Second Draft

Six-Guns and Swords

Posted in Research by Michael Skeet on Friday, February 26, 2010
Katana blade in National Museum, Tokyo

Blade of a katana, photographed in the National Museum, Tokyo, 2007.

One of things I’ve always enjoyed about Japanese chanbara movies is the direct link with Hollywood westerns. A circular link in the case of Seven Samurai, because Kurosawa always spoke of his admiration for John Ford’s westerns, and Shichin no samurai was itself the inspiration for The Magnificent Seven. Which you already knew, of course.

At any rate, I’ve discovered a significant (to Demon Gate, anyway) commonality between chanbara and western cinema: both of them provide a misleading sense of what fighting was actually like during the period in which they are set. Think about all of those westerns in which the characters blaze away at each other, using revolvers, at distances ranging from dozens to improbable hundreds of yards. Now think about the image of the samurai that pops into your head. You’re seeing a guy with a sword, aren’t you? In the same way that when you think of the Old West what pops into your head is a guy with a six-gun.

The popular image of the samurai is something heavily burnished by the Art of the Samurai exhibit I wrote about the other day. There were dozens of weapons shown in this exhibit—and all but three of them, I think, were swords or daggers.

My problem with this? Most samurai didn’t actually use their swords in combat. This obsessive identification of the samurai with his swords, and the fetishism about swords in general, is yet another artifact of the long Tokugawa period—a period, I hasten to add, in which samurai hardly fought at all except in the occasional equivalent of a gang-fight in the streets.

The difference between the perception and the reality really hit home to me when I got to the final section of The Art of the Samurai. Included in this section was large, six-panel screen dating from the 17th century. On the panels were paintings showing a panoramic view of the Battle of Kawanakajima (1561). This screen is an amazing piece of work, and I regret that I’ve been unable to find any representations of it to which I could link (the original is in the Wakayama Prefecture Museum).

I can, however, make the point that hit home so thoroughly by using this detail from a wood-block print of the Battle of Kawanakajima. This print (by Utagawa Yoshikazu) dates from 1853 (a good 200 years after the screen was painted) and is in the collection of the U.S. Library of Congress. Take a look at the mounted samurai fighting in this image. See how many of them are using swords?

And this image doesn’t represent the situation with nearly the effect of that six-panel screen. In that set of paintings, hardly anyone is fighting with a sword—and most of the samurai shown in the screen are fighting on foot, when presumably it would be easier to wield a sword than it would while fighting from horseback.

The truth of the situation is that, from all the reading I’ve done while researching this novel, samurai in the sengoku jidai fought with their swords only as a last resort. The preferred weapon of the samurai during this period was the yari, or lance (the word is usually translated as “spear,” but this implies that the yari could be thrown, and this was almost never the case; some yari were as big as pikes); before that, the preferred weapon was (as this image implies) the bow.

This is not to complain about the exhibit, understand. The Met is a museum of art, after all, and most practical military weapons are not what you could call attractive; they are intended to be functional. This is what really makes Japanese swords exceptional, in my view: they’re both beautiful and functional. Very functional, if you believe some of the stories.

At any rate, most chanbara movies are as useful for understanding samurai fighting as most westerns are for understanding US Cavalry tactics on the frontier. That’s not their primary goal. But it’s important for us to remember that the popular image of the samurai wading into battle with his sword drawn is at the least misleading.

Oh, and the non-sword weapons in the exhibit? One was a matchlock musket (teppo); one was the blade of a naginata, and only one was a yari blade. And the latter was only in the exhibit because it had been preserved on account of its being more than twice the size of a normal military lance-head.


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