Last night I watched the movie “The Last Samurai” with Tom Cruise. I have seen it several times. I think it’s a great film and one of Tom Cruise’s best. But if you are looking for the type of samurai action depicted in that story, you’ve come to the wrong place. Shusaku Endo’s novel “The Samurai” brings out what a samurai’s place really was – one of submission and obedience. Although the samurais in this novel wear the traditional long and short swords, they do not draw them once in combat. The story is not about that at all. It is more about inner turmoil, the combat within a person’s own psyche and spirit.
Shusaku Endo’s most famous novel is “Silence,” which is Martin Scorsese’s latest film project. That novel tells of a missionary who goes to Japan during a time of intense persecution and must struggle with his Christian convictions. I read it, enjoyed it, and reviewed it a few years back. This novel, “The Samurai,” also has the Christian theme running through it, but it is more epic in scope and story. I think I like it even more.
“The Samurai” begins by describing a poor samurai’s peasant-like existence. He is the lord over a few villages in a marshland and is resigned to his simple lifestyle. His family’s ancestral lands were taken away from his family by his overlord, but he does not complain, although his aging uncle does. He is appointed to go with some other Japanese envoys on a voyage across the Pacific Ocean to Mexico, called in the novel Nueva Espania, ostensibly to negotiate a trade agreement with the Spanish. In truth there are underlying motivations within the Japanese government. He is accompanied by a Spanish priest who is ostensibly a translator, but is actually fanatically devoted to converting Japan to Christianity.
Endo is a master at conveying the emotions of his characters. The Samurai is a simple man compelled by duty to undertake a voyage that he has no desire for. The Franciscan priest is so overcome with his own ambition to become the bishop of Japan that he loses all perspective or concern for those in his care. The other envoys each have their own personalities mirrored in their reaction to circumstances during their epic journey.
The envoys arrive in Acapulco, travel across the barren Mexican desert to Mexico City, learn they cannot present their petitions there, and travel onward to Veracruz to find a boat to take them to Spain. In Spain authorities are not sympathetic to their mission, so they travel on to Rome, to Vatican City, for an audience with the Pope. In Spain the envoys, including the samurai, convert to Christianity, without sincerity but with the conviction that it will help them succeed in winning over the foreign authorities. It is all in vain. They retrace their steps back through Spain, through Mexico, and across the Pacific to find a vastly changed Japan whose rulers are actively persecuting Christians and have no desire for commerce or communication with other countries.
It is heartbreaking how Endo describes the samurai’s return to his country, a country he had no desire to leave in the first place and did so only out of duty. He cannot unburden himself, he cannot communicate to others what he has experienced. Nobody understands or cares. In fact, he is ostracized and eventually killed for having become a Christian.
I can sympathize with him in a way, having traveled and experienced many strange and wondrous things in far parts of the world. Even though I came back to a country where I am free to communicate to others, most people who have never left their homeland listen politely for a short time but don’t really understand what I am talking about. The sense of alienation, of being a stranger in a strange land, is strong.
This novel is based on true events, as an afterword explains. Even more, Endo emotionally went through some of the same things the samurai did. He was a Catholic convert in a land made up largely of non-Christians. As he tells in the afterword, he was the first Japanese to travel and study in Europe after World War II, and became well acquainted with ostracism and alienation.
This is a great novel, deeply emotional and heartfelt. It also succeeds on the level of an epic adventure story of those in service traveling to a far country to fulfill a mission and meet their destiny.