Asian History

Kagemusha – The Contemporary Perception of Samurai Honor

In the development of human civilization, one of the most complicated problems was tracking of time and understanding of one’s endurance through time. In this regard, realization of how things change over tie and how traditional values remain the same yet evolve with perception of each epoch were crucial for realization of the lessons of the past so that they could be used in contemporary reality. For some cultures were quite open to the external influence, other were more reserved and self-centered. This is particularly relevant for the national ways in warfare. In Japanese culture, it would refer to the samurai culture. The aim of the present essay is to explore the difference between samurai self-perception in the relatively close time of their existence and contemporary Japanese cultural perception of them. In this context, the description of samurai honor is shown through analysis of Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s tractate “Bushido: The Way of the Samurai” with the movie of Akira Kurasava “Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior)”. The main discrepancies in perception of samurai honor will be shown, and reasons for their appearance outlined.

The essence of the samurai honor is in the way of the warrior, but unlike in the Western culture where honor could be gained through personal valor, in case of the Samurai, the honor was in serving one’s family or clan. In this regard, way of the warrior was to be taught through an appropriate upbringing and correspondence of one blood line to a certain social class within Japanese society. That is why the right for honor was given by birth, provided with appropriate upbringing by father and proved by actions in the name of the clan’s survival (Tsunetomo 43). According to Tsunetomo, the honor is in the lack of selfishness, ability to sacrifice one’s life in the name of the clan, to show courage in the due time for the common reasons and not for personal valor, not to allow disgrace of any kind since it would damage not only his image but also the image of the master and the whole clan (Tsunetomo 38). Reading this definition of the samurai honor, one would immediately consider that samurai was a disciplined warrior, who had no fears or emotions, always acted out of honor, uncompromised and aware of what was to be done for the benefits of the clan rather than his own (Turnbull 72). Thus, death was the path of the warrior. It can be argued that this kind of description was rather idealistic and inspirational rather than entirely realistic. The reason for this is that the author aimed at inspiring readers with the ideal model of behavior, but a human being just as life are not ideal and circumstances cannot be predicted.

Exactly unpredictability of circumstances and human nature are the corner stone of the Kurasava’s movie. Although he shows traditional samurai values, he shows them through the contemporary lens of humanism. In this regard, he argued that samurai is made not by blood belonging but is brought by the environment of existence and that samurai honor is not in belonging to a certain social class but in motives for one’s actions. In this regard, he shows that Kagemusha, irrespective of being a petty thief, evolved into the level of understanding samurai path and accepting it as the only possible way for his life purpose (Kurasava). Although Kurasava aimed at showing due respect to the samurai heritage, he showed that idealization of the past is irrelevant and that true spirit of samurai can be in anyone. It only needs to evolve in the right direction – human values.

In this context, Kagemusha was given an opportunity to evolve because he was inspired by the honor code of samurai embodied in the behavior and motivation of the Lord Shingen. He did not only spare his life but also shared his vision of the world, inspire him with his honor. In this regard, irrespective of traditional Tsunemoto’s perception that samurai’s honor code is passed from father to son, Kurasava shows that the right person might be a mere peasant with the human values. In this context, he showed that a petty thief was more likely to understand the meaning of one’s life and honor in the name of the master rather than the very son of the master (Kurasava). Katsuyori proved to lose his honor because he disobeyed his father’s will, what is worse he disobeyed the will of the master of his clan and placed his own interest and dignity over the wisdom of the elders and survival of the clan (Kurasava).

Another difference between two sources is perception and picturing of death.  In this regard, while traditional way for a samurai to retrieve honor was to conduct seppuku or ritual suicide:

He Cut a blood trail and frequently made himself ready for hara-kiri. But, by some wondrous chance, he finally succeeded in making his household stand on its own” (Tsunetomo, 7)

In the movie, death was conducted with the purpose for the benefits of further battle conduct. In this context, it can be argued that Kurasava was taking the idea of honor retrieving through death and stylized it according to the perception and expectations of the contemporary audience. In this context, picturing of the seppuku and subsequent decapitation of the samurai would have been too bloody for the contemporary audience and would have been considered as savagery rather than honor. That is why he showed honor in dying in the battle for one’s clan and master irrespective for the fact that Kagemusha did not belong to that clan. Thus, using the image of the flag and the dead body of Kagemusha he wanted to show the spirit of the samurai honor through without traditional ritual framework.

Comparing two approaches of describing samurai honor and code of conduct, it can be argued that both of them were aimed at inspiring people for understanding of the samurai culture but by different audiences. In the time of Tsunetomo – about 60-70 years after the events shown in the movie, samurais were still quite strong class of the Japanese society, so he aimed at institutionalization of that class and its bloodline boundaries (Turnbull 121). He also aimed at providing guidance for various samurai and preservation of the traditions within the “samurai family” (Turnbull 92). In other words, he tried to preserve the past traditions the way they were kept through centuries of samurai practice. Kurasava, on the other hand, wanted to show that the samurai spirit is not conditioned by a class or blood and that it is enduring. Thus, it endured through times and could still be found in the contemporary to him Japan. His movie was to be an inspiration for his people and as a way of remembering lessons of the past.

Overall, it can be concluded that the main reason for differences in representation of the samurai honor is that authors belong to different historical epochs. In this context, it was not only their perception of samurai honor different, but also aims of samurai representation and the target audience to reach. In this context, it can be argued that while for Tsunemoto, personal and clan disgrace were to be purified through hara-kiri; for Kurasava, fighting in the battle, in the name of the master who was worth fighting for, was the essence of the samurai honor even for the one, who was not born to samurai family, but was influenced by the samurai culture by accident. These examples of historical interpretations show that it is extremely difficult for an individual to think outside his/hers epoch and perception of reality. One of the ways to improve objectivity is to compare various epochs and to understand societal conditionality of human perceptions.

Works Cited

Kurasava, Akira, dir. Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior). Twentieth Century Fox, 1980. Film.

Tsunetomo Yamamoto. Bushido: The Way of the Samurai. New York: Square One Publisher. 2002. Print.

Turnbull, S.R. The Samurai: A Military History. Oxon: Routledge. 1996. Print