#Review: African Samurai, by Thomas Lockley and Geoffrey Girard

I have talked a couple of times about how recent trends in my video game habit have led to a minor fascination with the Japanese language and Japanese history. Specifically, I have the Nioh games and Ghost of Tsushima to blame for this, both of which hang very fictional video game storylines on top of actual people and actual events in Japanese history. Yasuke, a (real) African who rose to be a samurai in the service of the (real) sixteenth-century warlord Oda Nobunaga is actually someone you fight in both of the Nioh games. The real Yasuke did not have lightning powers or a magical bear spirit that fought with him, but he was a real dude who actually existed.

I’ve gone looking a couple of times for a recent biography of Nobunaga in English, a book that does not seem to actually exist, but during one of those searches I happened upon this book, and it languished on my Amazon wish list for quite a while until it finally came out in paperback a bit ago and I ordered it. And considering what the book turned out to be, it’s really interesting that I only know about Yasuke through heavily fictionalized accounts of parts of his life– because while African Samurai is definitely a history book, it’s not at all like any of the books about historical figures that I have read in the past.

Thomas Lockley, one of this book’s two authors, is an American historian currently living in Japan. Geoffrey Girard, on the other hand, is a novelist, and while I didn’t delve into his background too deeply it doesn’t seem that he has any particular academic training in either history or Japan. While there are contemporary sources that attest to Yasuke’s existence– he is depicted in artwork and there are a handful of letters from a very prolific Jesuit monk who lived in Japan that discuss him, among a small number of other sources– there really isn’t enough information about him out there to fill up a 400+ page book without finding some way to provide more detail. And this book handles that dearth of source material in two ways: one, by making this a book that is nearly as much about Oda Nobunaga as it is Yasuke (which was a treat for me, since that’s what I was originally looking for) and two, by making the book almost more a piece of historical fiction than it is a traditional history. It is clear, in other words, that a novelist had his hand in writing this, and if I had to guess I’d suggest that the majority of the words on the page are Girard’s and not Lockley’s– although, to be clear, I would be guessing.

How is it historical fiction? Because far more of the book is about Yasuke’s thoughts and feelings and day-to-day life than the extant evidence we have about him would ever allow. For example, we know, because the Jesuit monk talked about it, that Nobunaga granted Yasuke a house on the grounds of his home and provided him with a short sword and a couple of servants. That’s factual, or at least as factual as a single secondhand account from five hundred and some-odd years ago can be presumed to be. But that’s all we know, and the two-page scene where Nobunaga summons Yasuke and then surprises him with the house, and Yasuke falling asleep on his new tatami in his home and awakening to find his new servants bowing at his feet, is pure invention. It’s not necessarily unreasonable invention– there was no point in the book where I thought that the authors were going too far in constructing a narrative out of what they had, and they only very rarely go so far as to utilize actual dialogue anywhere, but the simple fact is that that whole sequence is fictionalized, and the book is riddled with things like that. Yasuke is traveling with Nobunaga, and he reflects upon something-or-another that allows the authors to inject a piece of necessary historical background. We know that at one point Yasuke fought with a naginata, and so there’s a paragraph at one point where he’s thinking about buying one. That sort of thing.

So it’s necessary to be aware of what you’re reading while you’ve got this book in front of you– it never quite crosses over to the fabulism of, say, Dutch, Edmund Morris’ “memoir” of Ronald Reagan that actually literally inserted the author into Reagan’s life and pretended he was a witness to events that he wasn’t there for, but it’s absolutely not a straight work of history. (And while I’m comparing African Samurai to other books, I want to mention Ralph Abernathy’s And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, which is another book that is supposed to be about one person and ends up being someone else along the way.) And there are several places where the authors are forced to bow to simple historical uncertainty: we lose track of Yasuke in the historical record at some point, and we don’t know how or where or when he died, so the authors actually mention multiple possibilities about what might have happened to him after the brief Nobunaga era ended; stories about enormous African warriors (Yasuke was 6’2″, and would have been easily a foot taller than anyone around him in Japan) in places where such people usually weren’t found, but they explicitly paint them as possibilities, of varying levels of likelihood, rather than picking one and ending the “story” with it.(*) But once you internalize that lightly-fictionalized aspect of the book, it’s a hell of an entertaining and informative read on a whole bunch of levels, and I’m really glad I ended up picking it up. I don’t know how big of a group of people I’m talking to when I say something like If you’ve ever wanted to know anything about sixteenth-century Japan, pick this up, but … yeah. Go do that.

