Sunday, March 7, 2010

Book Review: The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori

Mark Ravina's The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori (2005) follows one of the last samurai folk heroes in Japan, the leader of the Satsuma Rebellion (1877) and a hugely influential samurai in the chaos of the mid-late 1800s. It follows Saigo's rise from a low-ranking samurai tax clerk to Imperial adviser and finally national folk hero dying on the battlefield, hopelessly outnumbered by forces sent from the government he helped shape.

If you saw Tom Cruise's The Last Samurai, Ken Watanabe's Katsumoto character is based very loosely on Takamori: a powerful samurai unhappy with the changing times and the government but who, at the same time, has a worshipful, reverent view of the Emperor himself and strong moral ideals.

I picked this book up at my local library as part of my "learn more about samurai" goal, not knowing much about Japanese political history. It is definitely a scholarly text, with a lot of fine details, but written engagingly enough that I was able to read the entire book without losing interest.

One interesting note is that while I knew the Meiji government stripped the daimyo (lead samurai lords) of their titles and such, I never realized how brutally swift they were about it until this book: some of the main lords were called in for a meeting in the capital, not being told what it was about. When the meeting started, they were told that their ancestral titles of centuries, status, money, and lands were being taken from them, forever, as of that moment.

Another noteworthy cultural detail was the "Mito School" philosophy: named after the feudal region it came from, this way of thinking said that not only was Japan unique, it was literally the land of the gods and sacred. Saigo himself bought heavily into this idea, and felt it was worth learning Western technology not because it was desirable in itself, but for the express purpose of kicking Westerners out of Japan and preserving the sanctity of the country.

In general, if you're a casual reader, this is probably not the book for you. But if you want a very detailed look at one of the most famous samurai of his time and possibly ever, along with the unique circumstances that shaped his world, it's an excellent book written in a clear, objective voice and worth a read.

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