Netflix – Age of Samurai Review

I’m Paul Willson I am a brown belt in Ju Jutsu, a centuries old Japanese martial art.

Photo by Sachith Ravishka Kodikara on Pexels.com

Netflix recently released the documentary Age of Samurai telling the story of the end of the Sengoku period or Warring States period from 1467 to 1615. The documentary dramatises the story, with commentary from historians, of the rise to power of Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu and their eventual unification and control of the whole of Japan.

The Sengoku period was a period of constant warfare in Japan where any semblance of control dissolved and the various lord or daimyo fought amongst themselves for power, land and wealth. Think of Game of Thrones or War of the Roses. For over a thousand years Japanese Emperors, with a few exceptions, have held only ceremonial position. Real political power was in the hands of hereditary Shoguns who were really military dictators who gained control of Japan normally by defeating the previous Shogunate in battle.

In martial arts we often have a romanticised idea of Bushido. The Sengoku period was a last man standing civil war. Military defeat meant death by beheading or seppuku (ritual suicide) of the daimyo and their family (including their children even if they were young). Quite often if a daimyo fell those in their pay simply switched sides. Obedience of weaker daimyo and important families and adherence of agreements was gained by the taking of hostages. Loyalty was given only to the strong and honour was rare. The winner of course was someone nobody ever expected.

The story begins with the rise of Oda Nobunaga the heir to the daimyo of the small and unimportant Owari province. Oda Nobunaga was a belligerent and opportunistic character who first secured power in Owari province after the death of his father then ambushed and defeated the far superior army of Imagawa Yoshimoto as they marched through Owari province on their way to the then capital of Kyoto at the Battle of Okehazama and then began a blood thirsty campaign to unify Japan slaughtering anyone who who stood in his way earning himself the nickname the Demon Daimyo after the massacre on Mount Hiei in his destruction of the warrior monks of the Enryaku-ji monastary. We then had a perfect storm of three men coming together who were the only ones with the vision, strategic talent and greater tactical ability to unite Japan.

You would have noticed my use of the words blood thirsty, massacre, slaughter and destruction. These words are not exaggerating events. The death toll of Oda Nobunaga’s campaigns, killing men, women and children and civilians and combatants alike, were horrific and his nickname of the Demon Daimyo was well deserved as he shocked even those in a time when violent deaths and atrocities were common.

The reason of their success was down to what they did. Early on Oda Nobunaga saw the value of arquebuses (early fire arms) introduced previously by the Portuguese. His innovative use of arquebuses at the Battle of Nagashino defeated the Takeda clan who had the one of the best if not the best cavalry in Japan at the time. Also Oda Nobunaga had the ability to spot and promote talent. Toyotomi Hideyoshi was only a foot soldier but he was able to rise through the ranks to become one of Oda Nobunaga’s most trusted advisors at a time when this was virtually impossible and Tokugawa Ieyasu fought for Imagawa Yoshimoto and probably have been beheaded after the Battle of Okehazama but again he became an important advisor to Oda Nobunaga.

Even Oda Nobunaga’s death in the Honno-ji incident couldn’t stop the unification of Japan as we moved to the next stage of the story as Toyotomi Hideyoshi became Shogun and completed the unification of Japan. Now don’t think Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu liked or trusted each other. However, they did respect each other and came to the conclusion that being allies would serve both their interests. The pair were joined by the highly talented tactician Date Masamune, the One-Eyed Dragon of Oshu. A man who cut out his own deformed eye ball after suffering smallpox to prove he was worthy to be a daimyo when even his own mother wanted him killed. His brazen disregard of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s authority and his tactical ability forced Toyotomi Hideyoshi to offer an alliance and prestige to Date Masamune which allowed Toyotomi Hideyoshi to exert control of northern Japan without having to face resistance and spill a large amount of bloodshed.

After the disastrous invasion of Korea and death of the now mentally unstable Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Tokugawa Ieyasu came to power as Shogun after patiently waiting for decades by outmaneuvering Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s son’s 4 other guardians and winning the Battle of Sekigahara and Seige of Osaka bringing the end to the Sengoku period and creating an hereditary shogunate bringing over 200 years of peace to Japan.

