“The Half of What I Saw…”

Marco-Polo-NetflixNot even Marco Polo was able to edit his own life into an all-encompassing narrative. On his deathbed, surrounded by his weeping daughters and his long-serving manservant Suleiman, he was entreated by Venetian priests to admit he had made up many of the tall-sounding tales of his travel. The holy fathers were worried that “Marco of the million lies” would go to hell if he did not finally confess that he had made up his stories of a black rock that would burn, of oil that came out of the ground, of giant sea creatures and Chinese gods. His last words were a fitting epitaph: “I have not told the half of what I saw.”

Dozens of writers have grappled with the way to best tell his story. Luckily for me, I only had to write a biography, which begins with his birth and ends with his death. For the writer of fiction, there are myriad temptations. I’ve toyed with a one-act play, in which Marco and his collaborator Rustichello pace the floor of their opulent but confining house arrest, arguing over the best way to set his knowledge down on paper. Marco is all about facts and descriptions, a tedious village-by-village account of the way east; Rustichello, a former troubadour and Crusader, wants stories of derring-do and fortean curiosities, and in one sense, it’s Rustichello’s Marco that survived through the ages.

You could plump for Italo Calvino’s method, concentrating on the relationship between Marco and his patron, Khubilai Khan, as the aging monarch demands stories of Marco’s adventures. But what of the roads less travelled? What of Marco on his homeward route, escorting the mysterious Princess Kokachin to her doomed wedding, and plunged into local conflict in Persia and befriending his Muslim counterpart, Rashid al-Din? What of Marco the official in China under the Mongols, dealing with intrigues, crimes and murders in a nation under military occupation? And what temptations there are to the historical screenwriter to edge gently out of evidence and into reasonable speculation – what if we ignored the evidence that Marco never saw Japan for himself, and inserted him into the Mongol fleet that suffered the consequences of the first Kamikaze.

cc030914j021f15.jpg_1328648940The new Netflix series tries and largely succeeds to have it all, opening with a prolonged throne-room scene in which Marco shows off his knowledge of Uyghur and Mongol, and in which the Polo family’s failure to keep their promises to the Khan lead to the effective handing over of Marco as collateral to save their trading contracts. But there are nods and foreshadowings, even in those opening few minutes, of the direction that John Fusco intends to take. Khubilai’s beloved wife Chabi, a Christian, stands at his side in her distinctive head-dress. An official called Ahmad is pointedly referenced, ahead of the downfall known to all readers of Marco Polo’s Travels. A lissom figure on the sidelines appears to be Princess Kokachin, thought by some to have been the woman who stole Marco’s heart, even as he was forced to convey her to her new husband. And then the credits begin, awash with impressionistic Chinese inks that create simulacra of his tallest tales – figures and creatures that may, or may not, only exist on paper or in his mind, even as the music soars and hints at Game-of-Thrones-y intrigues and Marco’s endless, infectious sense of wonder at the sights of the Far East.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Marco Polo (US/UK) and A Brief History of Khubilai Khan (US/UK). Marco Polo, the TV series, begins on Netflix on 12th December.

History vs Mystery

There will never be a 100% historically accurate Confucius movie. It would be in a dialect of ancient Chinese that literally nobody could understand. The manners and customs would be more alien than the wildest science fiction, and the character motivations truly inscrutable. And no matter how careful the scholarship, it would be open to attack from all sides, because the original source material is already riddled with holes, assumptions and later interpolations.

Our prime source for Confucius, The Analects, is a grab bag of anecdotes and quotations, assembled long after the famous philosopher’s death. A diligent scholar can rearrange the stories in a rough chronological order, revealing a narrative basis for Confucius’s life: his early career as a civil servant, his early successes, his fall from grace in his native state of Lu and his years of wandering. Take things to extremes, applying true academic rigour to the materials, and the historical Confucius evaporates altogether.

Hence, literally any biography of Confucius must involve dramatic licence. As with the First Emperor of China, we are forced to work from the thinnest of material, little more than snatches of overheard dialogue: a cluster of old sayings, and a few incidental details about the history of the period. Hu Mei’s film Confucius, starring Chow Yun-fat, is a brave effort that meticulously walks a difficult tightrope between historical accuracy and entertainment. Continue reading

The 47 Ronin

02Hello brave Googlers, searching for more information about the 47 Ronin after today’s episode of Ancient Black Ops. You’ll probably need this excerpt from A Brief History of the Samurai by Jonathan Clements, available now in the UK and US.

