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The BAMBOO SWORD: And Other Samurai Tales by Shuwei Fujisawa, Gavin Frew (translator) February 22, 2007

Posted by a Wristfister in Anthologies, Books, Historical Fiction, Short stories.


Published by: Kodansha International [2006], hardcover, 256 pages, ~$22.00

Reviewed by: Bowie

Synopsis: This collection of eight stories evokes life in early 17th-century Japan, a time when peace finally reigns after centuries of civil war. It is a period of political upheaval full of intrigue, rivalry, and betrayals. The samurai are still valued for their swordsmanship, and are a cut above the peasants, artisans, and merchants in the social hierarchy. Without battles to fight, however, these career warriors struggle to retain their sense of pride and meaning in life as they attempt to settle into mundane jobs and family life. Occasional flashes of the sword are tempered by the sympathies, conspiracies, kindnesses, and enmities arising between people from across the social spectrum.

The eight stories are:

The Bamboo Sword (Takemitsu shimatsu). A downtrodden ronin must try to feed and shelter his wife and child with only a dubious letter of recommendation from another town. Salvation comes, but only after being forced to show his deadly mastery of the Toda School of short-sword fighting.

A Passing Shower (Hashiri ame). A knife-sharpening artisan, who moonlights as a burglar, stakes out a potential hit, but is continually thwarted by other midnight intrigues along a shinto shrine. Redemption comes, but in the most unlikely of forms.

All for a Melon (Ikkano uri). Two low-ranking samurai contemplate their unhappy family life and social misgivings. Commendation comes, but with a trifling prize.

Kozuru. A samurai and his wife, infamous in their neighborhood for their loud and disruptive arguments, take in a mute orphan (named Kozuru) with amnesia. Marital contentment comes to the couple as Kozuru’s forgotten past catches up with her.

Shinza, the Samurai (Heso magari Shinza). An old-fashioned warrior is uneasy with the changing culture of a peaceful Japan. Resolution comes when he accepts a brash young man as suitor to his only daughter.

Out of Luck (Un no tsuki). A carefree band of friends with no interests other than drinking and carousing meet a crossroads in their friendship when one of them (Sanjiro) is forced to marry and settle down. Enlightenment comes when Sanjiro discovers the rewards to having a more meaningful life.

The Runaway Stallion (Sannomaru Hiroba Gejodoki). A languishing samurai (Jubei) reflects on his recent demotions and discovers an old rival has been behind his misfortunes. Restitution comes after Jubei diligently trains at this old dojo.

Dancing Hands (Odoru te). An elderly women is seemingly abandoned by her debt-ridden family and loses all desire to live. Hopefulness comes in the form of a young boy whom she cared for in happier times.

Review: Originally published in Japanese in various publications ranging from 1976 to 1988, this book was developed by the Japanese Literature Publishing Project and is the perfect anthology if you are interested in historical fiction set in feudal Japan. Each story is not connected to any other, but taken as a whole, the book brings a distant culture to life with relatable characters in vignettes that sometimes sound more like parables than historical accounts. Many of the characters are little more than caricatures that add a tone of exaggerated comedy and is probably one of the reasons why Fujisawa’s writing has adapted well for TV and film (Yoji Yamada’s films Twilight Samurai and Hidden Blade are both inspired by Fujisawa’s writings). At times, I felt something may have been lost in translation, as the English prose isn’t the smoothest. Sometimes, however, Fujisawa abandons the fable-like quality of his storytelling and presents a touching portrait of a life defined by honor and custom that often conflicts with human emotion. It is in these moments that I enjoyed the book the most.

Links: Twilight Samurai, Hidden Blade



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