Hagakure: The Code of the Samurai is an absolutely fascinating book. Written as a series of short tales told from a master to an acolyte, the book describes the philosophy that fed Bushido, the classic Japanese way of the warrior.
Hagaakure is more a book of stories that illuminate philosophy than it is a book that tells tales of fiction. I found myself completely lost in this book, contemplating the interesting insights into Bushido culture that are described on its pages.
In one of the most interesting stories, Lord Katsushige gets angry at his retainer and begins beating the servant about the head. However, the Lord accidentally drops his weapon down a hill. Without hesitation, the retainer plunges down the hill at much risk to himself to quickly retrieve the weapon for his master. We are meant to appreciate the loyalty in the Bushido tradition that the acolyte shows with his actions.
There are also a series of stories about revenge. In fact, one of the most striking lines in the book is in this revenge section: “a certain person was brought to shame because he did not take revenge.” That line leads into a description of why a man must always seek revenge, no matter how futile the effort may be. There’s great power in Boshido in the valiant-but-futile attempt for a few men to defeat an entire army. The quest for revenge is what’s important, not the actual success at achieving vengeance.
I was also fascinated by the cold-hearted approach that the samurai had towards the violence that was a big part of their lives. As one samurai tells his acolyte, “last year I went to the Kase execution grounds to try my hand at beheadings, and I found it to be an extremely good feeling. To think that it is unnerving is a symptom of cowardice.” What a different approach than you might find in a book about Western philosophy.
All of the stories in this book took me to a different world than I’m used to, and they exposed me to a fascinating set of beliefs. What makes it even more fascinating is that this manga wasn’t written by a Japanese writer. Instead, Hagakure is adapted from the classic philosophic work by Scottish author Sean Michael Wilson, who provides a surprisingly insightful and clear exploration of the Bushido philosophy. I easily understood the lessons that he conveyed, and I thought the many stories were just as long as they needed to be–no more and no less.
The book is backed up by an intriguing afterword by educator William Scott Wilson (no relation to the book’s author), who discusses the Boshido philosophy with wonderful precision. It’s rare for me to praise an afterword in a review, but Wilson’s comments fascinated me and made me want to read more about this topic.
Chie Kutsuwada’s art is just right for this book. It has a great manga feel to it, which gives the book an interesting sense of balance between old and new–old philosophy presented in new ways. Her depictions of battles and swordplay fit classic manga approaches to combat, but her depictions of the quiet moments have more of a familiar Western feel to them. That contrast was also quite intriguing.
I keep using the word “fascinating” in describing this book, which seems completely appropriate. This is a very fascinating book on most every level. Anyone with more than a passing interest in Bushido culture will likely feel the same.