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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Bamboo Sword by Shuhei Fujisawa

The Bamboo Sword and Other Samurai Tales by Shuhei Fujisawa, translated by Gavin Frew. New York: Kodansha International, 2005. ISBN: 978-4-7700-3005-4

I've always been interested in feudal Japanese history and society, but have somehow never gotten around to reading very much about it. That's probably why I picked up this book when I saw it, as so many I end up reading, on my local public library's “new fiction” shelves.

The eight stories in this slim volume take place in 17th century Japan, according to the jacket sleeve, after the civil wars have ended, and samurai, while still considered a step above the ordinary hoi polloi, are nonetheless, often somewhat at loose ends, since there are no more wars to fight. Instead, there are sometimes intrigues in which a samurai finds himself caught up by accident or by chance, sometimes personal issues to deal with, whether poverty, or drunkenness, or sloth, or perhaps family problems, such as children, or the lack thereof, or marrying them off, or the lack of suitable suitors, and on and on.

How does the samurai who finds himself without a firm center or well-defined reason for existence continue to live in honor, respecting himself and his superiors? These are the kinds of questions that are raised in these little vignettes of Japanese samurai life, after the raison d'etre for their existence has largely vanished.

Don't expect tales of great derring-do, thrilling adventures, or superb swordsmanship, though there is a bit of sword play from time to time. Expect instead, ordinary, simple enough people, trying to make their way in a world that no longer always values their skills and their honor, sometime even trying to take advantage of it. Recommended for those with a taste for this sort of thing, or for those with an interest in a culture very different from our own, where yet the humanity of ordinary people shines through again and again.

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