Memoirs of the Warrior Kumagai

Memoirs of the Warrior Kumagai: a Historical Novel
Donald Richie
Tuttle, 1998
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Donald Richie, best known as a writer on Japanese film and contemporary Japanese society, has written a very interesting book that should be of interest to people interested in classical martial arts. Titled Memoirs of the Warrior Kumagai: A Historical Novel, it is a fictional account of the life of Kumagai Jiro Naozane, the man noted for taking the head of the handsome young Taira warrior, Atsumori.

Written as though it were a memoir, in the latter days of Kumagai’s life, the book is full of digressions and musings on the nature of history, society, and other matters that make the story — or should I say tale? — all the more interesting. It’s almost as though the fictitionalized author was sitting in front of you, musing as he writes “in his execrable hand.” Richie has done an excellent job in re-creating the feel and flavor of the Heian period, as well as the sense and sensibilities of the people who were the principal figures of the time. He writes with a very refreshing tone, portraying them as real people and not as the heroic individuals of myth or popular fiction.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the book for me is also the most questionable: this attempt to re-create the mind-set and feelings of the time. It’s an impossible task, really. How can a modern person, especially one from an entirely different culture, get inside the head of somebody from so long ago, whose life was so different from that of today? I don’t think it is possible to be completely or “historically” accurate, but I was very impressed with the matter-of-fact way Kumagai describes his thoughts about loyalty, bravery, honor, all those “warrior values” we read about in such a distinctly human way. Much of what is said in the book is close to what I’ve learned from reading and talking with specialists in this period of Japanese history and I think that it will be of interest and value to students of both the classical and modern martial arts. Highly recommended.

Meik Skoss

Copyright ©2000 Meik Skoss. All rights reserved.