Netflix’s documentary Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan was an interesting documentary on the Japanese sengoku period where the supremacy of daimyos shifted from the battlefield to politics and centered around the unification of Japan. More interestingly, it tackled the role of the samurai in history during war and peace time. I, for one, got hooked from the first episode. I must say it played like an epic saga because I was hedging my bets on the fast paced turnovers and surprise developments which happened in every installment.
Even from the start, it was obvious that there was a limited budget for the series. It was not enough to film a Game of Thrones level of dramatization of events in the sengoku era which truly called for a massive scale production so the filmmakers opted to get creative with the shots instead. Rather than going for long shots, they focused on melee shots and close ups, which served the storytelling just as well.
It was very obvious that they were using recycled actors for every battle because they wore the same costumes over and over, even though their armor should have been promoted after each victory. Case in point, a huge guy who played a peasant in the first episode was used until episode four or five. I have no doubt, he was among the extras in the last episode as well. Actually, I felt bad for the Korean Righteous Army because they were basically given the same costumes as the Japanese extras, save for different headpieces. Imagine, even the leader of the Korean rebels was given a mismatched costume. It was a mess.
Enough about the fashion. Despite these challenges brought on by the lack of a decent budget, the docuseries still managed to become an engaging lesson in history because of the wealth of information being shared by historians who were obviously as passionate about the subject as the Japanese were. They talked animatedly about the events that transpired centuries ago as if it happened yesterday. They spoke of these key figures in history like they knew them personally. A lot of confidence went into the storytelling, and it was a confidence that was brought on by their expertise on the era that was gleaned from years of study.
I was at first fascinated with the type of leadership that Oda Nobunaga had. While I despised his tyrannical ways, I was impressed by his military brilliance and innovation. I felt the same way about Date Masamune and the two sides of his character — the ruthless warlord and the loyal ally.
There was a time that I rooted for Hideyoshi too, given his humble background and his political savvy, but things pretty much went downhill when he got too full of himself.
While I studied about the empires of China when I was a student, I was truly shocked at the brutality that took place in the war for supremacy in Japan. I was shocked by the amount of betrayals that turned the tides of battle in an instant since there were plenty. I was also appalled by the amount of seppoku that happened throughout the series.
I was also amazed by how the series gradually built up the emerging power players in history, particularly Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. I must admit that I was not a big fan of Ieyasu because I felt there was something shady about his ability to change sides to suit him. He obviously wanted to seize the power for himself but I applaud his patience and his gradual rise to cement his position in history. He was a guy who knew what he wanted and was not in a rush to get it. In the end, he was the last man standing and after all the close calls he managed to get out of, I felt like he deserved his victory.
I think the greatest success of the series for me was that it made each point in this history lesson so compelling that I easily remember the names of the key players, as well as specific events that shaped this era in Japanese history. It’s tall order for someone who is not familiar with Japanese history at all, save for its connection to my country’s history. I wish that our filmmakers here in the Philippines would be able to come up with such a compelling project to depict our rich history as well.
By its end, despite its flaws, I loved Age of Samurai: Battle of Japan. It was a far cry from the romanticized version of the samurai that has previously been shown in cinemas but instead, it pays homage to their legacy, evolution and eventual role in history, both the good and the bad.