Samurai: An Illustrated History
By Mitsuo Kure
Tuttle Publishing, 2002.
US$34.95 (+$6 shipping).
ISBN: 0-8048-3287-0. 192 p. 9.25" x 12.5" hardcover
Reviewed by Diane Skoss
When I picked up and began to leaf through Samurai: An Illustrated
History by Mistuo Kure I was utterly captivated. Some two hundred fifty color
photographs and illustrations of Japanese warriors across the ages are
crammed into 192 (large) pages of text. Many of the photos come from
historical re-enactments in Japan, and they are vivid, detailed, beautifully
reproduced, and for the most part accurate. Unfortunately, the same cannot
be said for the brief text. Although the author hopes "that readers
may find enough in these pages to suggest a new image of the samurai,
modifying a picture which has been distorted by romanticism," and
he references much of the current scholarship in the field, all he has
accomplished is the pasting of a few newly uncovered facts onto time-worn
conceptions of the history of the samurai.
Mind you, this is not something that I would notice all by myself (especially
besotted by the photos as I am); I'm no specialist in Japanese medieval
history. But I know someone who is, so I asked Dr. Karl Friday for his
opinion of the history presented in this book. He replied:
Kure has read Takahashi Masaaki, Kawaii Yasushi, Fukuda Toyohiko, Suzuki
Masaya, and other recent work on samurai warfare (including my Hired
Swords, which is cited in the bibliography of his other picture book),
but too often he's completely missed the real importance of what the
new scholarship is saying, and how it fits into (and changes) the big
picture. This sort of problem is common in books by amateur historians
(Kure is a physician, not a scholar). The basic cause is researching
too narrowly--reading very specialized works on the topic under study,
without sufficient grounding in the broader context. In this case, Kure
clearly does not understand the socio-political backdrop against which
the new scholarship he's read is set. As a result, he's picked up bits
and pieces of details and incorporated them, but his general conception
of developments--the framework in which he sets everything--is still
the same story you find in old textbooks. He's also ignored some of the
key scholarship of the past decade or so--including Kondo Yoshikazu's
revisionist (but unanimously well-received) work on arms and armor. All
in all, this is the sort of thing that drives historians crazy.
In short, according to Dr. Friday, "Kure's history is full of (what
all specialists today consider) old canards and other egregious misconceptions
concerning Heian, medieval and early modern history."
So why, you may ask, would I dare call this book to your attention?
Basically, it is the photos, and the line drawings, which were done by
noted and respected historian, Sasama Yoshihiko. They are simply superb,
and worth, in my opinion, the price of the book. Just don't take the
history presented herein too seriously. In the end, this book is a perfect
example of how easily misinformation on Japanese warriors can become
widespread; don't fall into the trap. For accurate history on the samurai,
read Friday, Thomas Conlan, Jeffrey Mass, and Paul Varley (Marius Jansen's
Warrior Rule in Japan, an anthology of articles from the Cambridge History
of Japan, is a good place to start). Then feast, eyes wide open, on this
book for the sheer delight of the photographs.
Samurai: An Illustrated History is available from
the FightingArts Estore:
(+$5 shipping within US)
About The Reviewer:
Diane Skoss is a teacher
of aikido and muso shindo ryu jodo. She co-founder of Koryu.com, a website
dedicated to providing accurate and information about the classical Japanese
martial arts, and Koryi Books a publisher of three books, Koryu Bujutsu:
Classical Warrior Traditions of Japan, Sword & Spirit (volume 2),
and Keiko Shokon (volume 3). Skoss is also a well known authority on
and author of numerious article on the classical martial arts.