(*) I wish they’d gotten more deeply into his name rather than relegating it to a footnote, but as you might have guessed, “Yasuke” almost certainly wasn’t his actual name; it’s likely that “Yasuke” is “Isaac” filtered through Japanese pronunciation, and “Isaac” almost certainly wouldn’t have been his African birth name either, for obvious reasons. So just because we see a story of a similarly large and skilled African warrior somewhere near Japan in the right time frame, knowing that other person’s name doesn’t automatically exclude it from being Yasuke, because Yasuke wasn’t Yasuke, and might have abandoned that name after leaving Japan.

#Review: Attack on Titan, Season 1

I have now watched the entire first season of this … show. This program. This anime. And while I’m neither in love with the program itself nor the format, there are some interesting things going on here.

The premise of Attack on Titan is that the human race, under assault of giant man-eating humanoids called Titans, has withdrawn behind three concentric walls that, for hundreds of years, have protected them from Titan attacks, but also prevented humanity from going anywhere outside the safety of their walls. In the very first episode, a Colossal Titan, one larger than any ever seen before, shows up and basically wrecks the outer wall, allowing the Titans inside. A full 20% of humanity perishes in the events that take place over the next several months, as the Titans have feasts and the humans try to fight back.

Good stuff:

  • This show does action really well. All of the Titan fights were really cool, and the Spider-Man-esque way the characters get around, via waist-mounted cable guns, never looks anything short of amazing.
  • The designs for the Titans are uniformly awesome. None of them look like any others, but they all really skate up to the uncanny valley and they are all really creepy. None of them move quite right, although some of them move much more strangely than others, and the way some of them have faces that would look perfectly normal on a banker or a grocer when they’re actually man-eating monsters is really something.
  • The actual story itself is pretty cool; I want to know more about these things and more about the world.

Bad stuff:

  • This may be a manga thing or an artifact of how Japanese translates into English– and I should point out that I watched about 80% of the season dubbed, not subtitled– but my God, the dialogue was terrible, and the melodrama off the charts. There was no set of circumstances perilous enough (or exciting enough) that they could not be interrupted for a lengthy philosophical conversation, even if the characters were, say, on horseback and fleeing from a giant, when you wouldn’t expect them to be able to talk. The voice acting in both languages has one volume: screaming. And any individual sentence would always be 20 times as long as it needed to be, with lots of recursive clauses. Even if this is how Japanese sounds to an English speaker when translated literally, you solve that problem by not translating it literally. If you’re going to do a dub, try and make the dialogue sound natural to an English speaker.(*)
  • Character design for the human characters could be better, especially since they tend to be wearing uniforms and thus dressed the same all the time. I had trouble differentiating between a lot of the characters.
  • The flashbacks. My God, the flashbacks. Again, nothing is too exciting that you can’t interrupt it with a five-minute flashback to people talking.
  • Pacing. The episodes are short, at about 22 minutes each, but there’s a couple of minutes of recap and credits at either end of that, so the actual episode length is maybe sixteen to eighteen minutes? I am not exaggerating when I say that most episodes are 14 minutes of talking about what is happening right in front of the characters and carping about philosophy and then four minutes of something actually happening, then a cliffhanger.

So, it sounds like I hated this, but the positive stuff is actually interesting enough to me that I’m probably still in for the second season– especially since the things that are crappy about it lend well to making fun of the show while watching it, which … is a way to enjoy TV, I suppose. I may try out a season of My Hero Academia before I go into S2 of Attack on Titan just to see what things are in common across the two shows and maybe recalibrate my expectations a little bit.

Also, my wife brought home the first two volumes of the manga from the library, and I read the first one, and the anime really does appear to be a scene-for-scene translation of the manga. I have not read the second volume yet and really am not feeling much of an itch to do it, so I think I’ll stick with the series for now.

(*) This may be a good time to remind people that my academic background is in Biblical Studies, and the Hebrew Bible in particular, so I have a lot of Opinions about how to translate things. My lack of facility with Japanese hurts me a bit, but I can go on for a while about this sort of thing.

On Anime

First things first: the power was back on before bedtime last night; technically we ended up not having to stay at the hotel but decided to do so anyway, mostly because the boy was having a ball. As of right now we’re home and everything appears to be fine. Both my school and our son’s school both appear to have the power back on as well; there was some speculation that this might cut into school starting back up tomorrow but that no longer looks like it’s going to happen.

I have been, for some time now, casting about for some new Thing to become a Fan of, and for some reason(*) just before the power went out I’d decided to watch a few episodes of Attack on Titan on Netflix and Hulu(**). I was on the sixth episode of Season One, right at the end of a damn cliffhanger, when the lights went out, and as I’m typing this I just finished the 10th episode. And there are bits about it that are ridiculous, and I’m not sure if they’re manga tropes or something specific to this show (my God, the melodrama; everyone is always screaming) but so far I’m really enjoying it, to the point that I’m considering dipping my toe into…


… the manga.

