surprises him: he doesn’t expect to be so moved by this brash young woman, and soon finds that his own behavior is becoming guided by hers—whether or not she’s even aware of it, and whether or not that brings him into competition for her with Shingen himself. This three-way tension drives the majority of the story, and Inoue does not let even the epic sweep of battle distract him from it—if anything, he finds every way he can to make that feed back into the real story he is telling.
I have read a number of books by Western authors that use the mystique of Japan’s past as a setting, and they often make the mistake of using the same opulent-to-overstuffed language as many a bad fantasy novel. Then I read what the Japanese themselves write about their own past, and it is often so lean and spare, so deliberately unadorned, that I suspect they do this only because they don’t feel the need to gild a lily. Inoue’s writing (expressed gracefully through Riley’s undistracting translation) is like this—it’s almost minimalist, but it gives you everything you need to know and nothing you don’t, and has many moments of wonderfully direct beauty at the same time.
Back when I wrote my review of the first Vampire Hunter D novel, I talked about how the mere fact that series was being translated for English-speaking audiences was in itself significant, because it meant that other books that were ostensibly better and more culturally significant could also get translated. This is one of those books, and it deserves your attention.
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