Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Why Are We Still So Fascinated by the Samurai?

by Ross Watkins





Scene from Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai
(on which The Magnificent Seven
and (strangely) Bug's Life were based).
Plunging his sword into his abdomen he makes cuts from right to left tearing his inner intestines, all this done while in extreme pain. Then once he has endured enough, the second will behead the man leaving a small stand of skin so the head does not hit the ground and cause dishonour. All this done to uphold the honour of one so that their family does not fall out of favour with their lord. This was the ancient ritual of sacrifice called Seppuku (or stomach cutting).
To you and me, this may seem barbaric, but to those involved it was a process which was extremely sacred and was done willingly when they had been captured by the opposition or had been ordered to do so by the Emperor.
The Samurai were the warrior elite of Japan from 660 BC 1876 AD (when the Emperor made the wearing of swords illegal). They were seen as a superior class of people to the peasant farmers and the merchants and they had the authority to end a person's life if they suspected that they were dishonouring them.
So how did these warriors gain such power? Japan had a feudal system just like that of Europe. The whole country was ruled by two people: the Emperor, who was the head of state and spiritual leader, the symbol of Japanese power. There also was the  Shogun who was the warrior leader of Japan who was in charge of running the country. But this position of Shogun was hotly contested, with many people trying to overthrow the current Shogun at any one point of time.
This led to eras like the time of the warring states in which Japan was engulfed in civil war for nearly two hundred years. Japan had many different kingdoms which were each ruled by a dynamo, who were the lords of each area- like a lord of the manor in the Middle Ages. The dynamo then employed an army made up of skilled warriors: the samurai.
The samurai are often famed in popular culture for their weapons and fighting style. The sword of the samurai or katana is seen by many as the ultimate weapon available to a warrior in the middle ages. This is due to the myths which have been created around it. One myth which I must rule out now is that most of the katanas could slice through a human body in one, which I believe creates the vision of a super-soldier in a blood-lust craze decapitating a person with once strike. The truth was much more morbid; the sword was sharper than needed to easily pierce flesh and therefore could easily slice through flesh but it would normally be stopped when meeting bone, which would leave a half severed body with entrails spewing out, which was presumably not a pleasant sight.

However, the sword was a work of art, perfectly balanced towards the handle so that the fighter could skilfully place his blade. Also, blades were curved so that the owner could draw the blade and slice down his enemy in one move for that was the style of fighting which the samurai favoured; their fighting style was based on making as few moves as possible and being the first to cut the opponent down, this sequence of events often preceded by the two men shouting their names at each other, supplemented by the shouting of "Heritage", meaning that they were showing their family prowess and honour. As a result, battles were very well organised affairs with individual duels happening in spaces across the battlefield.
Death from afar, splintered wood comes raining down from the sky in a never ending torrent of death: the lesser-known samurai weapon, the bow. The bow was the weapon of choice for many samurai. This is due to the skill required to use such a weapon; it was a delicate weapon, which, unlike the English longbow, was balanced off the centre to stop all the force affecting the aim of the bearer.  This meant that a samurai could find their victim and kill them with ease from a great distance, killing in what was perceivwed as a dishonourable way.
So why do the samurai remain of such interest today? I believe this is due to a plethora of factors, one of which is the way the samurai have been portrayed in films such as The Last Samurai; these films have helped show the modern generation what the samurai were like, albeit in a glorified way, and have helped their image survive through the generations, I also believe that the whole character and honour which comes with the samurai is addictive to many historians and this, I believe, is why the samurai will live on into the future

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