Working on “The Black Samurai”

Life had been hectic and my novel about Yasuke the Black Samurai had taken a back seat for a while. So let me recap what I had been writing and give you an update on the progress.

Yasuke is a historical character about whom very little records remain. He was a slave who worked for a Portuguese trader or a missionary. Lord Oda Nobunaga took an interest in him, but there is no record that he ever bought him as a slave. Instead, he hired him on as a subject, gave him the Japanese name Yasuke, and elevated his status to samurai.

On June 21, 1582, when Nobunaga was staying at Honnoji Temple, a rebellion lead by Akechi Mitsuhide surrounded and attacked the temple. Reportedly, Yasuke with lance in hand, fought at great risk to himself and protected Nobunaga until the warlord finally gave up and killed himself in ritual suicide. What happened to Yasuke after Nobunaga’s fall remains a mystery. By one account, he was captured and sold back into slavery. But like Elvis in death, rumors of the Black Samurai persisted long after he disappeared from official records.

Writing a story about the Black Samurai, as appealing a premise as it is, required me to take some artistic liberties and add embellishments. And even then, it was difficult to compose a story that will make sense to the Western audience and still be entertaining.

Not many English written books about samurai were ever very successful. One notable exception was Shogun by James Clavell, published in 1975, which tells a story of feudal Japan roughly around Yasuke’s time. The main weakness of this book was that it digressed into lengthy explanations about Japanese culture, both true and fictional, that disrupted the flow of the story. Modern readers are probably less tolerant of such massive info dumps. I tried to solve this problem by writing two parallel story lines, one in 1928 and one circa 1574. The story line in 1574 deals with Yasuke who is employed by Nobunaga just as he is about to conquer and unite Japan under his banner. The story line in 1928 follows an English scholar and his young son in early Showa Japan trying to solve the mystery of a lost holy mirror that Nobunaga might have sought as an instrument of his conquest. As the story switches from one time line to the other, the stories explain each other and constructs into a coherent, and eventually connected, narrative.

In the opening chapter, Toby is playing with tin soldiers, recreating the Battle of Nagashino and explaining the strategy. In the second act climax, Nobunaga fights the Battle of Nagashino. In the second chapter, Minako and the professor discuss how Nobunaga forced the emperor to give up the ranjatai, and explain what the ranjatai is. In the third chapter, which is the first flashback to medieval Japan, Nobunaga is seen desecrating the holy ranjatai and now has his eyes on the holy mirror. The significance of the holy mirror is described in the prologue, which is a letter written by adult Toby to his baby son. The letter is the following.

 

THE LETTER:

Dear Son,

If all goes as designed, this package should reach you around the time of your fiftieth birthday in the year 2015. It may even be your child, my grandchild, who will find these documents at the appointed time. That may as well be, for I was but twelve years of age when the events recorded herein took place. It was 1928 and Japan had not yet been taken over by the militarist dictatorship. My father, the Oxford orientalist scholar, was struggling to assimilate into his adopted country, and Japan, a newly industrializing samurai nation, was struggling to join the civilized world. It was a very different and exciting time.

I arrived late to the game of fatherhood, and am now already fifty, and you not yet one-year-old. I do not expect to live until you read this letter, nor do I expect to remember properly all the details when you are old enough to understand the significance of what I have experienced. When I was a boy, I never envisioned that there would one day be such things as television broadcasts, or jet aeroplanes, or The Beatles. I suppose by the time this package is opened, you would be reading correspondences on electronic instruments in an air-conditioned home, while a robot hoovers the floor. I hope by then enough time would have elapsed to take some of the venom out of the ancient secrets I am about to record on paper, an archaic recording device in your time no doubt.

