The wind was absolutely ripping yesterday — 40+ mph. I prefer to workout outdoors under almost any conditions, but that was just too much, so I moved the kettlebells indoors to the living room. If I have to be inside, I like to watch something meaty and historical (naturally) while I sling the iron, so I fired up the Netflix machine, figuring to hit an episode of the Revolutionary War espionage yarn, TURN. This popped up.
Japanese history is pretty much terra incognita to me. I was obsessed with James Clavell’s Shogun when I was in 7th grade, and I’ve listened to Dan Carlin’s superb (as always) podcast series on Japan’s bid for dominance in the 20th century, Supernova in the East. But that’s it. I knew that Japan endured a long period of brutal civil war in what Europeans consider the early modern or Renaissance period of the 16th century, but I knew nothing about it at all.
Turns out, I got in a very high-volume workout, because I was thoroughly absorbed in the Sengoku (“Warring States”) Period. It’s become a cliché to call every kind of dynastic or factional conflict a “game of thrones,” but, hell, it fits like a mailed glove. We’re talking more than a century of the bloodiest kind of power struggle. And anybody who is interested in martial arts and military history is aware of the samurai.
Showrunner Matthew Booi served up an interview to Screen Rant:
When it comes to pure heavy hitters, I think few figures loom as large in our historical imagination than the samurai. For me, I’ll be honest, I think my first exposure came from Shogun, the Richard Chamberlain miniseries, when I was a little kid. It just stuck in my head after that. I was always really fascinated with the period and with the role they played. I think there’s such a fascinating mix of violence and honor and duty. I think they’re really unique in history, in that sense, and that’s why there’s always a fascination with them.
A couple of things stood out in the documentary for me:
Being a “gun guy,” I found it quite interesting that the Japanese arquebus, the Tanegashima, played such a major role in the era’s warfare. I had always been under the impression that the samurai and the warlords disdained the gun, which is a myth. The upstart warlord Oda Nobunaga immediately grasped the tactical possibilities of musketry and employed the matchlock guns, adapted from Portugues arquebuses that fell into Japanese hands from a shipwreck in the hundreds of thousands. He created a tactical doctrine combining musketry, archery, and field obstacles that pulled his enemies into a kill box and poured a constant fire upon them. Nobunaga turned his peasant foot soldiers known as Ashigaru into formidable, well-armed and trained troops, another innovation that helped him conquer most of central Japan before he was betrayed by one of his generals and forced to commit seppuku (ritual auto-dissemboweling which I’ve always found shuddersome).
That’s not to say that the legendary katana doesn’t feature. Heads roll. Plenty of ’em. All of the warlords were brutal as a matter of course; Nobunaga was exceptional.
The other aspect that particularly grabbed my attention was the perpetual rebellion of the peasants of the rugged province of Iga. Lumbermen, fishermen and farmers, these Japanese backwoodsmen developed a culture of stealthy covert and irregular warfare that may have fed into the mythology of the ninja. As is so often the case with backcountry people, they were hard to subdue. They handed Nobunaga’s son a Teutoburg Forest or Battle of the Monongahela-style ambush defeat — but, unfortunately for them, that only brought down the wrath of the warlord. What ensued was genocidal in scope…
As you can probably tell, I’m quite enamored of this doco. I like the storytelling approach the showrunner brought to it:
It’s just such a fascinating story. And I think people are going to be so drawn in by it, the deeper you get into it. I think that was the real beauty of having six hours where we really got to lean into the stories. What we also did to make it easier to track it, despite the fact that we’re dealing with almost five decades of history, we’re really only focusing on three families that are incredibly interconnected. It becomes almost like a Godfather story, or Game of Thrones, where one of these guys is going to pull it off at the end, but you don’t know who. And the one who does pull it off in the end, it’s really quite surprising. We’ve met all these people in the first episode. And over the six episodes, we chart the rise and fall, the fracturing of alliances, and how one of them ultimately pulls it off. I think that part of the storytelling will hopefully really resonate with people. It’s not a giant survey at everything that happened. It’s really a deep look at the relationships between three families, really.
I’ve got three more of the six episodes to go. Think I’m going to be getting another good workout in…