Go forward to enter heaven. Hide to understand hell. In many respects, Honobu Yonezawa’s Naoki award-winning book The Samurai and the Prisoner is built around this principle. Most recognizable of all, it proclaims a fundamental principle of Sengoku-era Japanese warfare: it is preferable to perish on the battlefield than to flee and live in disgrace. It’s possible that anyone who has read fiction from this era has experienced something similar, which gives the characters in the narrative something to expect before they disprove and discuss it over the remainder of the book. However, it also serves as a starting point for the religious controversy that runs throughout the narrative. Depending on which of the three religious sects the characters are affiliated with—Pure Land Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, or Christianity—the sentence has a distinct connotation. The novel gains an advantage over other works set in the same period despite its imperfect application of the theme, even if the introduction of guns into traditional Japanese fighting is a recurring theme that extends from these battles up until stories of the Shinsengumi.
The narrative centers on two individuals, Kuroda Kanbei and Araki Murashige. Its plot, which takes place during the year-long Siege of Itami, mostly follows known facts: A retainer of Oda Nobunaga despatched Kanbei to Arioka Castle in the winter of 1579 in order to tend to Murashige, who had rebelled against Nobunaga following years of fealty. Kanbei’s message is rejected by Murashige. Rather than following the customary procedures for handling an undesirable news bearer—such as having him put to death or just sent home—he chooses to lock the man up in an underground cell. This unexpected change of events horrifies Kanbei, who soon grows resentful of his lot in life. Nevertheless, at times, he is the only one whose wisdom Murashige can rely on, and the central theme of the book is that every time an odd death happens in Arioka Castle or its surroundings, Murashige is compelled to go deeper and speak with Kanbei. As a result, Kanbei turns into an unwilling great detective, cooperating with Murashige to some extent as he has identified the traitor in the castle and wants to provide his jailer with bits and pieces of information.
This is a really good historical fiction piece. Yonezawa has done a great deal of study, and it’s fascinating to see how he combines historical details with philosophical arguments concerning religion and the evolution of combat. It’s much less successful as a mystery novel, which Yen On’s back text implies this is, at least partially. That’s partly because, despite the fact that the resolutions are never the same, each seasonal case—one for each season of Kanbei’s incarceration—follows a similar pattern: someone passes away or an unusual event occurs. When Murashige consults an increasingly irrational Kanbei, the truth is revealed, but he is unable to figure it out. Having four back-to-back mysteries in one volume doesn’t work as well as it could, and it feels as though Yonezawa wanted to write about the Siege of Itami and religious conflict in Sengoku Japan but was either forced to or uncomfortable excluding the genre that made him a well-known author. Formulaic mysteries are fine; in fact, the entire cozy subgenre is built on the concept. (There have been adaptations for Yonezawa’s HYOUKA in manga and anime.) Things are dragged down because it doesn’t seem like his heart is in the mystery components.
The usage of words is another difficult aspect. Although it is most likely a copy of the original Japanese, the translation chooses to utilize archaic terminology, making it somewhat difficult to read. Unlike something like Viz’s contentious translation of Fumigi Yoshinaga’s Ōoku, where the use of the antiquated language as a justification for using the now-extinct informal second person pronouns (thee/thou) in English, Yen On’s translation seems to serve only as scene setting and isn’t quite consistent enough to work. The text employs some dialectical or antiquated words, such as “prithee,” “forsooth,” and “ye,” in place of the casual second person. The book is made more difficult than it needs to be by this and sentence structures that purposefully aim to make each phrase longer. (And you know there’s a problem if I’m whining about the language.) In addition, a few Japanese words are translated into English using context cues rather than footnotes. This method keeps the flow and is rarely visible overall, therefore it’s effective.
This work, The Samurai and the Prisoner, is very ambitious. It performs a commendable job of both addressing the theological discourse of the day and delving into the motivations behind Murashige’s conduct. Although it does feel overpowered by its own linguistic decisions and the size of the named cast is intimidating (with only one female character, despite multiple references to the presence of women), this is a very safe pick if you’re looking for a novel about a period and location that isn’t often discussed in English. Though not a simple read, it is a good one.