I’ve always been fascinated with Japanese culture, especially the Samurai, mostly because they were so vastly different from our own western beliefs. The Samurai, the warrior class of feudal Japan, followed their belief of Bushido, which translates to the “way of the warrior.”
Bushido principles center around an emphasis on honor, courage, skill in the martial arts, and loyalty to a warrior’s master (daimyo) above everything. Bushido wasn’t based on religion but on ethics. A samurai was trained from an early age in frugality, righteousness, courage, benevolence, respect, sincerity, honor, loyalty, and self-control. The samurai considered themselves warrior poets.
That self-control meant that a samurai must have a total absence of the fear of death. In fact, the samurai, if they felt they were about to or had already lost their honor, were expected to commit a ritualistic suicide called “seppuku” in order to regain their honor. American troops saw first-hand how the Bushido code made the Japanese a dangerous enemy.
Netflix’s recent docu-series Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan takes the development of Bushido to the final level of development during the Tokugawa era, from 1600 to 1868.
Here in the West, there is not a lot of attention given to feudal Japan. We tend to focus on the events of World War II but the history of the Tokugawa era was its precursor. And Netflix’s series is a fascinating much-watch bit of Japanese history.
The series begins in 1551 with the death of Oda Nobuhide, head of the Oda clan. Japan’s central government had disintegrated and civil war was widespread between power-seeking warlords. Nobuhide’s son Oda Nobunaga, arises as a “great unifier” of Japan, showing great vision in modernizing the military strategies while adopting the use of firearms. While melee combat persisted and the katana, the Japanese sword, was still the preferred weapon, Nobunaga recognizes how a feudal “combined arms army” will be difficult to stop.
Netflix does a superb job of blending battle recreations with the beautiful shots of samurai wearing their armor. Much of the battle scenes are done in Sam Peckinpah-esque super slow motion with blood spurts and heads rolling. Intermingled with these scenes are maps that show the areas involved with the colors blending, almost as if it were blood-soaked, which gives a big-picture perspective.
Black and white interviews with several noted historians and authors including Tomoko Kitagawa, Stephen Turnbull, David Spafford, and others are notable because they all seem to agree on the events and the factors driving them.
Nobunaga’s grip on the power of Japan in the first half of the series gives way to the rise of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who rose from a peasant background to become a retainer for Nobunaga and after his death rose to be the Chancellor of the Realm and Imperial Regent. He then began an ill-advised war against China by trying to invade through Korea.
After Hideyoshi’s death, the council of five regents was unable to keep the ambitious Tokugawa Ieyasu in check. Ieyasu was both careful and at times bold, recognizing when it was time for decisive action. He seized power in 1600, after the Battle of Sekigahara. He received an appointment as Shōgun in 1603.
Age of Samurai is a fascinating and entertaining look at feudal Japan. If there was a criticism, it was that I found myself wishing the producers had used more CGI to recreate the battle scenes, but again this was a Netflix production and not a major studio undertaking with a soaring budget.
Age of Samurai is like a graphic novel come to life. The historical facts are solid, and many viewers were no doubt racing to the nearest library or Wiki to sharp-shoot the producers’ versions of events… but they were spot-on.
Viewers are flocking to binge-watch Age of Samurai… and with good reason. It was a truly fantastic piece of filmmaking. It is highly recommended.