The sun is sinking and the golden hour is in full form. The season is autumn. The Japanese maples are a deep red and the gingko leaves a brilliant yellow. I’m heading out on horseback to rescue one of Japan’s best blacksmiths that’s been captured by Mongol invaders. A bird comes into view, fluttering overhead. I’m to a spot next to a pond with a flat rock where I sit and reflect on hope. Then I’m given the opportunity to write an in-game haiku.
Ghost of Tsushima is full of little detours like this. It’s one of the newest game releases and overall a beautiful open-world game full of sprawling landscapes set in 13th century Japan when the Mongols made their historic invasion against the Japanese. And GoT drops players directly in the midst of the invasion with our main character Jin who is the last remaining samurai who fought the advancing Mongols on Komoda Beach outside Sasuura. Fans of all things Japanese period drama can rejoice. This game is fantastic. *chef’s kiss*
One of the great aspects (and there are a lot of them, fanboy engaged) of GoT is its emphasis on making history playable. It’s the kind of Jidaigeki that real Japanese period drama lovers can honestly freak out over, that is, if they like video games. The approach is a little untraditional. To me it feels more like a playable novel, with major scenes punctuated with less likely scenarios that build and develop the main point. In some of those moments, the player gets to scout around and just enjoy the landscape, write haikus, follow birds and foxes to uncover hidden shrines or bathe in the hot springs. Yup, you can just take a virtual dip, take a moment to reflect on your captured uncle and increase your health bar. All of these moments are actually very important pieces to the game that make it much easier to play when the fighting becomes more difficult. That is to say, this game is much more than just fighting.
But GoT is really not the reason I’m here writing this – well kind of. I’ve always loved Japanese period pieces set in Feudal times, and this game is really just the icing on the cake. Instead of diving into those worlds in my mind, now I get to live and navigate them, swing a sword in them and develop relationships in them..even take a virtual dip in them. Nice. So aside from a time machine, this game is like the next best thing. That’s why I decided to put together a list of other readables and watchables to satisfy all the Jidaigeki fans out there that maybe can’t play GoT but need their fix or those that can play and want some other content based in this feudal time period.
Subtitled “The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan,” this historical book documents the tale of Yasuke, the first black Samurai that began as a kidnapped child and rose into being a multilingual samurai that served under the reign of 16th century warlord Lord Nobunaga. There are no records of Yasuke’s birth, but some historians believe he was born in either Ethiopia, Nigeria or Mozambique before he was documented being in Kyoto with an Italian Jesuit named Allessandro Valignano.
The legacy of Yasuke is far stretching though. There’s even an acclaimed manga series named Afro Samurai that later spawned an anime miniseries by the same name starring Samuel L. Jackson that earned two Emmy nominations. The film that came later had a scored soundtrack by none other than RZA of Wu-Tang Clan. It remains one of the 38 anime and manga titles that are banned in China. And for those with a Hulu subscription, the series is streaming there.
This graphic novel was put together by Frank Miller (300, Sin City, The Dark Knight Returns) in 2014. The story follows a dishonored samurai named Ronin that dies only to be reawoken in 21st century New York City where he must avenge his master’s death by confronting the reincarnation of his master’s killer, a demon named Agat. And you thought you were having a bad day.
Then there is a more classic story in the Jidaigeki cannon. Musashi is a fictionalized account of the historic figure Miyamoto Musashi. Originally published as a serial in the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun between 1935 and 1939. Miyamoto Musashi is considered the most renowned Japanese swordsman that ever lived and is one of the Kensei(Sword Saint) in Japan. One other cool fact about Musashi is that he invented the style of wielding both the katana with a wakizashi(which kind of looks like a smaller katana, even though they are sometimes forged using a different method). For fans of a more classic tale, this is a good read.
And while we’re on the topic of Miyamoto Musashi, here’s a book published in the 17th century by the swordsman himself. It’s considered a seminal text on kenjutsu and martial arts in general. It was written around 1645 and is made up of five different books. The Book of Earth, The Book of Water, The Book of Fire, The Book of Wind and The Book of Void. This is essentially the book you want to read if your path is swordmaster. Though it touches on a lot of philosophy and can be read through many different lenses, not just one of general martial arts. In fact, some business leaders refer to this text for its reflections on dealing with conflict and adversaries. But all in all, it holds some cool tidbits like the Strike of Non-Thought or Autumn Monkey’s Body which are generally speaking pretty fascinating to learn about.
So historical fiction writers love the life Miyamoto Musashi. Here are two more classic Jidaigeki novels also based on his life. These are for the people who can’t get enough. They’ve both got the hawk-eye breadth that make up a good historical epic. But they never fail to dive deep into the details that make this a story feel so realistic.
Just when you probably through there weren’t many YA options for Jidaigeki lovers out there. Well think again. I personally haven’t come across too too many in my searching exploits. But these are two that stand out in our collection. This feudal age story follows a daughter named Mariko, an accomplished young alchemist. After escaping an ambush by the Black Clan she must disguise as a peasant boy and infiltrate the clan. The sequel Smoke in the Sun follows more of the harrowing journeys of Mariko. It’s got fantasy, romance, drama and fighting. All the things that make up a good period piece. And of course a strong female focus which is sometimes uncommon in these genres. Aside from the high fantasy, these stories take some inspiration from other female fronted Jidaigeki like Lady Snowblood. And that manga/film series was the source of inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill.
This is personally one of my favorite Jidaigeki entries. It was first published in 1970 as a manga. It later got adapted into six different films, four plays and a tv series. It’s a very influential work, and has a setup that feels so different from other samurai stories. Yet somehow doesn’t blend in with the rest. It follows the story of Ogami, the shogun’s executioner. His main job is overseeing the beheadings of samurais and lords that are ordered to commit seppuku. This was supposedly a practice that relieved the committee of the agony of their self-inflicted death. But he returns home one night to find his family murdered except his son Daigoro. This ties into a staged betrayal plot that leads Daigoro and Ogami down the path of wandering samurai(demons). Ogami seeks revenge all while pushing his son Daigoro in a baby cart. Even Daigoro who can barely walk is surprisingly vicious and cunning. The babycart is even tricked out with deadly addons that help them fight. There’s a lot to say about this one, but I’ll just stop there! Take note, this is a somewhat graphic series.