Turnbull Book on Ako

Stephen Turnbull, one of the most prolific and controversial writers on Japanese military history, has written a book on the 47 Samurai incident. The Samurai Archives review is quite positive, though Turnbull’s involvement as historical consultant on the upcoming Keanu Reeves version does raise concerns.

It’s nice to see Turnbull stepping up his game a bit, using front-line scholarship and taking a critical approach, rather than the mish-mash of his earlier books. It seems unlikely to me, though, that the debunking scholarship which has advanced over the last decade or so will have a significant impact on popular versions of the incident. It’s possible, I suppose, that Turnbull’s involvement in the new movie means that it will be a thoroughly revisionist statement1 but the entrenched romantic version is going to remain authoritative until the revisionist history starts to get traction in Japan.

Even then, there’s the Shakespeare problem. We know that his portrayals of English kings and other historical moments were partisan and/or heavily fictionalized, but they remain some of the most enduring images and themes in historical fiction and movies, so that historians are still forced to routinely debunk these myths.2 Chushingura and its ilk created a solid mythology by the dawn of the modern age, and the imperialist valorization of the Ako Roshi and other self-destructive samurai tendencies reinforced a vision of the samurai as abstemious, effective, principled, selfless and frequently violent. It would take a dramatic cultural shift to wipe out this tradition, one that seems unlikely given Japan’s rightward tendencies these days.3

I was screening movies for my Samurai course and came across recommendations (on twitter, I think) for The Twilight Samurai. I was very impressed: the portrayal of samurai poverty, bureaucracy, domainal politics, bakumatsu confusion, and the diversity (and, generally speaking, irrelevance) of fighting styles (and illegality of dueling) was very nicely done. The romantic side was a little over-generous, perhaps, but more realistic that an awful lot of other historical pieces. If you’re looking for a solid historical movie, one that will educate more than it will obscure, it’s very good.

  1. assuming that all the pre-release publicity is wrong  

  2. It doesn’t help that “most historically accurate portrayal ever” in movie advertising usually means precisely the opposite, as the most recent Robin Hood versions demonstrate  

  3. more likely you’d see something like the American transformation of cowboy films: more internal focus and diversity, and an obscuring of the historically undeniable negative sides (i.e., Dances with Wolves and the death of the cowboy-and-indian film) with perhaps some culturally acceptable complications. Frankly, a good Brokeback Mountain treatment would go a long way, plus being historically credible.  


  1. Jonathan: for me what is most troubling is the complete lack of scholarly due diligence in Turnbull’s work (and in the Osprey press publications). I have no doubt that Turnbull and other specialists in Japanese military history know a tremendous amount about all things related to the samurai. The lack of citations and bibliographies in most of these publications, however, puts them on the same level as historical fiction for me. It sounds like the new book is perhaps more scholarly, but overall, I see this genre of work as doing far more to hurt than to help the larger cause of educating English-language readers about Japan in a fashion that avoids stereotyping and that contributes something significant and innovative to a shared scholarly conversation about the Japanese past.

  2. There’s a reason I don’t assign Turnbull when I’m teaching Samurai, yes. (And it looks like the Reeves project is going to set popular understand of Japan back decades: frankly, the descriptions I’ve read sound more like the children’s fiction I’m reading, with tests, challenges, and absurdly unlikely characters.) I’m reserving judgement a bit until I’ve seen it, or someone who’s an actual scholar has seen it. But the Samurai Archives folks are pretty serious about their material, and whether he’s footnoted things or not, clearly his bibliography has decent scholarly material in it.

    And I tend to agree about the Osprey genre, but I’d rather leave at least some tracks showing that we’ve engaged it and found it lacking than leave the field entirely open.

  3. In regard to Twilight Samurai, I too feel it is a very fitting film for students in order to show a bit more than the standard samurai depictions. I might also recommend Yojiro Takita’s “When the Last Sword is Drawn” (Mibu Gishi Den) from 2003, particularly for its portrayal of a mid/late 19th century Japan on the verge of extreme social change, as well as conflicting loyalties among the samurai of the time. It too includes the abovementioned sense of nostaligic romanticism common in many of the jidai geki and modern Japanese dramas, but it definitely shows the complexities faced by individuals, families, and friends at the close of the shogunate.

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