Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan Review (Abridged)

Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan advertisement graphic

I finally get to cover something current! That being said…oh boy…

I really wanted to like this, because I saw a golden moment in the progress of Sengoku Jidai history. This is the only documentary I can think of that covers the lives of the Three Unifiers; Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, in English. This could have been groundbreaking. Sadly, we were given a pathetic excuse for a documentary on one of the most exciting eras in Japanese history. I actually had to step away from doing this review the week I watched the documentary because had I written this in the moment, we would be here all day. Yet, notice this says “abridged”. Once I go back and fact check certain things, a will publish a breakdown of each individual episode (though I have studied this for years, there is still a lot I do not know. I am not ashamed to admit that.). In the meantime, the following will be an overview on the series as a whole.

First Impressions (The Trailer)

I did not know anything about this documentary until someone posted about it on Facebook. Excited, I went to look for the trailer on YouTube, but that is when I started to get worried. An official trailer had not been dropped for Age of Samurai and the only one I could find had Russian subtitles. Netflix had a trailer on their official website, but the trailer had not been released to YouTube. I found this odd, but I brushed it off thinking that perhaps they did not want to waste money on advertising something that may not do that well. After viewing the documentary though, I think it is because Netflix knew it was bad.

At first glace, I liked the live action. I thought it would be interesting thing for a documentary to do, but I was sadly mistaken. To be honest, I feel like Age of Samurai should have been a drama instead of a documentary, doing something more like Mindhunters (which I personally believe would have been better as a documentary). It would have gotten more viewers as well, considering that they prided themselves on the fact that this was going to have a Game of Thrones like feel to it. While it did, I do not think it meshed well with a documentary setting.

Lastly, I found it odd that the names mentioned in the trailer were Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Date Masamune. What? Do not get me wrong, Date Masamune is one of my favorite figures to study from this era, but even when watching the trailer, I felt like Masamune had been misplaced. The focus seemed like it was going to be on the Three Unifiers and then they throw Masamune into the mix. Again, I shrugged it off, wondering how they were going to handle this and how they would bring him into the picture. To quote Ishida Mitsunari from Samurai Warriors 2: “I should stop expecting so much”.

The Pros

I do not want to just come out and hate on Age of Samurai because there is one good thing it brings to the table: it gets people talking. Though we basically hated on it, I was able to converse with people on social media about this documentary and I learned some things along the way because of it. We bounced ideas off one another and even helped each other learn by voicing our opinions and the small things we noticed. I am not an expert on armor, but a lot of people were able to point out how the armor was incorrect, that they were using the weapons wrong, and how the funerals were not historically correct. If it gets us Japanese nerds talking about it, then I am sure it has gotten the casual viewer talking about the Sengoku Jidai too. To me, that is the biggest plus to this documentary.

We were also introduced to a lot of talking heads during this documentary (which is also not the best thing either, more on that later). It looked like that they managed to get the big name historians together to talk about this subject, which was nice to see. The best though, was seeing younger historians being brought on in the mix of the historians that have been studying this for most of their life. Yet, I would have preferred to just have them speaking throughout because they were so entertaining to watch. For anyone who has studied Japanese history revolving around samurai, Stephen Turnbull becomes a household name quick and it is because he has been writing books on this subject since the 1970s. While he is the main “talking head” throughout, the most entertaining were Nathan Ledbetter, Elijah Bender and Isaac Meyer. They were extremely passionate about the subject at hand, compared to Turnbull and the rest who spoke in very monotone, matter-of-fact voices. They were also the ones who gave straight facts and did not gloss over details. These three men are definitely an inspiration for anyone who wants to get into this field.

Though I have some complaints about the presentation, I did like the fact that some of the women of the era get a mention. When talking about this era, it tends to focus primarily on men, while the women get tossed to the side. I wish it was better, and I will explain why further on, but it is a great start for female representation in this era and that is a plus in my book. While Date Masamune’s mention seems a bit out of place (again, more on that later), his appearance is also a bonus. This all goes back to what I said at the beginning of this review: this is probably the only documentary series we have in English on this era. That is what is so disappointing. This could have been a fantastic documentary series. The potential was there, but it fell short of what it could have been.

The Cons

There is a lot to cover here, but I am only focusing on the series as a whole, so the first to mention is the live action. I will not go into too much here because a lot of other Japanese historians, podcasters and YouTubers have already torn the live action scenes apart in regards to the armor, clothing, terrain, battles and indoor scenes. Needless to say, it is bad. It felt like they did not even try to make things period correct and cared more about the gory and “sexy” parts of the live action. My biggest problem with the live action is not only is it historically inaccurate on multiple levels, but it felt like it was pandering to an audience that would much rather see it as a drama than a documentary. Yes, this era could be turned into a Japanese Game of Thrones, but it feels like that became the main focus of the documentary, which resulted in the loss of history, which I feel like that is what happened here.

I cannot believe I am saying this but I felt like there were way too many historians for a six, fifty minute episode documentary series. In the first episode, I counted fourteen alone, and they were still adding more with every episode after that. Most documentaries only have a handful of people they bring on, and you can usually remember who they are every time they appear on-screen. This show had to keep reminding you who was speaking and it was difficult to keep up with every new face. Only a few were kept to talk for the entire series, but others were brought on to only speak a sentence or two before never hearing from them again. The worst when it comes to historians comes from how the female historians, Lesley Downer and Tomoko Kitagawa, are represented in this documentary.