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The year of Mitsukuni’s death saw one of the defining events of eighteenth-century Japan, the infamous vendetta of the ‘Forty-Seven Ronin’. As part of the endless rounds of ceremonial and courtesy calls of the Tokugawa period, Asano Naganori, the young feudal lord of the Ako domain was ordered to entertain envoys in Edo who had freshly arrived from Kyoto. As part of the preparations, he met Kira Yoshinaka, one of the Shogun’s high-ranking officials. The men do not appear to have hit it off, and, reading between the lines, Kira was expecting substantial bribes and honoraria from Asano, even though it was his job to instruct him. Whatever the nature of the tensions between them, Kira had mastered the art of the snide comment, and seems to have made one allusion too many about Asano’s country origins. On 21 April 1701, under a covered walkway at one of the Shogun’s mansions, Kira pushed too far, and an enraged Asano drew his short sword and knifed him in the face (or shoulder, depending on the source).samurai audible

The wound was minor and guards soon separated the brawling men, but the damage was done. Regardless of claims of the right of samurai to defend their honour, drawing a weapon within the Shogun’s palace was a capital offence. Asano was ordered to commit seppuku, his lands were forfeit, and his followers were outcasts – ronin. When the news reached Asano’s castellan Oishi Yoshio, Oishi obediently shut down the castle, disbanded the soldiers, and handed the keys and manifests to the new lord appointed by the Shogunate. Where once there might have been war, the Tokugawa rule was supreme, and a lord could be unseated by simple decree.

However, while Oishi had done his duty to the Shogun by obeying orders, he was also determined to do his duty by the wronged lord Asano. In the company of several dozen fellow retainers (traditionally forty-seven, but possibly more), he plotted his revenge against Kira. Over the two years that followed, Oishi gave every appearance of being a discredited samurai. He was seen in Kyoto brothels, he was publicly drunk, and he was conspicuously on the Tokugawa-era scrapheap. In a move that has often been cited as an indicator of his true nobility, he even divorced his wife and disowned his children, to ensure that they would not have to bear any consequences for his coming vendetta.

Slowly, the Forty-Seven Ronin converged on Edo. One married the daughter of the man who had built Kira’s house, obtaining in the process the plans for the inside of the mansion. Others secretly smuggled weapons into Edo. The vengeful assassins struck on 14 December 1702, in a double-pronged assault on Kira’s snow-bound house.

The mansion erupted in a savage battle between Oishi’s men and Kira’s underlings, which saw sixteen of Kira’s men killed and another twenty-two wounded. Kira, however, had fled through a secret exit, leaving his bedclothes still warm. Oishi bested two other retainers in a dark, secluded courtyard, before dragging the man they were protecting into the light. Beneath the warm glow of the lantern, Oishi saw the scar left by his master’s knife. He had his man.

In one of the strange turnabouts of the samurai world, Oishi dropped to his knees and bowed before Kira, explaining who he was and humbly offering him the chance to atone for his misdeeds by committing suicide. It was only when the cowering Kira refused to respond that Oishi dragged him up by his hair, and hacked off his head. Their job done, the samurai carefully extinguished the lamps in the house in order to avoid accidental arson, and then ran for Asano’s grave with Kira’s head.

As the sun rose, word spread of their action, and they made their way to the temple grounds of Sengakuji amid something of a carnival atmosphere, congratulated and fêted by the townsfolk. They laid Kira’s head on Asano’s grave, and then turned themselves in to the authorities – all except one, who had been sent to Asano’s old domain to pass on the news.

The vendetta was an awful embarrassment for the Shogun’s government – the samurai had behaved impeccably according to samurai tradition, but had also defied a Shogunal prohibition. Edo locals did not help by petitioning the Shogun on behalf of Oishi and his men, pointing out how true they were to the nebulously defined samurai code of honour. Eventually, the Shogun ordered that instead of the death penalty as common murderers, the ronin would be offered the chance to commit seppuku as a gesture of respect. This they did in early 1703, with the exception of the messenger in Ako, who was spared. Their act cleared the name of their late lord, restored the reputation of their many fellow retainers, and eventually led to the restoration of the house of Asano, albeit with a greatly reduced size of fief.

The men were held up as heroes by many, although one noted commentator gruffly wondered how ‘true to tradition’ it would have been if their target had died of an illness during the prolonged execution of their two-year plan. Instead, one samurai theorist suggested that the true samurai way would have been to attack Kira on the day of the original insult. They would still have died, but the process would have been quicker and more conspicuous. Such a comment, made by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, encapsulates the contradictions of the samurai era. Taken at face value, there often seems little difference between a samurai dispute over honour and a fight in a pub between football hooligans over who has the nicest scarf.

A Brief History of the Samurai, by Jonathan Clements is available now in the UK and US.

