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Charles's blog

1:36 PM on 11.26.2009

Genji: Fact, Fiction & the Reality of the Samurai

Ever since the embarrassing demonstration of Genji II at Sony's E3 2006 press conference (brilliant conference recap here), the Genji series has become a pincushion for jokes about historical accuracy in video games. Well, today I'm going to match the first of the two games, Genji: Dawn of the Samurai, and its depiction of the samurai up against history (don't worry, there'll be another article all about giant crabs). Not only will I discuss the game's ties to history (or lack thereof), but I'll also be uncovering an important truth about the samurai that is buried beneath the video games, anime, and movies of contemporary times. What exists beneath all of the heroic fantasy and adventure in modern media may very well surprise you. That said, let's begin our discussion of Genji: Dawn of the Samurai.

I don't know if it's funny or just sad, but the back of the box doesn't even know when the game is set. It says "1159 A.D. Feudal Japan. Yoshitsune, one of the survivors of the Genji (Minamoto) clan begins his crusade against the brutal Heishi (Taira) clan." That's weird, because the game is actually set during the Genpei war that occurs over twenty years later. Good job, guys. Also, the instruction manual says that Yoshitsune is sixteen when he begins his quest. Well, if you do go by the back of the box and the the game is actually set in 1159, then that creates yet another amusing time paradox, as Yoshitsune was supposed to have been born in 1159 according to historical records. Either baby Yoshitsune is ready to go on the assault, or we just accept the fact that this game already has no idea what it's talking about.

The opening cutscene depicts the 1159 Battle of Heiji in order to set up the historical context, so maybe the people responsible for the packaging were confused by this. Anyways, in the Battle of Heiji, Yoshitsune's father Minamoto no Yoshitomo led his forces against those of Taira no Kiyomori in a struggle for dominance of Japan. The Taira clan prevailed over the Minamoto clan (just as they did three years earlier in a conflict known as the 'Hogen Disturbance') and brought Kyoto back under their control. Yoshitomo was killed, but his sons Yoritomo, Yoshitsune, and Noriyori were spared. Yoritomo was banished to the East and Yoshitsune was sent to grow up at a temple in the mountains, whereas Noriyori all but disappeared from historical records until 1180. I must note that the game uses 'Genji' and 'Heishi' as the family names of the two warring clans. These names are, respectively, based on the alternate kanji readings of 'Minamoto' and 'Taira'. We will use the latter Minamoto/Taira family names in this article.


If you look the opening segment of this cutscene, there's something wrong with the way these samurai are fighting. No, I'm not talking about the magical shining stones and backflips; that stuff's real. What's jarring is that these supposed 12th century samurai are all fighting with swords. This is entirely overlooked in modern media, but the sword only became a significant part of samurai culture a few hundred years before its abolishment in the 19th century. Prior to the 15th and 16th centuries, the samurai were mounted bowmen who occasionally used other weapons when necessary. The sword was not the "soul of the samurai" at this point; it was the bow and arrow that were integral to their character.

Anyways, the game does a decent job introducing the basic historical context despite its inaccurate details and notable fantasy elements, then skips ahead to the beginning of the Genpei War in 1180. It explains how Yoritomo began organizing forces at his Kamakura base in the East during the years leading up to the war, which is completely true. Yoritomo had assembled a formidable army but did not directly attack the Taira until the late in the Genpei war, instead focusing on solidifying his power base. And although Yoritomo was largely responsible for orchestrating eventual the downfall of the Taira clan, his participation was largely from a political standpoint. He sent others to do the dirty work, most notably his younger brother Yoshitsune, who is the main character in the Genji series.

The game states that it was not Yoritomo but Yoshitsune who truly stood up against the Taira clan. Is this true? Yoritomo's political manipulation and guidance from afar were undeniable factors in the eventual Minamoto triumph, but the game is justified in identifying Yoshitsune as the true hero of the war. In both the game and original Japanese sources, Yoshitsune leads the Minamoto clan to numerous crucial victories. In Dawn of the Samurai, his crucial victories are against a giant dog with a monkey head, a fire-breathing phoenix, a thunder beast who enjoys sleeping in human navels, a troll that shoots bubbles, and a pretty boy who looks suspiciously like a Final Fantasy character, but the general idea is there.

Oh, and he eventually does kill Taira no Kiyomori and take Kyoto near the end of the game... but that never actually happened in history, did it?

In history, Taira no Kiyomori passed away from sickness in 1181, no more than a year after the start of the Genpei war. Furthermore, some very significant facts are muddled in Genji, and one extremely significant character is left out. In history it's not Yoshitsune who drives the Taira clan from Kyoto; it's his cousin Yoshinaka, who was given this mission by Yoritomo. However, the problem with these samurai guys (you'll notice this trend continue throughout history) is that they love to turn on their friends and family once they're in a position of power. Yoshinaka soon became a dictator in his own right, challenging Yoritomo's position as leader of the Minamoto clan. He even went so far as to force the emperor to name him shogun. What a guy! Yoritomo doesn't stand for this, and sends Yoshitsune and their other brother Noriyori to conquer Yoshinaka. They succeed, killing Yoshinaka at the Battle of Awazu. Thereafter, Yoshitsune leads the Minamoto clan to a further succession of victories over the Taira, at last crushing them in a naval battle at Dan-no-Ura in 1185.

