Most helpful critical review
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
The Way of the Warrior?
on 11 November 2012
The History Channel's the Samurai is an ok but largely uneven set on these legendary Japanese warriors. This box set contains three discs on which we have three different documentaries of varying degrees of quality and historical accuracy. The first disc contains a relatively recent (2009) documentary on the samurai hosted by martial arts expert and actor, Mark Dacascos, as he follows in the footsteps of the (in)famous Miyamoto Musashi.
This documentary is by far the slickest of the set. Unfortunately it's the weakest in terms of accuracy. Dacascos -who comes across as a nice, cool kind of guy - is a martial artist and not a historian; and as a result his view of the samurai is very much biased and filled with all sorts of inaccuracies. First of all he makes the silly error of referring to multiple samurai as 'samurais', forgetting that the word samurai is both singular and plural. This is only the first of many glaring errors. Some of these mistakes are minor and forgivable things such as mispronouncing simple Japanese words like Edo (which he calls ee-do), getting dates mixed up or incorrect, or misquoting several accounts -he claims that Musashi was behind the famous saying "The way of the warrior is found in death" which is actually attributed to Yamamoto Tsunetomo. Some of the other errors are more serious, such as his claims about Musashi's antics on the battlefield of Sekigahara (historians aren't even sure if he was present at the battle), his claims that Toyotomi Hideyoshi was shogun (he wasn't), that Musashi fought for the Tokugawa at "the Battle of Osaka" (he didn't - he was probably on the opposing side, and it was a siege not a field battle) or his claim that the Tokugawa Shogunate banned the use of guns (they actually had tens of thousands of them) and on and on and on.
Practically everything he says is questionable in one form or another, while his views on Musashi are heavily biased to say the least. Dacascos says that Musashi was the greatest warrior of all time - that's debatable, considering that during his own lifetime he was regarded as a great painter rather than a warrior. He also claims that Musashi invented all forms of sword fighting techniques used by the samurai (that's impossible) and that the samurai were primarily swordsmen (that's incorrect). He also whitewashes Musashi's story by omitting some of his more disagreeable traits. There are many other things wrong with this documentary but it's impossible to go into them all. It's visually arresting though, with great cinematography, some high quality reconstructions, and some nice touches such as the cartoon sequences of Musashi's sword battles. (Runtime - 47 mins)
The second documentary is called 'Warriors: Samurai Showdown' and was aired in 2009. This is a look at the weapons, armour and fighting techniques of the samurai by US Special Forces veteran, Terry Schappert. While this documentary is far superior to the first one, it stills has some troubles. First off, Schappert follows in Dacascos' footsteps by focusing on the story of Miyamoto Musashi, so you'll see a lot of repetition of the anecdotes that you've already heard on the first disc. The sequences where Schappert tests the various weapons of the samurai, from the famous katana to the yari (spear), yumi (bow) and teppo (matchlock arquebus) are interesting to watch, as is his demonstrations of some of the lesser known exotic weapons. In order to perfect the samurai fighting techniques Schappert trains with a great Japanese kendo sensei. The relationship between the two is fascinating to watch, as Schappert is very much in awe of this man, but neither can speak directly to each other as one can only speak English, the other Japanese. Their final exchange on the program is actually rather poignant, as Schappert is deeply moved by the kendo sensei's parting gift.
This is definitely one for the weapons buff, but I must admit I was disappointed that this episode just retraces so much of what was discussed on Dacascos' documentary. (Runtime - 44 mins)
The third and final disc is called 'Ancient Mysteries: Samurai' and was produced way back in 1997. The picture quality is grainy, the visual content is dull (lots of talking head segments with some zooming in on old Ukiyo-E prints) but despite lacking the big budget of the other two documentaries, this is the best in terms of historical content. This episode, unlike the other two, explodes some of the long standing myths about the samurai. As an added bonus Musashi is only mentioned in passing (as an artist, interestingly enough), so instead we get a history of the samurai from 12th century warriors to 20th century pop culture. It's such a shame that there has been a decline in the historical content of History Channel shows since the 1990's. If only we could have had the facts covered in this documentary on Dacascos's shows budget. Unfortunately we have to make do with zooming in and out on static pictures, with added narration. Despite the visual flaws though, this documentary delivers where it counts, by providing some actual facts about life in Feudal Japan. (Runtime - 90 mins)
Overall, this review might sound overly negative but there is a lot of interesting content to be had on these discs. I liked some of the reconstructions, the weapons demonstrations, and several other things. At this low price it's hard to complain, just as long as you don't take all of it seriously though, as it can be very biased, too reverential and not even-headed in its outlook on samurai culture, while the many errors - especially on the first disc - detract from it.