Wednesday, July 8, 2009
BOOK REVIEW: The Bamboo Sword and Other Samurai Tales
The Bamboo Sword and Other Samurai Tales
(Gavin Frew trans.)
Originally published: 2006
Reviewed by Eric Evans
If you don't recognize the name Shuhei Fujisawa, don't beat yourself up too badly. Until Kodansha International released his collection of short stories "The Bamboo Sword and Other Samurai Tales", his work had been unavailable in any kind of mass-market translation. If the name sounds vaguely familiar, you've probably seen it in the credits of Director Yôji Yamada's samurai trilogy. Fujisawa's (below left) the author of the source fiction from which Yamada made "Twilight Samurai", "The Hidden Blade" and "Love and Honor".
"The Bamboo Sword" is a short story collection with eight tales of Edo-period Japan. Each of the stories has a gentle but insistent momentum, and an earthy realness that fans of "Twilight Samurai" will recognize and appreciate. I don't mean to lessen Yamada's achievements with his samurai films, but for me what sets them apart from other chambara is their tone, and that's right here on the page. Yamada achieved something few can: He translated the writer's tone and intent from the written page to the screen.
None of Fujisawa's Samurai are simplistically invincible warriors. They're blue-collar working men who walk a fine line between maintaining their honor and taking whatever work they can get. This demystification of the samurai may not be a new concept--half of Toshiro Mifune's roles were men filthy and desperate to make a buck, even if they carried themselves with pride--but Fujisawa imbues his characters with a quiet dignity that underscores their various dilemmas with pathos. Not all the characters i these stories are samurai, but perhaps as you'd expect those that are resonate the strongest.
Elements of the titular story will be familiar. Tanjuro is an unemployed samurai--technically a ronin, but carrying a letter of recommendation and therefore hopeful of work--who arrives at the city gates with his wife and children in tow. He's traveled a great distance for a post which is no longer vacant, but the family's manners and bearing in the face of their poverty inspire pity, and he's given the opportunity to earn a livable income: He must kill another samurai in the lord's employ, a task which is both distasteful and emotionally difficult for him. Tanjuro has to weigh his family's hunger against his sense of honor, exactly the type of dilemma Yamada exploits so brilliantly onscreen.
Like the best short story writers, Fujisawa creates great depth in character with few words. His loyalties are clearly with the common man. Rarely does anyone in a position of wealth or power behave admirably; Even the thief in "A Passing Shower" has a sort of shabby nobility. "The Runaway Stallion" unfolds like a mystery written by vintage Martin Amis. Thematically the common thread throughout the stories is a sympathy for the underclasses; Stylistically it's an economy of language that is often striking. For example, the first three paragraphs of "Out of Luck" convey the mise en scène of a Tokugawa-era bar and it's owner, a once-great beauty, with such precision that I stopped and re-read them twice to marvel at the exactitude of the writing. It's easy to be florid and take all the room you need to make your point, but incredibly difficult, even poetic, to do the same with as few words as Fujisawa needs in these stories.
"The Bamboo Sword and Other Samurai Tales" is available in a mass-market hardcover for about $16 from Amazon and other vendors. Its eight stories span 253 pages, and each is richly cinematic in scope despite the obvious restraint in their execution. It's a good read, ideal for anyone interested in Yamada-esque samurai stories, Edo-period settings, or the craft of short-story writing.