I mean, there’s 33 volumes. Surely just buying one won’t hurt anything, right?

God help me.

(I’ve got Full Metal Alchemist and My Hero Academia on tap to check out next. Let me know which rabbit holes you think I need to fall into, if there are any.)

(*) a bunch of my current students are major weebs, and I still like to check stuff out whenever I notice a bunch of my kids are into something. It’s not like I’ve never had kids who liked anime before, but this year seems to feature a particularly high concentration of them for some reason. Why Attack on Titan in particular? I dunno, I’ve just always liked the look of the monsters for some reason.

(**) Started on Netflix, but Hulu has all four seasons of the show and appears to have better subtitles as well.

#REVIEW: Ghost of Tsushima (PS4)

I have had an absolutely ridiculous run of amazingly good samurai-themed games lately– in fact, it’s fair to say that it’s nearly all I’ve played this year. First there was Nioh, which completely devoured my life. Then Sekiro, which absolutely ate my life. Then Nioh 2, which ate my life worse than Sekiro did. And lately it’s been Ghost of Tsushima, which …

Holy shit, y’all.

Every so often while playing a video game I will take a moment, look around, and reflect that I started playing video games with Pong on an Atari, and now I play games that look like this:

To say that this is the most beautiful game I have ever played is an understatement, because it implies that there has been competition. I have played games that were graphically amazing. Tons of ’em. But I have never played a game that was anywhere close to as beautiful as Ghost of Tsushima is. The game is set mostly in fall, with the northern part of Tsushima island already gripped by winter, so you’re spending the majority of your time running around in sun-dappled, brightly colored forests or over fresh-fallen snow that glitters exactly the way the real thing does. The human models in this game are like nothing I have ever seen before– and that’s coming off of Last of Us II, which I thought set a very high bar for facial modeling. My first thought upon seeing Khotun Khan, the Mongol general who is the villain of the game, was that the man had an incredible intelligence behind his eyes. I have never encountered a character in a video game who I, personally, wanted to sit and have a talk with. Toward the end of the game, there is a sequence where a character knows he needs to do something that he very much does not want to do, and there are tears in his eyes. I have seen real people crying real tears who were less convincing.

But beyond the graphics: this is an open world game that has managed to keep to the outlines of what is expected of an open world game in 2020 with none of the associated annoyances. It seems like such a minor thing, but if a character has to go with you somewhere, and you start running? The other character starts running. The collectibles and flowers and crafting materials that are strewn everywhere can be picked up on the fly, without getting off your horse. Hell, riding your horse is fun and not an exercise in watching for a tiny rock or copse of trees that will send the two of you flying and kill the horse. (I’m looking at you, Red Dead Redemption II.) Controls, across the board, are tight and fluid, and combat is an absolute Goddamned joy; after the first third of the game or so it’s a little on the easy side on the default difficulty level but there are two or three above that, and I find that feeling like a supreme badass in this type of game is more fun than the challenging combat offered by Nioh 2 or Sekiro. I could have made it harder, but I didn’t want it to be, so it’s not much of a complaint.

(I was incandescently angry about the camera and the lack of a lock-on for about the first 10% of the game, until I got used to it. The reason no one was complaining about how terrible the camera was, which really confused me, was because you do get used to it and the game wants combat to be more fluid than a lock-on system allows. It works, it was just a rough transition coming over from Nioh 2.)

The game encourages exploration, because of course it does; there are things to do and little nooks and crannies all over the place with little bits of story hidden in them. One of my favorite things about the game was the way it used natural elements like the wind (there is an actual gameplay reason why the game is set in autumn), or birds, or foxes, or fireflies, to guide you toward points of interest. I didn’t figure out the firefly thing until maybe 2/3 of the way through the game; it’s subtle, and I’m pretty sure the game itself never mentions it.

You can pet the foxes, a lot of the time, and writing the occasional haiku is part of the gameplay. Being able to pet foxes made this game 22.7% better and it was already a great game.

I enjoyed both the story and the main character more than a lot of people seem to have; I’ve seen some gripes about him being a thin character or the story being a little cut-and-paste and I don’t agree with them. Jin Sakai’s emotional journey through the story feels real, and more importantly, his relationships with the other characters also feel real, and it’s those relationships that pull you through the game. The voice acting is … good, I guess, although you shouldn’t take my opinion too seriously because I listened to it in Japanese. Nobody struck me as goofy, though, which can be an occasional problem in these types of games. It’s possible that if I understood Japanese I wouldn’t like the voice actors as much, but I doubt it.

