Samurai Gaiden: Yamada Nagamasa

 

Okay, so you might have noticed we’ve made some changes to our format. A little crisper, a little cleaner perhaps? Well maybe we should try a new topic as well? Maybe something Heian? No, no, we’ve done Heian for the past several months. Nara period? Well, we had Yorozu. What’s something we haven’t done, yet?

Oh, I’ve got it! Let’s do something in the Edo period, how about that? And not just any samurai from the Edo period, but let’s actually leave Japan for it. Let’s talk about…Yamada Nizaemon Nagamasa.

Yamada Nizaemon Nagamasa (1590-1630)

Yamada Nagamasa (1590-1630)

Yamada was born in the year 1590, the son of a knife-maker in the Tokugawa-controlled Sunpu domain. At the age of sixteen he got a job as a palanquin bearer for the Okubo clan of nearby Numazu domain. It seems that he held this position for about seven years before the daimyo of Numazu, Okubo Tadasuke, died without an heir.

The Tokugawa Shogunate took control of Numazu and Yamada was forced to return to his homeland, now unemployed. Yamada’s father had died when he was a small boy and when he returned home he discovered that his mother had died while he was in Numazu and that his relatives sold their property and moved away without telling him. I suppose if your mother can die without you knowing, you’re probably not the kind of relative anyone would want to leave a forwarding address with.

Regardless of the Yamada’s dysfunctional family situation, this left him unemployed and homeless. Yamada is said to have made his way to the port city of Sakai and taken up a position as a dockworker. At some point, apparently before the year 1612, he hopped aboard a ship and sailed to Thailand, at that point still known as the Kingdom of Siam.

Japan and Siam had been allies and trading partners for many years at this point and had a thriving Japanese community in Ayutthaya. The head of the community was named Kiya Kyuzaemon and he took a liking to Yamada, taking the young man under his wing. Under Kiya’s tutelage Yamada learned Siamese and an unknown European language. He became involved in the lucrative deerskin trade of the region and it was around this time he changed his name to Yamada Nagamasa.

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Ayutthaya was economically prosperous, in part because King Songtham traded freely with the European trading companies of the Dutch, English, Spanish, and Portuguese as well as the Chinese, Malay, Vietnamese, and of course…the Japanese.

Part of the reason why the Japanese were so well tolerated within Ayutthaya were that King Songtham utilized them as a major component of his royal bodyguards. You see, many of the Japanese who moved to Siam were ronin. Samurai who had backed the wrong horse at Sekigahara, fired samurai who were unable to be rehired because of strict Tokugawa regulations on ronin, and retainers of confiscated domains – like Yamada.

Yamada volunteered to fight alongside the Siamese troops in the north against a Burmese incursion. During the battle Yamada engaged the general of the Burmese army, defeating and killing the enemy commander. For this deed he was invited to the royal palace and granted a title of nobility. He eventually became commander of King Songtham’s Royal Guards and was permitted to control a monopoly on the deerskin trade and eventually even owned his own trade ship.

When Kiya decided to leave Siam and return to Japan, he named Yamada as his successor. This happened sometime between 1619 and 1621, although it is unclear exactly when this occurred or exactly what happened to Kiya after his departure.

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It’s never really mentioned whether he converted to Christianity or not in the sources I read. So he either didn’t, or it wasn’t considered particularly important.

Now as the head of Songtham’s royal guards and the head of the Japanese colony within Ayutthaya he sent word to the Tokugawa Shoguns several times in advance of formal Siamese embassies being sent. The Shogunate, curious who this man was, had him and his background investigated, and so he is recorded in formal Shogunate documentation at this point in history for the first time. Yamada was the Siamese royal court’s official representative to Japan, after all.

Between 1624 and 1629 Yamada sent several trade missions to Nagasaki, loaded with Siamese deerskin. He had wanted to receive a red seal for his ship, allowing him to trade with the Japanese, however it took over a year to get the ship approved. In this time he sent another load of deerskin on a Dutch ship and apparently made quite a profit.

After he received the red seal of approval from the Japanese government he committed to a few more trade missions with Nagasaki. However he fell into a bit of an issue in 1627 when the Dutch fleet captured his ship and held it. However when the Dutch realized who the ship belonged to the local governor for the Dutch East India Company released the ship and awarded Yamada a trading license for the Dutch properties within Batavia. Yamada began a very profitable trade with the Dutch East India Company after this.

