Netflix documentaries have a reputation for being very polarizing in the fact that they are either unforgettable viewing experiences or they end up dry to the point of being boring. One successful example is Don’t F**k With Cats, a serial killer-based show which is portrayed as an intriguing man hunt after a video of a cat being killed is posted. Despite the harrowing subject matter, it often relies on the information being told throughout rather than focusing on the graphic nature through visuals. Then there’s Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan, which at best can be remembered for how extreme it is in its violence.
War has had its hand in every facet of human culture. Disputes for land, power or even petty revenge dot the history of mankind, and this was especially true for the Medieval period. There are two images which epitomize the warfare of this time: the knights of Europe and the Samurai. Japan’s own personal story as a country is made even more interesting by their separation from the rest of the world. Up until the mid-1800’s with the landing of Commodore Matthew Perry, Japan for the most part a country of isolation. It was a segregated island nation and their culture, both contemporary and historical, is iconic.
The plot of the Age of Samurai starts in the mid 1500’s with the rise of the Oda Nobunaga, a minor daimyo – a noble warlord – and his ambitions to unify Japan under his clan’s banner. This climb to power leads into a bloody civil war known as the Sengoku period, which follows the exploits of the Oda clan and their allies as an all-out war between different daimyo is fought out for ultimate control of Japan.
Over the course of Age of Samurai’s six forty-minute-long episodes, it does everything in its power to focus on the warfare of this period. The historians are shown in black and white when they give their insights on events, the colours of the history clips are muted to give it a gritty feeling and man, is it gruesome. Violence, brutality and torture take centre stage in this production: the battle sequences are much gorier than is typical of a war documentary – though they are decently co-ordinated – and every episode has at least one beheading or someone committing ritual suicide.
There’s even a couple of sequences where parents watch as their children are beheaded or vice versa. It’s debatable whether this is to emphasise just how violent this period of Japanese history was, but I feel like it’s more likely that the creators wanted it to be as nasty as possible just for the sake of it.
While this is entertaining to a degree and initially shocking, it takes away from every other aspect of the show. Most other documentaries of this subject matter find a nice equilibrium between the story and fighting sides. However, Age of Samurai focuses so much on the war aspect that everything else is overlooked. Though there is a narration which summarises the historical events throughout, it very rarely takes time to focus on the key characters in this period as people.
An example of a documentary that does this better is the 2005 documentary film Genghis Khan. Though not as gory, it isn’t afraid to show violence, but it balances this aspect with informative history through compelling storytelling, such as showing Genghis’s life in the Khanate before he became the historical figure we all know today. With the introduction of Oda Nobunga, the viewer is just thrown into the narrative with very little establishment as to who this man is.
Even though it doesn’t have anywhere near the production value, the YouTube group Extra Credits goes over this historical period in a far more informative manner than Age of Samurai, covering the Sengoku period in one hour as a coherent, informative story – while the documentary seems to focus on blood, gore, and yet more blood for three hours.
Speaking of production value, there are more than a few times when clips are reused again and again. If it weren’t for the narration keeping the audience in place, it might leave the viewer questioning whether they had seen that scene before or not. However, there are some good elements to Age of Samurai. The bloody violence is fun to follow at first, and there is admittedly fair representation. The casting crew should give themselves a pat on the back: all the cast are Asian, and notable Japanese actors like Hiro Kanagawa and Masayoshi Haneda show up in the main cast. It was additionally nice to see some Japanese historians on Age of Samurai, despite it being an American project.
Outside of the violence, some of the portrayals of the historical figures and the aspects of Japanese culture feel overplayed. A lot of the characters are sake swilling, seppuku committing tyrants hellbent on war. There’s no doubt that this historical period was very tempestuous for nobles and commoners alike, but the way they are shown feels very one dimensional, playing on Japanese stereotypes at best and perhaps coming off as mildly racist at a stretch.
As previously mentioned, Age of Samurai shines in the very few instances where the characters are shown to be human. Moments like Tokugawa Ieyasu sharing an embrace with his friend before he imparts on a suicide mission, or one of the usually stoic Daimyo openly weeping at the loss of his infant son stand out out because of their rarity. Though these moments are very few and far between, it genuinely feels like the viewer is allowed a brief moment of fresh air before being swallowed by the sea of blood again (fittingly, the opening sequence is literally just a sea of blood.)
Overall, Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan may appear as a history lesson at first, but the bloody battles eventually get overused and tired. It’s the documentary equipment of a popcorn flick – you’re going to enjoy it while you watch, but it isn’t going to stick around as a particularly profound viewing experience. If you want informative history, check out the YouTube series by Extra Credits. If light history with more spectacle is what you want, Age of Samurai is definitely worth a watch.
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Exceptionally brutal, Age of Samurai is an entertaining reflection of Japanese history that has a fascination with violence and not much else.
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