It would be reasonable, I suppose, to gripe that the game is a bit too dude-centric. Jin is male, and you can’t choose his gender at the beginning of the game or alter anything about his appearance. (Armor, yes. Facial features and hair, no.) His uncle, a major figure, is male. Khotun Khan is male. Nearly every random mook you fight throughout the game is male; all of the Mongols are, although you do fight a couple of duels against non-Mongol female characters at a couple of points. There is one female antagonist during one quest line who you never fight, and three of the major supporting characters are female. But, oh, man, Masako and Yuna, in particular, are amazing, and the sad little story the game tells with Yuriko, Jin’s childhood caretaker, is as nuanced and real as anything else in the game.

Yuna is the closest the game comes to a love interest; there are some very broad hints that she and Jin are developing feelings for each other that are never acted on, and the two of them get drunk together at one point (my God, Jin’s eyes during the bit where he was drunk were amazing) and maybe share a meaningful look right before some hell breaks loose, but she is a grown-ass woman and she is a badass and she has no time for anybody’s bullshit, including several men who at least on paper should be far more powerful than her, and I loved every second of her. She’s also never once used for sex appeal, which was damned refreshing. Masako was fascinating for other reasons– I could write another thousand words on how this game deals with revenge, especially, again, after TLOU2— but while you don’t get a lot of female or non-cishet representation in this game what you do get is definitely memorable.

So, yeah– if this isn’t Game of the Year it is awfully close, and while I’ll get more hours of gameplay out of Nioh 2, on the balance this is probably a better game and it’s certainly a more impressive achievement. If you own a PS4 and don’t pick this one up you are doing yourself a disservice, and frankly this is probably worth buying a PS4 for all by itself. I loved the hell out of it. You should play it.

On wanting to know stuff

You may not know this about me: my first semester in college, I was enrolled in an Arabic class. I took Arabic out of pure intellectual curiosity, nothing more; at the time it wasn’t really part of any long-term plan of study or anything like that, it was just as far away as I could get from the languages I’d been offered in high school and it sounded neat. I lasted about three weeks, maybe; it turns out that despite being an excellent student, high school had not taught me to study, and as it happens mastering the Arabic alphabet, which not only has a handful of letters with no English equivalent but where each letter looks different depending on its position in the word– letters that start or end a word look different from letters in the middle, and the primary and final positions look different from each other as well– was more complicated than I could handle at the time. I would eventually fill my language requirement with Hebrew, which isn’t quite as complicated as Arabic, but that was the class that finally taught me to buckle down and study.

I have two big academic failures in my life: Arabic and calculus, and I still want to achieve at least a working knowledge of both before I die. I took calculus my senior year in high school but a bad case of senior burnout combined with a math teacher who was, inexplicably, one of the best math teachers I’d ever had for sophomore Geometry but was utterly unable to reach me for senior Calculus meant that as soon as I was admitted to IU and fulfilled all of my graduation requirements I dropped the class and took an independent study period of Spanish.

Stick a pin in that; we’re gonna take a left turn for a couple of paragraphs.

I’ve never particularly considered myself a weeb– a lifetime of aversion to any sort of Japanese animation not involving Hiyao Miyazaki will kind of nip that in the bud– and while it’s not entirely accurate it’s fair to suggest that the presence of a Japanese voice track on really any form of entertainment is an indicator that I may not be into it. That said, I’ve spent approximately six thousand hours since March playing Nioh and Nioh 2, both Japanese-with-English-subtitles and very loosely based on sixteenth-century Japanese history, and I have sunk a similarly obsessive amount of time into Ghost of Tsushima in the last couple of weeks, which is based on the (real) invasion of Tsushima island by the Mongols in 1274.

And god help me if this hasn’t woken up a previously-nonexistent desire to learn more about Japan.

I keep trying to find a decent English biography of Oda Nobunaga, who appears in both of the Nioh games, and I’m discovering, after spending half of my waking hours listening to people speaking Japanese for five months, a certain interest in learning to at least fumble my way through speaking Japanese. I’m not even sure where to start with that; there are apps and such, but anything reputable is way more money than I’m willing to invest. There are probably some reputable textbooks out there, but I haven’t taken the time to look for them yet.

Which, depending on whether this desire sticks around once I get past these few games, will add another complicated long-term intellectual goal to my list. I feel like I probably ought to get started on at least one of these at some point, right? Which one would you start with, at gunpoint if necessary? 🙂