King Songtham fell ill in the year 1628 and named his younger son, Chettha as his heir. Since Chettha was so young he also named his maternal cousin, Prasat Thom, and Yamada as regents for the boy. With Songtham’s death a power struggle ensued between the Prasat and Yamada backed Chettha and Songtham’s older son, Phra Srisin. Phra fled and took up the priesthood to escape being killed off. Prasat convinced Phra to return in his princely vestments and used it as an excuse to murder the man. Phra was arrested and thrown into a well to starve to death, however his supporters threw a corpse into the well and helped Phra escape.

Yamada is supposed to be the guy on the right. Although Yamada died before he would have reached the age of that actor.

Yamada is supposed to be the guy on the right. Although Yamada died before he would have reached the age of that actor.

Phra started a rebellion and Yamada, as head of the Royal Guards, was sent to put down the rebellion. Phra was captured and executed as a result. Within a relatively short while Chettha was on Prasat’s hit list as well. Prasat had become annoyed with the young king’s activities; for instance when Chettha’s mother died he held a state funeral for her. Prasat was annoyed that all of the government officials had gone to the funeral for the king’s mother and he wasn’t able to hold council and get any work done.

This came to a head in 1629 when Prasat’s father died and he gave the man a state funeral of his own, going so far as to have his father’s remains cremated twice…a ritual normally reserved for kings. Chettha is said to have become enraged at this affront to his royal line and wanted to punish Prasat for his indolence, but one of Prasat’s allies calmed the king down.

And so it was a complete surprise when Prasat’s soldiers entered the palace and began killing the king’s supporters. King Chettha fled the palace but was captured and executed. With the king now dead, Prasat put the late king’s brother on the throne.

Yamada and another minister of the kingdom voiced concerns over this treasonous act. Prasat accused the minister of treason and had him arrested and executed, but Yamada was popular and commanded the veteran elite Japanese forces of the royal guard. Prasat figured there was a better way to get rid of his ally-turned-nemesis: Promote him.

Prasat was suffering from a rebellion in the southern province of Ligor and told Yamada that if his forces could put down the rebellion, Yamada would be named governor of the entire province. Prasat probably figured that it was a win-win for him. Yamada would either go south and fail, taking heavy casualties, at which point he would be easier to deal with by assassination…or he’d succeed and be given a prominent post far away from the capital.

Well regardless of Prasat’s plan, Yamada marched his men south and put down the rebellion, taking control of Ligor. Yamada married a member of the royal family after taking control of Ligor and set about governing his new province. Yamada had suffered a leg wound in the fighting and was content to relax, govern, and heal with his new wife and his adult son, Oin. He was forty years old now, it was time to start settling down.

It wasn’t long, however, before Prasat became even more ambitious. He murdered the king he had just put on the throne a few months earlier and declared himself the new king. Yamada is said to have voiced opposition to Prasat’s claim to the kingship and his repeated acts of regicide.

Yamada would never get the opportunity to stage his own rebellion, however, because his new wife was an agent of Prasat’s. While tending to his wound, Yamada’s wife wrapped a poisonous cast around his leg and he died shortly thereafter.

At least he got this cool statue built in his honor, right?

At least he got this cool statue built in his honor, right?

His son, Oin, took over as governor of Ligor and is said to have possibly raised a rebellion in his late father’s name. Prasat sent his army south and took control of Ligor forcing Oin and many of his Japanese compatriots out of Siam.

Shortly thereafter Yamada’s red seal ship returned from a successful trading mission in Nagasaki and Prasat attempted to seize it for himself. The Japanese inhabitants of Ligor refused to turn it over and so Prasat burnt down the Japanese colony there, killing many of the Japanese inhabitants and forcing many more to flee. Oin and his men joined the Cambodian army and eventually led an invasion of Siam…where they were slaughtered in a marine operation.

Yamada Nagamasa fell into the mists of obscurity at that point. Well at least until World War II when he became a prominent figure in Japan, being billed as an adventurous patriotic pioneer who made great contributions to ‘southern nations’ in the name of Japan. His role within Siamese society and government and his military capabilities were used to justify Japan’s involvement and expansionism in those regions during the war.

Not a bad run for a knife-maker’s son? Second most powerful man in the kingdom of Siam and leader of an elite 700-man strong force of Japanese warriors.

~RCS

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Review of Epic

My fiancé and I took a trip down the theater yesterday and took in a new film, one called…Epic.  It is the story of a 17-year-old girl who is shrunk by mystical means and discovers a world of tiny humanoid creatures who inhabit the forest.  These humanoid creatures are split into two groups: Leafmen and Boggans.