The dramatising of events did a good job of bringing the Sengoku period to life. Obviously the makers of the documentary could only do so much of bring the horrors of battle to life but the smaller events were very well done. What the dramatising of events could not do the historians did well to fill in. They really made an effort to emphase the horrific nature and size of late Sengoku era battles were with a battlefield where bullets flew through the air as two large armies slashed and stabbed each other and strip away any romanticised notions of the period. Their passion for the era was on full display.

If you, as I am, have an interest in history and want to learn about this violent and complex period which really brought to an end of the age of the age of samurai as during the Edo period under the Tokugawa Shogunate the samurai became bureaucrats rather than soldiers it is really worth watching.

Published by Paul Willson

I am Paul Willson. I have reached the rank of brown belt in Ju Jutsu. Thanks to Coronavirus I not been able to take my black belt grading stopping my martial art's journey in its tracks which the only polite word I can think of as frustrating. I have created this blog to try and help anyone who is thinking of starting a martial art or has just started a martial art.

6 thoughts on “Netflix – Age of Samurai Review

  1. I appreciate the review, as this has been one I’ve been debating watching for the last few days. 🙂

    I *suspect* that the series is a little hard on the era, kind of like Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now were on Vietnam. There doubtless were good people who believed in loyalty to their local lord and village, etc… or in some way believed they were fighting for something worthwhile. I could see an outsider also coming to the same conclusions regarding World War 1 as another example, particularly if they didn’t understand patriotism as it existed then.

    As far as the martial artist’s stereotype of honor, that REALLY started to be codified shortly after the Sengoku period. The Hagakure wasn’t written until the early 1700s after all. The Shogun and the other lords needed a structure to keep unruly Samurai in line and disciplined after all the fighting. 😉

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    1. The series really focused on the leaders of the Sengoku period. These were ambitious and visionary men who could see further than just getting power. They were also unmatched strategically and tactically in Japan as well. I have read up a bit on them as well and they weren’t harsh on them at all, submit or be killed. These men knew nothing but war tough and uncompromising which you had to be to survive. I think it is hard for us to get into their mindset. Also I think loyalty was fluid. If your lord was losing you just switched sides. To the average peasant it probably didn’t matter much who was in charge though because you got trampled on whoever was in charge.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I probably didn’t word my reply well enough. 🙂

        I have no doubt the leaders were ruthless. Similar to early Europe, might made right and victory showed divine favor. I was more questioning the average soldier as being exactly like them. I imagine some were good, some were bad. Fluid loyalty… Well that gets back to the whole fate favoring the winner thing as much anything else. Dojo challenges used to operate on similar beliefs. The winner took over the loser’s school because he wouldn’t have won if his style wasn’t superior and favored.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This is where I must ask if you ever read Eiji Yoshikawa. He wrote lots of serialized stories that would be compiled into novels about the samurai. “Musashi” is a favorite of mine. It’s 1000 pages long and I read it in a month, it’s that good. “The Heike Story” is enjoyable but the translation is abridged.

    Then there is “Taiko” which is about Nobunaga, Tokugawa and Hideyoshi fighting over the Shogunate. I never got around to it, but a friend of mine really enjoyed it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sadly 2 young kids take up all my reading time :o). I have read Mushashi’s “Five Rings” book and the “Hagakure”. I have watched “The Seven Samurai” which has a great speech it about why the farmers feared the Samurai they employed to protect them as much as the bandits attacking them. If you haven’t watched it, it is well worth the watch.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Allow me to act the geek.

        Eiji Yoshikawa wrote a lot of based-on-true story type of historical fiction. The Book of Five Rings and Hagakure are the real thing, primary sources as historians say. The books Yoshikawa wrote were technically fictional and really meant for enjoyment.

        By the way, Toshiro Mifune starred in a trilogy of films based on Yoshikawa’s novel on Musashi. It’s called the “Samurai Trilogy.” Definitely worth a watch after you put the kids to bed.

        And yes, I love Seven Samurai! It’s a classic. I even love the Western remake, The Magnificent Seven.

        Liked by 1 person

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