This considered, things become a real mess when trying to place the game into the historical timeline. We know that Kiyomori died from sickness years before Yoshitsune even set foot in Kyoto, so that pretty well throws the whole story out the window. But even if we were to assume that the game's events are supposed to represent Yoshitsune's victory over Yoshinaka, and that Taira no Kiyomori only replaces Yoshinaka as the bad guy for the sake of a clear cut good versus evil narrative, Dawn of the Samurai's events cannot possibly be put in context. Here's why.

The second game, Days of the Blade, is confirmed to begin three years after Dawn of the Samurai ends and is set around the time of the Genpei war's conclusion in 1185. That means that the events of the first game must conclude no later than 1182. Well, Yoshinaka didn't drive the Taira from Kyoto till 1183, and the Battle of Awazu didn't occur till 1184. So, even if the names are a little mixed up, what "historical events" is Genji supposed to line up with? It just doesn't make any sense. Not only did Yoshitsune never actually fight Kiyomori like he does in the game, but the game's events don't line up with history in any feasible way.

Now that it's obvious the game is almost purely fiction, is there any more historical knowledge we can glean from it? Of course! In a very loose and imaginative way, that is. In -- almost -- all seriousness I think that the most historically accurate aspect of Genji is the way enemies constantly ambush Yoshitsune and force him to face off against unfair odds. These guys jump out from all over the place and do anything they can to try and kill the guy. Over the course of the game they leap out of bushes, drop from the sky, burst through walls, and continually gang up on him. It's funny, but Genji's foot soldiers are figuratively more representative of the historically documented samurai than any other characters in the game. The key similarity is this: the real samurai that lived and breathed from the Heian period of Japanese history (794-1185 A.D.) all the way to the 17th century valued practicality -- not honour -- above all else.

We typically view the samurai as noble warriors sworn to a rigid honour code, but this was simply not the case for most of their history. In battle they would frequently break truces, ambush opponents, attack in the middle of the night, and make use of any deception that would give them the edge. This is a little-known fact, but the samurai were originally mercenaries employed by military nobles to carry out any deed -- no matter how dirty -- in exchange for rewards. They certainly didn't care about the moral strings attached to their work, often killing their fellow warriors for a quick cash-in. Nor were they undyingly loyal to one master. They went where the money was good. In short, they were contracted thugs who sought only to enrich themselves. The pragmatism associated with this selfish profession has reverberated across their culture throughout history, and is captured on some level by the enemies in Genji.

The dubious origins of the samurai are almost entirely unknown to the mass of people who consume samurai entertainment today, which raises an interesting question: what other truths about the samurai have been shrouded by popular culture? Words like honour, loyalty, bushido, and the sword are commonly pinned to the samurai, but is there really any truth to them?

The truth is, the samurai you see in video games, anime, and movies today (reserved, sword-wielding bad-asses) are almost all based on a particular breed of samurai that only existed for a short period of time. These would be the samurai that emerged under the Tokugawa shogunate (1600-1868 A.D.) in an era of peace, during which they became extremely disconnected from their warrior ancestors. Due to the nonviolent nature of the time period, the samurai were no longer needed for combat, and were essentially samurai by name and birthright only. The Tokugawa samurai's supreme goal was not to kill in exchange for rewards, but to study the classics and attain a post in the government. Making up 5-10% of the population, they quickly became a parasite upon society, consuming most of the wealth and contributing little in return.

The decorative swords, the flowery martial arts, honour codes, and largely invented "traditions" such as tea ceremonies that emerged during the Tokugawa era meant nothing to the samurai who existed before this time (the term "bushido" is an even more recent conception). Thus it would be more accurate to call the Tokugawa samurai privileged nobles who role-played a fantasy of the past, flaunting their supposed superiority over the middle class in order to stave off inevitable abolishment. When drawing the connections between these "empty shell" samurai and the figures present in Genji and similar video games, it becomes apparent that the samurai characters in modern media are a fabrication based upon the Tokugawa fabrication of Japan's original, authentic warrior culture.

This considered, the events and characters portrayed in Genji: Dawn of the Samurai are hardly representative of happenings in late-12th century Japan, and the Genji series is a prime example of "historical" fiction stretched to its limits. However, this is obviously a video game we're talking about. Video games are a medium based on escapism, fantasy, and fun wherein the fun factor is the ultimate measure of a game's viability. As long as a game is fun and satisfying to play, accuracy -- whether historical, in terms of physics, or anything else -- shouldn't be a major concern. Just don't claim that your work of fiction "actually took place in ancient Japan".

In conclusion, video games like Dawn of the Samurai do not tell us much at all about the past events they're supposed to be based on. However, they are valuable for what they tell us about the society they're created in. In 'Western' society, the appeal of the samurai figure is just another example of our infatuation with the supposed exoticism of Japan and East Asia. Not to mention we all love a good story of heroism that satisfies our appreciation of loyalty, honour, and other admirable traits. On Japan's part, the continual pop culture retread of the samurai -- a societal class that hasn't existed for over one hundred years -- exemplifies their continual desire to be 'uniquely Japanese' and stand apart from the rest of the world. The samurai of today's media and their glorified, embellished values (along with ninjas, complex customs, and other distinctly Japanese notions) establish yet another mysterious front to Japanese culture with which the common Japanese person is likely as enraptured as any foreigner.

If you have any questions about the game or the samurai, please feel free to ask. Also, if you enjoyed this post then this article may also pique your interest. Thanks for reading.   read

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