Sergio Leone‘s ‘A Fistful of Dollars‘, with a magnificent Clint Eastwood and that haunting music score by Ennio Morricone, is considered a samurai story told as a (Spaghetti) Western, like other ones, that I might have more readily suspected, such as ‘The Magnificent Seven’, which was a remake of the Japanese ‘Seven Samurai’ (where a village is protected from bandits by wandering samurai). And, more recently, in 2003, ‘The Last Samurai‘ (I thought Tom Cruise played the role of American adviser [historically it was a Frenchman] to the shogunate quite well and now I also understand how the story fits in with the Meiji restoration that ultimately abolished samurai privileges). I probably should have known, but I don’t think that I did, that the whole ‘Star Wars‘ saga is samurai-inspired, including the Jedi Knights and Darth Vader (his outfit is almost a direct replica of samurai armour; and I thought I discovered something back in Nagoya-jo....).
In western cinema the samurai theme is linked to the iconic lonesome but brave fighter for justice, whereas in Japanese cinema and culture the influence is much more varied and pervasive. The samurai were the important military cast even before the Edo period, but reached their apex during that period. The ingredients of their code of conduct (honour/shame, duty and loyalty) are still very much part of Japanese self-perception (even though the samurai were also known to sell their loyalty to the highest bidder).
The samurai Bushido (Way of the Warrior) code: loyalty to the master until death, goes much further. The ultimate consequence of the code, last seen in the kamikaze attacks in WW II, is very much in evidence when the young samurai of the Byakkotai (White Tiger Corps) fighting for the Daimyo Katamori Matsudaira to defend the Tsuruga-jo in Aizu against the attacking Imperial army, find themselves cut off on Mount Limori.
The loop bus drops me off at the foot of Mount Limori on the outskirts of Aizu-Wakamatsu. It is late afternoon and the Byakkotai site seems a fitting finale to what has been a samurai day. About two kilometres to the south, the Tsuruga-jo (the reconstructed Matsudaira Daimyo castle), where the fighting took place in the summer of 1868, was my first stop. My next was the Aizu Bukeyashiki, where Saigo’s family members committed collective suicide fearing he had fallen in the battle. It is the reconstructed residence of the Tanomo Saigo, principal retainer of Katamori Matsudaira. A retainer was expected to raise a number of soldiers under his command in return for the koku he received [1 koku = rice for 1 person/year]).
From their vantage point on the hill a group of 20 stranded Byakkotai (the White Tiger Corps was about 300 strong and consisted of the 16, 17 year old sons of samurai), observed smoke and flames rising in the distance and soon became convinced that the castle had fallen and that their Daimyo and family were vanquished and dead. Having failed in their duty and out of loyalty to their lord, they saw collective seppuku as the only way to retain their honour.
There are 19 headstones on the grave monument. Walking past them I wonder who, in the eyes of the present-day Japanese, had failed: the 19 who were successful in committing suicide (even though that was futile as the castle had not yet fallen and when it finally surrendered Katamori Matsudaira was pardoned and died peacefully as a priest), or the 20th, who attempted seppuku but failed and was saved by a farmer? I am on two minds, what would you think?
(Two statues on the site do make clear where the admiration of Mussolini and the Nazis went: firmly with the 19.)