Advance to reach heaven. Retreat to know hell. This precept forms the basis of Honobu Yonezawa‘s Naoki award-winning novel, The Samurai and the Prisoner, in many ways. Most recognizably, it declares a basic tenet of battle during the Sengoku Era of Japanese history: it’s better to die on the battlefield than to escape and live in shame. Anyone who’s consumed fiction set in this period has likely encountered this or a similar sentiment, therefore setting up an expectation for the characters of the novel before knocking it down and debating it for the rest of the book. But in this story, it also functions as a baseline for the religious debate that permeates the pages. Characters belong to one of three religious sects: Pure Land Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, or Christianity, and the phrase holds different meanings based on their religious affiliations. It isn’t used perfectly for this theme, but it does give the novel an edge over other works set in the same period, even as the introduction of guns into traditional Japanese warfare remains a familiar thematic element stretching from these wars up through tales of the Shinsengumi.
The story follows two men – Araki Murashige and Kuroda Kanbei. Taking place during the one-year Siege of Itami, its outlines largely stick to what is known: In the winter of 1579, a retainer of Oda Nobunaga sent Kanbei to Arioka Castle to treat Murashige, who had rebelled against Nobunaga after years of loyalty. Murashige rejects Kanbei’s message. Instead of the accepted methods of dealing with the bearer of unwanted tidings (execution or just sending him home), he decides to imprison the man in an underground cell. Kanbei is aghast at this turn of events and quickly becomes bitter about his fate. However, he is the only person whose insight Murashige can trust at certain times, and the throughline of the novel is that each time a strange death occurs in Arioka Castle or its environs, Murashige finds himself forced to descend to the depths and consult Kanbei. Kanbei thus becomes an unwilling great detective, partially going along with Murashige because he’s figured out who the traitor in the castle is and wants to feed his jailer the information piecemeal.
As a work of historical fiction, this is very good. Yonezawa has done exhaustive research, and the way he blends historical facts with philosophical debate about religion and the changing state of warfare is interesting. As a mystery novel (which Yen On‘s back copy claims this is, at least in part), it’s decidedly less successful. To a degree, that’s because every seasonal case (one per season of Kanbei’s imprisonment) follows the same pattern, even if the solutions are always different: someone dies, or something odd happens. Murashige can’t figure it out: He consults an increasingly mad Kanbei, and the truth comes out. While there’s nothing wrong with formulaic mysteries – the entire cozy subgenre is built on the concept – having four back-to-back in the same volume doesn’t work quite as well, and it ends up feeling like Yonezawa wanted to write about the Siege of Itami and religious conflict in Sengoku Japan but was either forced to or wasn’t comfortable excluding the genre that made him well-known as an author. (Yonezawa’s HYOUKA received both an anime and manga adaptation.) It just doesn’t feel like his heart is in the mystery elements, and that does drag things down.
Also challenging is the use of language. While it is almost certainly mimicking the original Japanese, the translation opts to use antiquated language, which presents a bit of a barrier to entry. Unlike something like Viz‘s controversial translation of Fumi Yoshinaga‘s Ōoku, where the antique language was an excuse to use English’s largely extinct informal second person (thee/thou), Yen On‘s translation doesn’t seem to have a purpose beyond scene-setting, and it isn’t quite consistent enough to pull it off. Instead of using the informal second person, the text uses select obsolete or dialectical words, like “prithee,” “forsooth,” and “ye.” This, combined with sentence constructions that deliberately seek to elongate each phrase, makes the book more difficult than it strictly needs to be. (And if I’m complaining about verbiage, you know it’s an issue.) Select Japanese words are also included in the text with context clues for translation rather than footnotes, which does work, mostly because it preserves the flow, and with the overall wordiness, it’s hardly noticeable.
The Samurai and the Prisoner is an ambitious book. It aims to explore the reasons behind Murashige’s actions while engaging with the religious debate of the period, and it does a creditable job of both. It does become overwhelmed by its own linguistic choices, and the sheer size of the named cast is daunting (and includes only one female character; it is mentioned several times that there were indeed women present), but if you’re looking for a novel about a time and place we don’t often get much information about in English, this is a very safe bet. It isn’t an easy read, but it is a solid one.
Disclosure: Kadokawa World Entertainment (KWE), a wholly owned subsidiary of Kadokawa Corporation, is the majority owner of Anime News Network, LLC. Yen Press, BookWalker Global, and J-Novel Club are subsidiaries of KWE.