The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Taikamori by Mark Ravina

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For whatever reason I have always loved the samurai, or maybe it is the idea of the samurai. I am not sure why but they are just cool, or at least that is the way they have always been portrayed in western culture. Still I think there is a mystique that surrounds them and their ideals that can speak to any culture in the world. I love the movie The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise, I thought it was a really well done movie. Come to find out despite this book having the same title as the movie they are not the same story, although there are some similarities. We will get into that in a bit, but the samurai have always fascinated me and I wanted to learn more about them. I have also read The 47 Ronin which is a classic samurai tale, but that is a review for another time.

IMG_1736Mark Ravina is a scholar of early Japanese history. How you get into that field I have no idea, but this guy I think is one of the leading researchers in that field. He studied at Columbia, and earned his MA and PhD from Stanford, so the guy is pretty smart. According to Wikipedia, the similarities between the film and his book were said to be purely confidential. I find that hard to believe, although I do not think it matters, as I am not sure how, or if, nonfiction can be plagiarized? Anyways I think Ravina is quite intelligent and knows what his talking about when it comes to Japanese history.

The story claims to be about one of the most famous samurai in Japanese history, Takamori, there is a large portion of the book that focuses on the political jockeying and turmoil of 19th century Japan. The story covers all of Takamori’s life and all of its ups and downs. Surprisingly, he was banished from mainland Japan and sent into exile on two separate occasions. After that he returned to the good graces and rose to become one of the most powerful people in Japan. To this day he is regarded as a national hero, despite leading an unsuccessful rebellion against the Emperor.

I am not sure where to start with this one. I knew it was nonfiction, obviously, but was not expecting the majority of the book to focus on Japan’s political unrest in the 19th century, but this is what the majority of what the book was focused on. There were multiple pages where Takamori was never mentioned or had hardly anything to do with what was going on. To me I think the title was a little misleading. In defense I will also say that much of Takamori’s life involved politics, but I felt the story focused too much on this and not enough on the man himself as the title suggest. It’s kind of like writing a book about the life of Michael Jordan but mainly focusing on what other teams, besides the Bulls, were doing in the NBA.

As you know I hate to bash books, but there large portions of this book that was beyond unbearable to read. As I have said already there was too much detail about the political turmoil in Japan. There is no doubt that this needs to be mentioned and delved into, but to the point were no less than 1 million names were thrown around is a bit much in my opinion. (I did not count, but I don’t think the author mentioned 1 million names in the story.)

­Despite the unbearable parts there were some very interesting aspects to this book. A lot of it had to do with the samurai mindset and the understanding of Confucian teachings. This was a very important point of the story I thought. Takamori felt Japan was too quick to abandon its tradition and join the modern age and Western ideals.

Takamori spent almost his entire life trying to unify Japan, apparently they had a pretty backwards political system, with lords, a shogun, and an emperor, with the samurai thrown in there as well. Through much tribulation he was successful in abolishing the shogun, so Japan was ruled by a single Emperor. The problem came when the emperor wanted to get rid of the samurai. Takamori did not like that and he also felt that there were too maIMG_1740ny western ideas and technology being used and introduced to Japan. He led his rebellion that was ultimately crushed by the imperial army. After his defeat he was decapitated, but his head was never found.

What I find interesting is that he is still seen as such a national hero in Japan. But anyone who feels so deeply and passionately for their country to try and fight for their ideals could easily be a patriot. In writing this review I am trying to come up with a definition of what a patriot would be and how they are different from the normal crazy radicals out there. I think Takamori’s ideas were not fanatical in any way, and I think neither side of the rebellion was necessarily wrong. Although, as mentioned he did not think trains were useful, so I guess he was resisting change in a time of turmoil. Webster defines a patriot as one who loves his or her country and supports its authority and interests. I think this describes Takamori, he supported the Emperor, the leader at the time, but he felt he had the best interest of the nation at his heart, and honestly I cannot argue that he did not. I think it is safe to say that Takamori loved Japan, but just wanted its future to take a different path. I think we can all agree that slavery was wrong and the American Revolution was needed to abolish slavery. What I mean by that statement is that it is right and wrong, there is no gray area as in the Japanese rebellion. The abandonment of tradition and principles that Japan was built on was not the way for the country to go forward at least that is what Takamori felt. I do not think that this is a bad thing, but it is near impossible to adhere to these principles and modernize a nation. The other key thing to remember is that Takamori did support the authority in Japan, so no matter which way you slice it Saigo Takamori was a patriot, and as the title suggest the last of the legendary samurai.

I think Takamori had some very good points for his rebellion but was very narrow minded on others. Honor and tradition were very important in Japan, but those two qualities hold almost not merit in trying to modernize a nation. I think it is near impossible to maintain those ideals and move forward to be a global power. He also thought that trains, which were the main mode of transportation of the time, were silly and not needed. So you can see that maybe he felt he had the best intentions for the nation he loved but did not understand fully what was happening, or the sacrifices it would take to modernize and unify Japan.

Despite his short comings I think he did have a good point about staying true to who Japan was and not abandoning the old ways. The problem was that the IMG_1741samurai were no longer needed. With the creation of the imperial army, the legendary samurai and their political status were no longer important. Not only that but they all received a very nice stipend from the government, which was straining the already thin budget. From what I have gathered these two reasons were the catalyst for the demise of the mighty samurai.

The ending in this one was rather odd and I was very disappointed with it even though I already knew what was going to happen. I know this is not a novel, but the author made little to no attempt to write the ending in a way that the reader would be excited to read. The whole story built up to the final battle of Takamori’s forces and the imperial army, yet in the book the battle was skipped over and quickly jumped to the rebel forces having been defeated. I felt that even in a nonfiction story there is room for a little storytelling and at the very least throwing in some excitement. Too much of the book was textbookesque and the one chance the author had to throw in some theatrics, suspense, and storytelling the author let the opportunity fall right though his fingers.

The story of his life was very interesting and something that I really had almost no knowledge of beforehand. There are quite a few similarities between Takamori and Katsumoto from the film with the same name. That is why I find it hard to believe that someone writing the movie didn’t either read this book or know the story of Takamori. Anyways the move is good, and definitely more exciting than the book, that is for sure. I am not going to recommend you read this one but I am also not going to say to skip it, you just really need to know what you are getting into before you check it out. As I have already said there were parts of the story that were very interesting and brought to mind some fascinating questions, especially his mindset on war. However, those parts were too few and far between. If you enjoy politics and a good dose of history you will like this one. Check this one out at your own leisure.

Manik

 

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