What inspired me to write this document is not the passage of time, but an article I found in a magazine. You will find the cut-out pasted on the adjoining page. It is a story of an archaeological discovery in Kyushu of Yata no Kagami a year ago in 1965. It is one of the bronze mirrors believed to have once reflected the face of Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess of Japanese mythology. The mirrors are holy relics that legitimize the Emperor and other people of divine authority. Only two were known to the world, both badly damaged. The academics are still in disagreement as to the authenticity of the newly found fragments of the shattered fourth disk. I say fourth, although the article calls it third, because I know the fate of the third relic. I can attest to its authenticity, though I dare not say so in public, for I recognize the design. And I can prove there were four because there are documents, long believed to be destroyed, describing the lineage of the bronze disks, which I have included in this package. The first of these documents was the letter discovered by my father in the winter of 1928.

Since I will not be available to answer questions, I have included all the records, confessions and personal memoirs in the package in your hands, including academic publications, historic transcripts, blueprints, photographs, maps, notebooks, journals and diaries of all the relevant participants. The narrative, however, will have to be your own. It is up to you to assemble the full story from this collection of raw records. I know the penchant for research runs in the family, and I am confident that you will accomplish a commendable job in constructing the story for the readers of your time. Happy studies.

Your Loving Father,

Sir Tobias Francis Mason, OBE

This strategy of employing two story lines and making them explain each other is working out quite well so far.

Here are the main characters:

  • The 1928 story line:

Professor Benjamin Mason, orientalist scholar, teaches Latin grammar at a university in Tokyo. He is a widower who married a Japanese woman of aristocratic origins. He wants to prove the connection of her lineage to the esteemed Kyogoku clan as a means of establishing his son’s position in the Japanese establishment.

Toby Mason, the professor’s 12-year-old son, who would eventually grow up to serve in the British Secret Service in the war effort against Japan in WWII, and become Sir Tobias Francis Mason, OBE.

Minako, the professor’s research assistant, house maid, and secretary, who is secretly in love with the professor.

Abe Danjo, a mysterious antique collector and art curator with excellent deductive abilities and good knowledge of archaeology and history.

  • The 1574 story line:

Oda Nobunaga, a ruthless warlord who is on the verge of uniting Japan under his banner.

Yusuf/Yasuke, a black slave who will be adopted by Nobunaga as his subject.

Furuta Oribe, a soldier/tea master, and a lieutenant of Nobunaga who is tasked to find the holy mirror that symbolizes the emperor.

Imai Sokyu, a weapons merchant/tea master who is recruited in Nobunaga’s plan to overthrow the emperor with the help of the holy mirror.

Luis Frois, a Jesuit missionary from Portugal.

Cardozo, Portuguese merchant, owner of Yusuf, the slave.

 

I have most of the main characters reasonably fleshed out except for the critical Abe Danjo, who should become the Yoda/Gandalf character of the 1928 story line. But the motivations, core needs, and inner conflicts of each individual character are all over left field and not quite in line with the main plot, which is the search for the holy mirror.

I also need to give each person a character arc, which is difficult to do for me. I always seem to write about detached observers who remain the same. I have plotted out a skeletal biography for Toby Mason, who will grow up to be a spy (not to give away too much). His father, Professor Benjamin Mason, is an Edwardian Englishman in a top hat, and something like what Indiana Jones might have been if he was played by stiff-upper-lipped David Niven in a John Brabourne production instead of swashbuckling Harrison Ford in a Lucas film. Nobunaga, meanwhile, have been portrayed in many movies, TV series, and video games, some of which have had large international audiences after Clavell published Shogun. In Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (1980), he is portrayed as a regal leader, while in the anime series Yotoden (1987), he is portrayed as a literal demon in the guise of a power-hungry warlord, and in other works of fiction he has been portrayed as everything in between. My Nobunaga falls in the middle. He is mad, bad, dangerous, and ambitious, but short of an actual demon. The Black Samurai, by contrast, is a calm, long-suffering, level-headed fellow who is a silent observer until he is called to violent action.

I am finding that building the setup is easier and more enjoyable than constructing an exciting battle scene. Also, it is more difficult to set up the climax properly than it is to describe the characters or their motivations.

I am about 30,000 words into the first draft. I always seem to hit a block at 30K words. This time is no exception. I have written and deleted several chapters after this point. The story does not seem to flow properly. I will try to write on in the year to come and keep you updated on the progress.

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