Today I’m pleased to welcome guest author Travis Heermann, a fellow author of Japanese-themed fiction who’s agreed to share a little about his love for Japanese history and culture.
Travis is also hosting a Kickstarter campaign for his next novel, Sword of the Ronin – and you’ll find a link and more information at the end of his post.
Lots of readers around these parts might be fans of Japanese stuff, for obvious reasons, so I’m thankful to Susan for letting me chime in, and also present a small request (more on that in a minute).
I guess I first fell in love with Japanese culture when I saw Star Wars (now Episode IV: A New Hope, blah blah blah)….
“Huh whut?” you say, “There ain’t no Asians in that movie!”
I didn’t discover this until many years later, but the Jedi were inspired by samurai. One of the great inspirations for Star Wars was the Japanese film The Hidden Fortress by director Akira Kurosawa.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
A naïve and incomplete vision of a samurai is that of the indomitable swordsman, ready to die for his cause, protecting the weak and upholding justice. With a realllly sharp sword. While certainly not a lightsaber, the katana is capable of tremendous feats of cutting, the perfect evolution of an instrument designed to cut through flesh and bone with greatest efficiency. In days of yore, newly forged katana were rated by the number of bodies they could cut through in a single stroke. New blades were tested on the stacked corpses of criminals, and some blades were known to have cut through five human torsos in a single downward stroke.
But I digress.
When I was in high school, I happened upon a movie on Bravo called Musashi Miyamoto, from 1954, starring Toshiro Mifune. My curiosity was stoked by the screen presence of the lead actor and perhaps having to read a movie for the first time ever, so I watched it to the end, enthralled. That film is the first in what is now called The Samurai Trilogy. I devoured them all, completely blown away.
Toshiro Mifune brought more power and intensity to the screen than all but a small handful of actors, like a tiger in human form. In addition to the Samurai Trilogy, he starred in a long list of Kurosawa films, and he dominates every scene in which he appears.
Here’s a few:
- The Seven Samurai
- Red Beard (Akahige)
- Throne of Blood
- The Hidden Fortress (hello, Mr. Lucas!)
What strikes me about Japanese culture are the deep fundamental differences between it and Western culture, the values that drive us at the core level. For the Japanese, the needs of the many far outweigh the needs of the few or the one (bet you didn’t think I could work in a Wrath of Khan reference did you). Community over individualism. Group over Self. This results in behaviors that often leave Westerners thinking, “Huh? Why the hell did he just do that?” This reaction happens routinely when I watch Japanese movies with friends.
Here’s a conversation I had with a friend after watching Musashi Miyamoto recently.
“You mean he’s going to leave her? They clearly adore each other and want to hump like bunnies!”
“Because he’s going to away to train himself and can’t let love stand in the way. He wants to be the best swordsman there ever was.”
“But he loves her! Why can’t she go with him?”
“She would be a distraction.”
“So she’s just going to stand there by that bridge waiting for him to come back maybe? Someday?”
In the case of Musashi, he was not about the Group there, but this highlights another aspect of samurai culture—absolute single-minded pursuit of martial prowess. There were to be two things on a warrior’s mind, becoming a better warrior and serving his lord.
Here in the West, how single-minded are we about anything?
East vs. West
Japanese and American culture could form two extremes on a spectrum of the individual versus the community. For Americans, intellectual understanding of the Japanese way is one thing; seeing it in practice is another. As a Westerner living in Japan, I often saw behaviors than mystified me.
A prime example from when I lived there, taken from an article on Japan Focus.
“In the spring of 2004 [in the early days of the war in Iraq], five Japanese civilians doing volunteer aid and media work in Iraq were kidnapped, threatened and released unharmed by Iraqi militant groups in two separate, overlapping incidents lasting just over one week. On their return to Japan (16 April 2004), the hostages appeared defensively solemn, having been harshly criticized and shamed for their effrontery to travel to a government-declared danger zone and undertake anti-war actions perceived as critical of both the Japanese and U.S. presence in Iraq. More than the abductions themselves, the inhospitable homecoming seized headlines around the world and marked one of the most searing images in Japan’s controversial involvement in the American-led war.
