Japanese culture has been popular in the west for years, with anime being woven into the fabric of pop culture. Westerners also visit Japan to learn about the country’s history and the samurai are an important part of it.
The traditional view of samurai are noble, honourable warriors who dedicated their lives to a singular cause. It’s no surprise that samurai have been featured in comics.
But how are they portrayed? Do mainstream comics like Marvel and DC remain faithful to what samurai stood for? Let’s take a closer look.
Historically, samurai lived by the code of Bushido, also called the Way of the Warrior. It encouraged loyalty, sincerity, a love of poetry, frugality, martial arts mastery and honour until death. Bushido developed out of the principles of a samurai called Tsunetomo Yamamoto who wrote down his teachings in secret during a time of peace in the Edo period. Bushido came out of Hagakure, which translates as ‘Hidden Behind The Leaves.’
Later, the principles were developed further by Nitobe Inazo, who wrote down eight virtues: Righteousness, heroic courage, compassion, respect, integrity, honour, duty and self-control. He summed up the way of the warrior as a code that needed to be mastered.
“Bushido, then is the code of moral principles, which the samurai were required or instructed to observe…More frequently it is a code unuttered and unwritten…It was an organic growth of decades and centuries of military career. In order to become a samurai this code has to be mastered.”
A western perspective and beyond
These traits can be applied to many superheroes, but there are only a few characters who truly embody what it means to be a samurai. In terms of Marvel and DC, Marvel have explored samurai and Japanese culture in greater depth. The character who provides the best western perspective is Wolverine, who has a long history with Japan. The culture is tied to Wolverine’s backstory, with his character being presented as a failed samurai. Masterless samurai were called ronin and Wolverine is a good example.
Wolverine has always struggled to master his feral rage, so he went to Japan to learn self-control. He grew to respect the teachings of the samurai and Bushido. Wolverine applied it to his daily life and tried to make himself become a worthier, better man in the eyes of the people he loved. This can be credited to Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, who revamped the character in the original Wolverine solo series. Wolverine returned to Japan to visit his lover Mariko Yashida, only to find out she’d been married off by her father to further his own ends. Claremont has described the process of linking Wolverine and Japan together.
“The way I always describe Wolverine is, if you walked into Logan’s room at the X-Mansion, you’d be immediately struck that the room would be split almost literally in half. One would be a total shithole: clothes on the couch, beer cans wherever. This is a guy who doesn’t give a damn about anything; he just tosses it. There’s nothing sophisticated, nothing respectful; it’s altogether creepy. And then there’s the other half of the room, which is pristine, elegant, down to the bare essentials of what, for him, is life: a samurai short sword sitting on a desk, and maybe a few precious other items. You’d look at that side of the room and be instantly struck by the balance, the sensitivity.”
“That’s the two sides of Logan. There’s the side that Sabretooth is always reaching out to and saying, “There’s no one like you except me. We should be pillaging the world because we’re predators. Why are you wasting all your time with these wimps?” And then there is the Ronin side, which wants to find a purpose greater than himself that will make him whole. And originally it was with Jean Grey, but she was spoken for. So he turned to Mariko. And that turned out to be doomed. But for me, the fun was the struggle. Logan is trying to find a better way, a way that validates the love of Jean or Mariko. A way to be the man they want.”
Wolverine is similar to a real samurai because he’s a representation of human duality. Samurai were warriors who fought for their lord, but they were also meant to have self-control. The conflicting personality traits meant that a samurai needed to be ready for anything and adapt. Through Wolverine, western readers can appreciate what the samurai stood for. It allowed Claremont and Miller to develop a world around the character and put the spotlight on a culture that’s always been dominated by anime.
Another western character who became enamoured with Japanese culture was Top Cow’s Ian Nottingham. As part of the Witchblade universe, Nottingham acted as an enemy of Sara Pezzini, but there was more to him than that. He grew up in England and served with the British secret service, only to lose his memory and turn to a life of crime. He went to Japan and worked for the Yakuza, becoming a ronin. By embracing the samurai lifestyle, Nottingham found a purpose that he’d been lacking for many years. He became the wielder of the Bloodsword, a cursed katana that fed on the lifeforce of its victims.
A character that fits the traditional image is the Silver Samurai, created by writer Steve Gerber and artist Bob Brown. An enemy of Wolverine, Kenuichio Harada was the mutant son of Shingen Yashida. He wore steel alloy body armour that was modelled on traditional samurai armour and carried a katana. He had the ability to generate a tachyon field and used it to cut through any substance with his sword.
Harada is an interesting character because although he looked like a samurai he didn’t adhere to Bushido. He was dishonourable in combat and cheated to get ahead, as evident with his early battles with Wolverine.
However, after the death of his half-sister Mariko, he sought to reclaim his honour. He took over Clan Yashida and attempted to pay off the clan’s debts to the Yakuza. Wolverine entrusted him to look after his adoptive daughter Amiko and he even lead the first Japanese superhero team called Big Hero 6. Eventually, Harada was murdered and his son took his place. Shin Harada went down a villainous path, which is noteworthy because it goes against the traditional image of samurais being heroic.
Female samurai had a presence in Japan and the women of the class were allowed to carry weapons like their men folk. Female samurai have been included in comics as well, with Yukio being a good example. As a former assassin of the Yashida clan, Yukio embodied the virtue of living for death. She threw caution to the wind and lived a life of adventure. Another example of a strong, female samurai is Colleen Wing. Her ancestors were samurai and she was taught their ways by her grandfather.
Perhaps the most famous female samurai in comics is Katana. Although she’s best known for her appearance in the Suicide Squad film, Tatsu Yamashiro is an interesting character in her own right.
Originally, she served as part of Batman’s Outsiders team and operated with the Birds of Prey. Tatsu was born in Japan and felt drawn to the samurai teachings from an early age. She caught the eye of two brothers called Maseo and Takeo Yamashiro. Tatsu fell in love with Maseo, which made Takeo jealous and he decided to join the Yakuza.
Tatsu became a mother and lived a happy life until Takeo returned with a mystical sword, Soultaker. Takeo killed his brother with Soultaker and a heartbroken Tatsu challenged him to a duel to the death. She was able to disarm him, but Takeo burned down her home and she lost her children.
Tatsu acquired the discarded sword, which contained the soul of her dead husband. Having nothing to live for except vengeance, Katana hunted Takeo down. Her bitterness is a defining part of her personality, though she’s been able to grow close to certain people.
Katana’s blade was forged in the 14th century by Muramasa, whose swords were said to be demonic. When someone is killed by Soultaker, their soul is trapped inside. Katana can communicate with the spirits of the sword and have them serve her through the use of a ritual.
Comic adaptations of samurai have remained faithful to the source material and even challenged our expectations. Samurai will continue to fascinate historians and readers for years to come. By reading comics, you’ll be able to get more of an appreciation for their nature because they’ve been captured in such great detail.
For more information on samurai philosophy, download a free copy of How To Endure Like Wolverine.