Way of the Samurai

An historic book on Bushido is reborn as a marvelous manga


HAGAKURE: The Code of the Samurai, The Manga Edition, by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Sean Michael Wilson, William Scott Wilson. Illustrated by Chie Kutsuwada. Kodansha International, 2010, 143 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Manga can be elegant and artistic, but it also serves up raunch, romance and violence. “Hagakure: The Code of the Samurai, The Manga Edition” offers all this and more.

The manga is based on “Hagakure: Book of the Samurai,” which was translated into English in 1979 by William Scott Wilson, and quickly became a big hit with martial arts enthusiasts, Japanese history buffs and fans of the sword-wielding warriors of yore.

The original “Hagakure” is an encyclopedic collection of more than a thousand entries, instructions and anecdotes of samurai life that was written in the early 1700s by a samurai retainer named Yamamoto Tsunetomo.

William Scott Wilson whittled down Tsunetomo’s thousand entries to 300 of the most meaningful points for his book. And Sean Wilson further condenses this to 40 entries to illustrate the essence of samurai wisdom for his manga version of the classic treatise. “Hagakure,” however, is not meant to be a pure purveyor of samurai enlightenment — there are too many decapitated heads and too much blood for that.

Sean Wilson, the comic book writer who adapted William Wilson’s translation, focused on anecdotes that best suit the visual form of manga. He also made his manga version of “Hagakure” easy for readers to follow by adding chapter titles and a narrative thread to tie the stories together.

Sean Wilson uses the story line of a young apprentice who seeks to learn the Bushido spirit and the way of the samurai. Each lesson of the samurai code in “Hagakure” resonates, and Sean Wilson balances the romantic vision of the life of a samurai warrior with such shocking samurai practices as teaching a 5-year-old apprentice how to kill by practicing on puppies.

“Hagakure” is superbly illustrated by Chie Kutsuwada. The lines and shading exude an artistic grace, while the graphic images of gore and spurting blood reveal the stark and brutal code of the samurai. Her images also evoke an ironic humor, such as the chapter on a cuckold samurai who contemplates his revenge while sitting by a pond populated by a pair of frisky fornicating frogs.

“Hagakure” — with its captivating storytelling and imagery — offers readers a wonderful initiation to the evolving genre of English manga.