The first, more publicized, abduction was initially seen as a test of the commitment of Japan to support America, but within one week was transmogrified in Japanese media to public shaming of the victims. The five were compelled to say they were “sorry” for their transgression and were pressured to pay back some of their repatriation expenses to the state. In the story’s moral ending, they should have been acting with “self-responsibility” (jiko sekinin).”
These people went to Iraq, were abducted by militants, subsequently were released, returned home, and were castigated by their communities for their “selfishness.”
The group nearly always wins out over the needs of the individual, whether the group comprises family, job, town, or country; people have a selflessness which often results in the devastation of individuals’ personal well-being.
Here’s the other side of that coin.
At the start of the ongoing Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, a number of aged plant workers came out of retirement literally to sacrifice themselves and save the world from radioactive fallout. These old Japanese men went into areas of the Fukushima plants contaminated by lethal doses of radioactivity to do work that was a death sentence, because they knew it had to be done; they had lived their lives.
At the other extreme, American culture is all about the Rugged Individualist, he who needs no family or community or society to succeed, must often succeed in spite of the Group. Self over Group. Our culture is filled with narratives of heroes who “went against the odds” and achieved great things, people who “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps” and made something of themselves. This is embedded in the “American Dream” itself.
The downside of this is an often astonishing self-absorption and narcissism, which is detrimental to the needs of the community and society as a whole. (Ridiculous gun laws, bloated CEO salaries, and environmental degradation anyone?)
Japanese culture shows us that there are other ways of doing things that are diametrically opposed to the way American culture does things. We are all still human beings, and there are fantastically successful ways to succeed beyond what we in the West think we know.
Parallel with my discovery of samurai cinema was an intense interest in Japanese animation, stoked by desperate efforts to watch Robotech through the snow of a TV signal that wouldn’t quite come in. (I’m so old that it wasn’t even called anime back then.) All I knew is that those brief glimpses of Robotech made the coolest cartoon I had ever seen.
In the 80s, Japanese animation was mighty hard to come by in rural Nebraska, until I got to college in the big city and saw Akira and discovered the films of Hayao Miyazaki. Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira blew my mind for its epic scope, smooth, scintillating detail, and mind-bending concept, and My Neighbor Totoro for its tenderness, endearing characters, and originality.
Walt Disney and company pioneered animation, but somewhere along the way, perhaps the 1970s, the Japanese picked it up, ran with it, and left American animators in the dust. In 1988, Akira was groundbreaking for its sheer, breathtaking detail, and represented a new pinnacle of what animation could be. There have been other milestones, such as Ghost in the Shell, that keep raising the bar. Traditional animators in America seem to have given up trying to catch up and nowadays simply focus on computer animation. Japanese animation has become the standard.
Japanophile + Writer = ….?
Through live-action and animated films, I fed my passion for samurai adventure, Japanese culture and history, until I reached the point where I knew I had to write a samurai novel. I’d been a writer since elementary school, and writing novels was as necessary to my existence as breathing.
So I set foot upon the path that would lead me to begin writing The Ronin Trilogy. My agent sold the first book, Heart of the Ronin, to Gale-Cengage’s Five Star imprint in 2009. Unfortunately, Five Star subsequently phased out their fantasy and sci-fi line, effectively orphaning the series. As a promotion experiment, I also released Heart of the Ronin as a serial audio book via podcasting. So ever since the book’s release, readers and podcast listeners have been asking when the next book is coming out. Meanwhile I had written a couple of other novels and screenplays, but in 2012 I returned to the world of 13th century Japan and finished the second book, Sword of the Ronin.
The reasons behind this decision can be found here, but I have launched a Kickstarter campaign for the month of January, 2013, to fund the publication of Sword of the Ronin. This will be my first venture into indie-publishing, and I would be immensely obliged if you would give the campaign a look here.
C’mon, samurai, ninja, demons, talking animals, hordes of barbarian invaders, you know you’re curious. A story is afoot!