Clap Your Hands If You Believe in Ninja

From A Brief History of the Samurai, by Jonathan Clements — available now in the UK and in the US.

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Considering the ubiquity of the ninja in twenty-first-century popular culture, it is remarkable how fast they appear to have sprung out of nowhere in the 1950s and 1960s.

samurai audibleAt first, they were imagined in black – the default colour of stagehands and puppeteers, whom traditional theatre-goers were supposed to blank from their sight. Ninja were proletarian heroes, peasants and underlings in the interstices of times past, literally invisible from a military history that had been dominated by the samurai. However, despite the claims of ninja apologists, it is difficult to find any concrete discussion of them long before the novels of Yamada Futaro (1922–2001) and the comics of Shirato Sanpei (b.1932). Any attempts to make a scholarly study of ninja lead down a series of false trails, with modern sources that end up only citing each other, and credulous populist works that claim any reference in an old account to shinobi (stealth, spies, assassins) was in fact a reference to one of several secret ninja societies that stayed in the shadows. This fad achieved global recognition with the appearance of ninja in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967) – reaching, by nature of its genre and franchise, a far wider audience than any more reasoned, less fantastic account of Japanese martial traditions.

As colour television took hold in Japan, ninja gained more garish colours, as well as a conveniently rediscovered martial art. The TV series Ninja Butai Gekko (1964, released abroad as Phantom Agents) gave them superhuman abilities born from simple camera trickery, and gadgets inspired by James Bond and Cold War espionage. Although ninja were found in some 1960s entertainments for adults, their most enduring legacy has always been in the children’s medium, where every generation seems to have a ninja series to imitate in the playground and the park – Ninja the Wonderboy (1964), Legend of Kamui (1969), Battle of the Planets (1972), Hattori the Ninja (1981), Red Shadow (1987), or Naruto (2002).

A Brief History of the Samurai, by Jonathan Clements is available now in the UK and US.

Inside the Shadow Factory

I’ll be on PBS on Wednesday in The Emperor’s Ghost Army, meanwhile, here’s a repost of an article I wrote about the First Emperor on film.

Jonathan Clements investigates the continuing fascination Chinese filmmakers feel for both the First Emperor and the man who tried to kill him.
Continue reading

The Anime Erotic

crisis-header11.jpgAt the request of the Czech convention Animefest earlier this year, I reprised my infamous speech on the Anime Erotic — a transcript of which can be found in my book Schoolgirl Milky Crisis (US/UK). The speech has now been uploaded onto Youtube with English subtitles and, soon, I am told, subtitles in Czech. You can watch it here.

And of course, my Wrong About Anime speech from the Animefest two years earlier, is still available here.

Glocal Heroes

hb3linruc6cl024irwsmWith a press release cunningly put out in silly season, when all the real journalists are still only struggling back from vacation, August’s announcement that Tom Cruise was going to get a J3C Award managed to make it onto a lot of news sites desperate for something that didn’t involve shootings or revolutions.

The 2nd Japan Cool Content Contribution Awards, to give them their full name, seem to be a Hollywood-based feather-stroking exercise by JETRO and METI, two Japanese government bodies with a vested interest in fostering overseas industry ties. They’re doled out at the Tinseltown consulate, and seem designed to point the eyes of the press at those media splashes that have some sort of connection to Japan. Tom Cruise, of course, has recently starred and produced in Edge of Tomorrow, the inanely retitled but rather fun adaptation of Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel All You Need is Kill. Another award is going to Doug Liman, producer of the Godzilla remake.

Wait, there was a 1st J3C awards? In 2013 the gongs were handed out to Tim Heroes Kring, presumably for creating the character of teleporting time-traveller Hiro Nakamura, Don Murphy, the producer of Transformers, and Vicki Shigekuni Wong, who produced Hachi, the Richard Gere vehicle about an abandoned dog.

J3C is an interesting restatement of a topic that this column has monitored for the last five years – Japan’s ever-increasing belief in and, indeed, reliance on the power of its intellectual property to earn money overseas. It’s been eight years since Peak Anime in 2006, but initiatives like J-LOP (NEO #123) continue to push Japanese comics, novels, games and movies as blue-chip rough diamonds, waiting to be honed into globally-locally acceptable jewels.

This won’t come as news to any NEO reader. Media splashes with a connection to Japan comprise most of the content of this magazine in any month, but J3C seems to have a more ardent purpose, to remind Hollywood that Japanese intellectual property is a powerful, world-beating commodity that really deserves their attention. A cynic might suggest that they have been inaugurated just as Hollywood’s attention has turned away from Japan to the potential of a market with one billion pairs of eyes – stop looking at China! Look back at us!

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO 129, 2014.