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The Leafman are tasked with protecting the forest and guarding the Forest Queen who maintains a balance between life and death, creating new life wherever death comes.  But the Boggans, led by their king named Mandrake, wish to see death encase everything in the forest.

Epic does not really live up to its title; it is pretty good, but certainly not ‘epic’.  Definitely worth a watch, but I would suggest waiting for the DVD, especially if you’re looking at taking smaller kids to it.  There are a lot of not-so-subtle undertones because of the hectic story which seems like the writers put all of their ideas on the table and decided, “Sonuvabitch, these are all so good…welp, we certainly can’t cut any of these things, let’s put them all in!”

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All of them?!

As such, I really can’t say much about the storyline itself.  It’s pretty standard for a movie like this, although I will admit that since the Leafmen and Boggans are basically kind of insects they do let a few of the nameless fellows die; mostly by falling to their deaths from the back of winged beasts of burdens (usually hummingbirds, ravens, or bats).  Unusual for a kid’s movie, but still not exactly ground-breaking to kill off the nameless fodder.

Since the storyline’s nothing to talk about, I will concentrate on the characters in this review since ultimately…they are the reason you’re staying in that seat and watching the rest of this been there done that movie.’

So that being the case…there are some spoilers in the ensuing writing because this is quickly turning from a review and into a study of the characters of the movie.  So…fair warning, thar be spoilers in these ‘ere parts!

M.K.

Mary-Katherine, "M.K."

Mary-Katherine, “M.K.”

Mary-Katherine, who goes by MK, is a 17 year-old-girl who is sent to live with her father after her mother’s death.  It’s never stated what the death is caused by, but it is implied that it wasn’t a car accident or anything since MK speaks of what sounds like final words from her mother.MK starts the story off as a witty, but introverted girl in mourning who really doesn’t want to live with her workaholic, and somewhat crazy, father.  Although, slight spoiler…he’s not as crazy it seems (duh), and decides to just give living on her own a try.

This results, due to a three-legged, one-eyed, pug, in her getting lost in the woods and shrunk down to the size of the leafmen (two of whom she meets shortly after).

Once she comes to terms with her situation she spends some time being a touch damselly, but quickly becomes a verifiable support member of the team.  Considering one of the major morals of the movie is teamwork, it is refreshing to see the Leafmen welcome her into their fold so quickly and treat her kind of like an equal.  I often tire of children’s stories that talk of teamwork, but just a few moments later will exclude the main character because they’re an outsider.  Especially since the person excluding them is usually the person who talks the most about teamwork.  But that’s a discussion for another time.

All in all, even though she is the main character, she is always somewhat out of her element and therefore is always relegated to the supporting role of the team, or going solo and being a messenger of sorts.  She does brandish a sword at one point and it is made brutally clear she is not fit to wield it (she drags it across the room with all her energy and hands it off to a Leafman who picks it up with one hand, no strain).

But given her situation I feel that she is a pretty well-rounded character and she isn’t made extraordinarily damsel-like for the most part.  She is a good example of the person who uses their brains instead of brawn.

[Giant Spoiler!!  I warned you…!] Her decision to return to the human world at the end is kind of stupid, since she really has nothing going for her there.  She could live a glorious life by staying with the Leaf People, but she returns to the human world to be her dad’s assistant and will never get to be with Nod, whom she has fallen in love with.

That would be like me moving to mars, knowing that I could never return and my fiancé could never come to Mars.  Sure, she and Nod can talk and see each other by video-conferencing and stuff…but they can never be together; unless she convinces the new Forest Queen to shrink her back down to Leaf People size.  Or grow Nod to human standards; either-or.

NOD

Nod

Nod

Nod is the main love interest for MK.  He is your average, everyday over-talented slacker.  His father was a heroic Leafman warrior, seemingly second-in-command of the Leafman corps.  His father died, although it’s not really evident how long before the story begins.

Nod resents Ronin’s attempts to keep him in line, because he doesn’t really want to be a soldier.  Even so Nod respects Ronin, and takes his slacker nature in a fairly mature fashion.  He doesn’t really abscond from duty, he just doesn’t follow orders and usually winds up getting himself too thick into the fray to be useful, even though he’s apparently one of the best Leafmen to have ever lived; or would be if he’d just apply himself.  Cliche, but a well-rounded one.

Aside from the arrogant lady’s man, Nod really doesn’t have much personality.  He’s definitely the comic relief, but not much more than a handsome love interest who learns the moral of the story (teamwork, as I mentioned earlier) in just the right moment to become a greater person at the end of the movie.

