Tag Archives: Akira Kurosawa

20 Random Facts About Samurai

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Originally ran Feb. 17 in GeekMom.

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Satsuma samurai from the Boshin War period (circa 1868). Image: Public Domain

From sainthood to swords, video games to cartoon series, the Japanese military nobility known as samurai are still making news in both history and pop culture.

For those that love the mystique and the myths surrounding these warriors, here are 20 random, fun facts about samurai:

1. According to a respected American translator named William Scott Wilson, the word “Samurai,” meaning “to wait upon or accompany,” appears as early as 905 AD in the imperial anthology of poems Kokin Wakashū. The collection was conceived by Emperor Uda and later published by his son, Emperor Diago.

2. To celebrate the release of Ubisoft’s action fighting game, For Honor, which allows players to choose Samurai, Knights, or Vikings, Death Wish Coffee came out with limited edition packaging depicting each of these warriors. The game was, ironically, released worldwide this year on Valentine’s Day.

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Death Wish Coffee offers limited edition packaging in celebration of the new fighting game, For Honor. Image: Lisa Tate

3. Many historians say the last Samurai battle was during the Battle of Shiroyama in 1877. However, the social class known as the Shizoku, who merged with the Samurai, continued to be recognized as late as the World War II era.

4. The first warrior to attain the samurai position, and establish the first samurai-controlled government, was the military leader Taira no Kiyomori during what is known as the Heian period in Japanese history (794 to 1185).

5. Yes, there was a type of female Samurai, the Onna-bugeisha. They were part of the bushi class in feudal Japan, and were trained to use weaponry to protect their household, family, and honor. They sometimes did take part in active battle, often alongside their samurai husbands.

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Katana may wield a weapon of a samurai, but there were real women samurai, Onna-bugeisha. Image: Lisa Tate.

6. On February 7, the Catholic Church beatified its first Samurai on the road to Sainthood. Justo Takayama Ukon abandoned his status to devote himself to his faith and lived his remaining years in exile in Manila. When sainted, he would likely stand for persecuted Christians and Japanese immigrants.

7. This is common knowledge to many Star Wars fans, but George Lucas is said to have adapted the name “Jedi,” from the Japanese word Jidaigeki, referring the genre of Japanese film devoted to period dramas, often about samurai. Toymaker Bandai came out with its “Movie Realization” line of Star Wars figures, making members of the Empire, including Royal Guards, Stormtroopers, a ronin Boba Fett, and Darth Vader, into and ancient line of samurai warriors.

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Bandai’s “Movie Realization” line of Star Wars figures gave the Empire a samurai makeover. Image: Lisa Tate.

8. Akira Kurosawa, the creative mind behind the film classic the Seven Samurai (on which the classic western The Magnificent Seven was based), is regarded as one of the most influential filmmakers in the history of cinema. He received a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award in 1990. He died in 1998, and was named “Asian of the Century,” in the Arts, Literature and Culture category.

9. There are countless movies and books (as well as a minichip action game) with the name The Last Samurai, including:

  • The 2000 Helen DeWitt novel that centers on a child prodigy whose male role models are the Seven Samurai.
  • The 2003 fictional movie about a retired 19th century U.S. Cavalryman who travels to Japan and becomes absorbed in the culture Dances With Wolves-style.
  • The 2011 Japanese World War II drama based on the true story of the Captain Sakae Ōba (The Fox of Saipan) and the last organized Japanese resistance of the war. Also called Codename: Fox, the movie is based on a novel by Don Jones.

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    Samurai have always been a popular topic for books, movies, and games, especially the mystique of a “last samurai.”

10. Samurai were often very literate and well educated. When a more western style of armed forces was being created in Japan, many took up prominent roles as educators, writers, government representatives, and businessmen.

11. John Belushi’s Samurai Delicatessen was part of the very first season of Saturday Night Live. The character was modeled after a character in Akiwa Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, and Beliushi’s samurai held down a variety of unlikely occupations from 1975 to 1979, including and optometrist, stockbroker, and dry cleaner.

12. The multiple Eisner Award-winning Stan Sakai comic series Usagi Yojimbo, featuring the rabbit ronin (Samurai without a master) Miyamoto Usagi, has been ranked in the top 100 of IGN’s list of comic book heroes, as well as being named in the top 50 non-superhero graphic novels in a Rolling Stone magazine ranking. Sakai also illustrated the Dark Horse graphic novel 47 Ronin with writer Mike Richardson in 2013, based on the legend of the a group of ronins’ mission to avenge their wronged master.

13. The classic French comic Samurai, by Jean-Francois Di Giorgio and Frédéric Genêt, previously published by Marvel and Soleil, was picked up again in a collected edition in 2015 from Titan Comics. Titan released an all-new series beginning in 2016, which sometimes included Japanese brush-style variant covers by David Mack.

14. DC Comics’ Katana, who made her big screen debut in Suicide Squad in 2016, was trained as a child by a samurai named Tadashi in one storyline from Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Tadashi was killed by an evil samurai Takeo, which in her original story is the name of the brother (and killer) of her late husband. Her famous “soultaker” sword was once said to have been forged by the legendary 14th century swordsmith, Muramasa.

15. The 2016 stop-motion film Kubo and The Two Strings  features a young boy, Kubo, with a magical talent for storytelling and origami who tells the story of a samurai warrior named Hanzo (his father). The film is nominated for two 2017 Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature and Best Visual Effects, among several other accolades from other film and animation groups.

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There are plenty of samurai comic heroes and villains from Usagi Yojimbo to the Silver Samurai.

16. There are plenty of samurai heroes, but one of the biggest samurai villains in comic books is the Silver Samurai (Kenuichio Harada), who debuted in Daredevil #111 in 1974. Harada appeared in the 2013 film The Wolverine as just a bodyguard, with his Silver Samurai being depicted as a giant robot suit worn by another character. One of the more tragic heroes in samurai-related comics, however, is Ogami Ittō in the renowned Manga Lone Wolf and Cub. The character, on a quest to avenge the death of his wife, had served as a Kogi Kaishakunin (the Shogun’s executioner). These men were tasked with assisting with the death of samurai and other nobility forced to commit the honor suicide of seppuki.

17. Iwasaki Yatarō, the great-grandson of a samurai who had to sell his family’s samurai status to settle debts, went on to become the founder of the successful multinational group for companies, Mitsubishi. The companies “three-diamond” logo may be partially influenced by the Iwasaki family crest.

18. LEGO fans got a peek at what looks like Lord Garmadon’s Samurai Mech, his robot transport in the latest Lego-based picture, The LEGO Ninjago Movie. The movie is set to come out Sept. 22 of this year. Will the mysterious Samurai X makes an appearance?

19. The latest edition of the Lucite-encased collectible known as the Mini Museum includes specimen of a circa 14th century Samurai sword, as well as other specimens from items like space gems, a rotor from the WWII Enigma, and Steve Jobs’ turtleneck. The blade from which the sword specimens were acquired came from a respected sword dealer. He deemed the damaged blade unsuitable as a collectible due to several micro-fractures, so there should be no guilt in owning a little slice of it.

20. The Award-winning Cartoon Network series Samurai Jack, created by Genndy Tartakovsky, began its limited-run, and slightly darker, fifth season earlier this year on Adult Swim, more than 10 years after the original series ended. A movie version was being planned, but creators decided to end the story via a series instead.

Want to learn a little more about Samurai?  Check out this educational Prezi created by high school teacher Rick Tate.