Clashing swords, showering blood down onto the battlefield. Burning villages, overwhelmed by the screams of dying peasants and their families. Banners waving in the smoky air, boasting the colors and crests of the powerful families that they represent. This is what 16th century Japan looked like—a gory combat zone, overrun by men willing to sacrifice everything in order to obtain absolute power. While modern day Japan’s image may be highlighted by famous visuals such as Mt. Fuji, cherry blossoms, and the high-tech city of Tokyo, the history leading up to the creation of today’s Japan was much more brutal. Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan takes us on a comprehensive journey of how this history played out.
The Netflix Original documentary series paints a detailed picture of feudal Japan, specifically during the Azuchi-Momoyama and Sengoku period of the 16th century. Featuring narration and commentary from several Japanese history experts, the story of Japan’s many power struggles and key battles are carefully explained. The documentary utilizes dramatic live-action reenactments, paired with the narration, to physically show how these essential events played out, and how they might have looked if we had been there ourselves. From beheadings to battles to the destruction of entire populations and cultures, this series shows it all.
The first half of the six-episode series follows the rise and fall of the famous Oda Nobunaga. If you’re a Japanese history noob like me, or if everything you know about Japanese history comes from that “History of Japan” video on YouTube, then you probably already knew that Oda Nobunaga was a huge deal… just not sure why. Considering my limited knowledge about Oda, I was in for a huge surprise when his story was revealed in the docuseries. Turns out Oda wasn’t a regular old man who sometimes dabbled in warfare; he was brutal, unforgiving, and aggressive toward his enemies. Some historians even argue that the battles he fought were single-handedly responsible for changing the course of Japanese history. It was really interesting to learn so much about such an important Japanese cultural figure, and also enlightening to see the methods he used to gain power. It’s pretty eye-opening to find out that someone so iconic in history was comfortable with killing women and children for his own political gain, and also eradicated an entire population of ninjas who took their ancient ninja secrets to the grave. Why hasn’t anyone made an anime about this yet?
Unfortunately, in this era of Japan, people in positions of power never last long. Even though it seemed like he could rule the world at first, Oda Nobunaga eventually reached death’s door after being betrayed by his previously loyal general, Akechi Mitsuhide. He was succeeded by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a retainer who shared Oda’s original goal to unify Japan into one homogenous country. While Toyotomi had big dreams to conquer and expand his reign all the way to China, he faced continuous obstacles, and his campaign eventually came to a halt in Korea. At the end of Toyotomi’s life, the seat of power is challenged once again by the rising daimyō (war lord) Tokugawa Ieyasu, who would go on to create the Tokugawa Shogunate.
While the docuseries does not cover the span of the Tokugawa Shogunate’s time in power (1603~1868), it does a pretty thorough job of explaining the major events that led up to Tokugawa’s rise to leadership, starting with the dramatic beginnings of Oda Nobunaga. It must be difficult to cram over 50 years of complicated history into six short episodes, so the series deserves some praise for having proper organization and a good setup for how to explain so many messy historical events. The narration and experts’ commentary is great; while there are many different voices of historians contributing to the story, everyone manages to have their own unique take on it while also teaching the history in a manner that is easy to understand.
Arguably, the most important part of this series is the dramatic reenactments—the key component that is supposed to keep viewers hooked. Unfortunately, this is where I was a little disappointed. I suppose I wasn’t expecting this series to have the same budget as The Last Samurai, but I couldn’t help but feel a little underwhelmed by the battle sequences shown throughout. Yes, there is fighting and swords and blood spraying everywhere, but the (not so) special effects felt very fabricated. It almost feels like a scene out of a Tarantino movie, with over-the-top violence and too much fake blood. The acting in between the battles, where key figures like Oda and Toyotomi are meeting with people or having important discussions, feels even more subpar. The reenactments failed to capture my attention the way the trailer for the series did.
Ultimately, this show is about history, and history can get boring sometimes, no matter how hard you try. If you watch this series at night, you’re bound to fall asleep after watching two or three episodes in a row. While the featured historians do an excellent job of teaching this history to the audience, the dramatic reenactments hit and miss in the overall entertainment category. If you’re a huge history or documentary fan, then by all means give this a watch; you’re sure to be intrigued by Japan’s fascinating background and the people that made it all happen. On the other hand, if you’re looking to be entertained, you might be better off watching an episode of the anime Rurouni Kenshin.