RONIN

Ronin

Ronin

Ronin is the leader of the Leafmen; their strongest warrior and second-best rider (supposedly Nod is the greatest, so I assume Ronin is their next best).  He is definitely portrayed as the stone-faced samurai warrior archetype and it’s done fairly well.  He is stern and stoic, ruthlessly efficient, but also has a personality underneath that veil of professionality.

He’s a likable guy who would be a great friend to have, although he does seem to be too forgiving to Nod.  In his situation I’d have booted the little prick out of the corps, regardless of what promises I’d made to his father to protect and care for the little bag of numbnuts.

Anywho, Ronin is, in my opinion, the most well-written character of the story.  I’m torn on his survival at the end of the movie, it worked all right though I suppose.  And I like his name, because if no one has ever noticed with my work (or my old Yahoo! username) I signify strongly with the wave men that the name Ronin draws reference to.  But that’s a personal thing for me.

QUEEN TARA

Queen Tara

Queen Tara

Queen Tara, played surprisingly well by Beyoncé Knowles (honestly the best voice actor in the whole movie), is the Forest Queen with the magical ability to control the ambient plant life and create new life on a whim with the wave of her hand.

She is a very playful character who teases Ronin for his stoicism.  It is made quite evident that they were once childhood loves and that Ronin is probably in his current position because of his love for her; however due to her status he seems in an odd position between lover and servant.

Needless to say Tara is a bubbly, effervescent, and somewhat carefree, albeit intelligent, character in the story.  Honestly a story about Ronin and Tara would have been much better than one about MK and Nod; but I digress.

One thing I liked was Tara’s depiction of women, at least among the Leaf People.  She proves herself to be the most powerful of all the Leaf People and also the most open-hearted.

When the Boggans attack the pod-choosing ceremony she takes down far more enemies than any of the Leafmen, you know…the guys who are tasked with being her guardians.  Now, like MK she is not physically strong.  She does not wield a sword or spear and she does not ride wild hummingbirds like the Leafmen (which is a misleading title, because there appear to a handful of women in the corps, although they are really only visible near the end of the movie).

But even so, she uses a combination of her magic powers and intellect to be far more efficient than even Ronin who is a combat and tactical genius (at least in comparison to anyone else).

She is mentally, emotionally, and through magic, physically strong.  Definitely the best female character I’ve seen in a long time.

And finally we’ll address the villains, or at least the main villain himself…

MANDRAKE

Mandrake

Mandrake

Mandrake, the leader of the Boggans, is infatuated with death or more particularly…decay.  He likens himself somewhat as the counterpoint to Queen Tara’s ruler of life, making the ruler of ‘decay’.  Mandrake, ultimately, is actually probably about the most well-rounded individual in the movie.  He is starkly efficient and very intelligent, the best military tactician of the film and also a warrior-general capable taking down even Ronin; not to mention scores of nameless Leafmen.

His tender scenes with his son, General Dagda, who just wants to prove himself to be a good heir to Mandrake is actually kind of touching, especially since it comes shortly after Ronin’s scenes of tough-love with Nod and MK’s scenes of no-love with her own father.

It almost makes you root for Mandrake later in the movie.  Especially since as the movie goes on he starts to seem a little unhinged.  Which makes sense, after witnessing your son killed by the Leafmen.

Mandrake is a pretty good example of a sympathetic villain.  His motivations are pure and human: He desires power to at least be equal to Tara, hates the fact that Tara always bests him and that he and his people are trapped in their small bit of territory by Tara’s powers, and wants to avenge his son’s death later in the movie.

And for this he’s thrown into a tree and presumably crushed to death.

If Ronin wasn’t so damn likable I’d definitely have been rooting for the villain in this one.

FINALLY…

Also a little bit of opinion on the voices, because I think some professional voice actors could have done good for the film (and been cheaper, no less!).  First of all keep Pitbull, Beyoncé, and Steven Tyler in their roles; they actually did pretty well, and Amanda Seyfried did all right as MK, too.  But a few better options for the other roles would have been…

Nod: Johnny Yong Bosch would be good, but maybe a bit too much; Kirby Morrow would have been my choice for this role.

Ronin: Troy Baker would have been great one for this one!

Mandrake: I’d have loved to hear Brian Dobson to this role; definitely would have made Mandrake more menacing.

Those are my thoughts and opinions on the matter.  Thanks for coming, and thanks for reading.

~RCS

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