Hagakure: The Code of the Samurai is based upon original stories dictated by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, a samurai retainer who lived from 1659-1719. Unable to follow his master in death, Tsunetomo shaved his head and became a Zen priest. The stories passed down from Tsunetomo are considered samurai classics and were originally published in book form, which are now translated and interpreted as manga.
The mere notion of real samurai stories in manga form got me totally excited, especially knowing how old and likely genuine the stories would be. So it's art plus samurai plus history. Nothing could go wrong, right? Read on to see if this winning combination of elements could prove their worth!
Title: Hagakure: The Code of the Samurai, The Manga Edition
For those who are die-hard manga fans, there's a few things you should know. First of all, this is a very American manga. The book reads from left to right, rather than the traditional Japanese right to left. Was that an issue for me? Not really, though it was a little bit surprising. The book is 144 pages, and is comprised of many short stories, which are almost like samurai parables, without a true overarching story, making this manga an extremely quick read. I finished the entire book in roughly an hour or so, and that was taking my time to appreciate it thoroughly for review.
In terms of art, this manga was just mediocre. While the art isn't ugly by any means, it lacks individuality and uniqueness. I feel like I've seen these drawings a hundred times over. In fact, many of them look like the types of characters you'd find in any basic "Drawing for Manga" title. While hairstyles and weapons are certainly accurate, faces are unimaginative, character designs are simplistic, and line quality is average. If a visually astounding title is what you're looking for, Hagakure probably isn't for you. However, that isn't to say that the entire piece falls apart. There are certainly redeeming qualities.
Hagakure's stories of the samurai are surprisingly meaningful, though not always in the way you might expect. While some of the lessons imparted speak highly of honor and sacrifice, more often than not, I found myself cringing at an unexpected harshness from the samurai way of life. It seemed to me that nearly every act required seppuku, or the killing of another over the smallest disputes. If you're reading this book for a fuzzy, idealized version of samurai life, you may be disappointed. However, if you're truly interested in the history and practices of the samurai, this manga may enlighten you. I know I certainly was surprised by the merciless way many of the encounters were presented, though surprisingly, I could still understand why a samurai-turned-Zen priest would pass on these stories.
Each set of lessons are split according to various categories like "The Way of the Samurai," "Loyalty" and "Revenge" among others, with each of the stories fitting into these sections. Normally, I would have thought that there would be a bigger variation between the stories from one chapter to another, especially being separated in this way. However, I found that many of the stories seemed to bleed together, again with ritual suicide being a recurring theme, as well as blatant murder, peppered with instances of loyalty, courage, and respect. I suppose the lack of variety in subject matter couldn't be avoided as this manga was adapted from an older, original text, but perhaps the stories could have been presented more creatively in order to differentiate them.
While Hagakure does have some moments of shining samurai glory, it is too often marred by lackluster visuals and a very simple if at times nearly boring translation. If you're interested in the truth of samurai life and getting a quick glance into the history without having to dedicate a lot of time, this manga is great for you. If you're expecting Hagakure to stand on its own as a manga title, you might want to pass it up, perhaps opting for the original text instead for something a little more meaningful.
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