I was happy to see some female historians getting some airtime in the first episode. As the documentary went on, however, I began to notice a couple of things. There are only two female historians and the only time they come on-screen is when a woman from the era is mentioned. While I understand most men are not clamoring to specialize in Women in Japanese History, it just seemed a bit sexist to have the female historians only talk about the women of the era. In order to understand the women of any era, you have to study what is going on around them during that time, so I know these women could have given interesting perspectives on the Sengoku Jidai, and probably more information about the women that were mentioned. This brings up my other complaint: all the women mentioned, except one, were all court women.

Like I stated before, when most people think of samurai, women are not the first image that comes to mind. Yes, there are more famous men than women during this era and most of the famous women are only famous because of who they married or their lineage. Much like other forms of media, however, Age of Samurai glosses over the fact that there were female warriors (onna-bugeisha) and even a couple became daimyo! Women like Ii Naotora, Tachibana Ginchiyo, Kaihime and Komatsuhime are not mentioned. Despite this, I found it very interesting that famed female ninja, Mochizuki Chiyome, gets a mention in the third episode. This episode focuses on Oda Nobunaga’s campaign in Iga, the province known for “ninja”, and Chiyome is introduced as an Iga woman who seduced men for information. It is not a hundred precent true. Much of Chiyome’s life is a bit of a mystery to us, but from what we have gathered, she was responsible for creating an army of all female “ninja” while serving under Takeda Shingen. I was really disappointed with her representation, but I put the blame on the historians for this and may other situations.

My biggest issue with the historians in this documentary is that they either gloss over important facts that need further explanation to understand it or go into too much detail on things that do not need it. An example of them going on and on about things that really do not need explanation are the battles. Every description of every battle mentioned in Age of Samurai was the same: it was a “massacre”. Most people watching this know that battles are not pleasant. It is death, blood and gore all around, but I feel like the historians just love talking about how awful warfare is, almost like the audience cannot fathom what war entails. They spend so much time talking about war that they do have time to talk about the details that matter. One such case that needed further explanation was Lady Tsukiyama. Lady Tsukiyama was Tokugawa Ieyasu’s first wife who ended up being executed for wanting to betray her husband and Oda Nobunaga to the Takeda clan. She wanted to give the Takeda her husband and his lord in exchange for another husband and lands for her son. So far so good, but why? According to our historians, it was because she was jealous of the number of concubines Ieyasu had. Uh…okay, no. While this might have been the case (I mean, nineteen to twenty concubines is excessive) this was not the end all, be all reason. If we look back, we will find that Lady Tsukiyama was the daughter of a senior Imagawa retainer and of one of Imagawa Yoshimoto’s ex-concubines. And who did Imagawa Yoshimoto marry? Answer: Takeda Shingen’s sister. There is a connection via marriage alliance to the Takeda which is most likely why she reached out to Takeda Katsuyori. I feel like they did a sloppy job with the explanation on this one because unless you knew anything about the Sengoku Jidai before watching this, most would have been confused as to why she reached out to the Takeda clan.

There is also the problem of Date Masamune. Like I said in the beginning of this review, I was unsure of why he was mentioned in the trailer. When talking about the Three Unifiers, Masamune does not fit. While he is important for the unification of Northern Japan, we really do not see much of him unless you are talking about the Tōhoku Sekigahara Campaign in 1600. To add even more insult to injury, they messed up or completely omitted facts about Masamune. If they wanted to branch out and talk more about other samurai, that is fine, but there are others that could have been mentioned beside him to even things out. Sanada Yukimura, Naor Kanetsugu, Katakura Kojūrō, Chōsokabe Motochika and Shimazu Yoshihiro are just a few that could have been named. I feel like Masamune was just thrown in there as a “badass” figure to gain more views.

I think the biggest problem with Age of Samurai is that it leaves so much out. We are dropped off in the year 1551 without any context to what is going on in Japan at this time. We are told there is a civil war but no reason as to how that began. Casual viewers will be lost while those who know Sengoku history will be complaining about how important battles were omitted or barely discussed, or how Nagashino became anti-climatic after being introduced to the revolving volleys for a minor skirmish in the very first episode. It leaves views wondering “what was the intended audience for this show?”, because it leaves casual viewers confused and history lovers angry.

Final Verdict

Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan did better on Netflix than most people probably expected, topping out at #6 in the United States. While it was probably entertaining for people who are just watching it for the live action sequences, for those of us who love reading about this era, listening to podcasts, or even YouTube videos, this made us rage quit. If someone wanted to get into this era of Japanese history, I would actually send them to Extra Credit History on YouTube and tell them to watch their six, barely ten minute videos that they have done on the Sengoku Jidai for it gives you a better understand on how Japan ended up in the position it did by the time of Nobunaga and why the Three Unifiers are so important. If someone really wants to watch this documentary, all I can say is take what they say with a grain of salt. It is such a shame, for this could have been the best documentary on the Sengoku Jidai ever made.