Next to perhaps the Spartans of Ancient Greece, no other warrior class has quite captured our collective imagination as the samurai of feudal Japan. Warriors dressed in full armour, wielding katanas and dueling to the death. From Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns to sleek anime series, Japan’s Bushido way has left its mark upon the cultural landscape. In Netflix’s “Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan” we get to trace the rise of one of Japan’s greatest samurai and warlords. Set in an age of unspeakable brutality, political instability and boundless opportunity.
So does Netflix’s latest docuseries chronicling one of Japan’s most prominent historical period of samurai warfare meet the cut? Or does it bring dishonour to itself? Let’s find out.
Set during the Sengoku Jidai period of 1500s, “Age of Samurai” follows the journey of the Japanese triumvirate: the legendary Oda Nobunaga, and his two generals Tomoyoto Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. Together, the three of them will forever change the face of Japan. Moving away from the fractured shogunate systems of disparate warlords, or daimyo and sowing the seeds of the idea of a unified Japan. It starts with the brilliant Nobunaga from the tiny Oda clan. A man, who through military genius, technological innovation and staggering brutality stopped at nothing to expand his empire. It ultimately ends with betrayal, in-fighting and a legendary rivalry between his generals. Rome had Julius Caesar and England had King Arthur; Japan has Oda Nobunaga.
If you’re someone who has a natural interest for military history and ancient warfare, then this docuseries is going to be an absolute delight for you. Through impressive recreations and fascinating insights from historians, “Age of Samurai” manages to paint a rich tapestry of Oda’s conquest and the complex web of factions within the Sengoku Jidai. Does the documentary resort to using Great Man history to pool its narrative threads together? Well, yes and we do see the concern there. There’s a tendency for documentaries to be rather reductive when using this method. A sort of factual tunnel vision is developed and the narrative is squarely focused on the exploits and perspectives around a particular set of individuals. It works for biographical films but in documentaries, not so much.
Thankfully though, “Age of Samurai” manages to avoid the pitfalls of relying too heavily on Oda’s history and character. Rather, the docuseries uses its central trio as a springboard to discuss other fascinating aspects and topics set within the period. For example, in the second episode “Seizing Power”, we learn that Oda had to contend with an army of militant Buddhists known as Ikko-Ikki. Religious zealots who have less in common with their Tibetan brothers than they do with the Faith Militant from “Game of Thrones”. Through Oda’s encounter with the Ikko-Ikki, we gain a ton of insight in how Japanese Buddhism varied from the more traditional Theravada school. In the third, we learn about the art of espionage and shadow warfare that the Shinobi employed to weaken Oda’s army.
The docuseries consists of six episodes with each bearing a runtime of a little over 45 minutes. So for each episode to pack so much cultural information while still forwarding the series’ dramatic momentum speaks to the structural cohesion of the entire show. Never once did we find any of its segments dwelling too long on any data point or historical figure. Truly riveting stuff.
For those looking for less History Channel and more HBO, to that we say: don’t worry. There’s plenty of large scale battles, political intrigue and interesting characters to keep you entertained. Expect to see graphic melees, intense monologues and dramatic reenactments all around. That being said, we couldn’t help but feel that “Age of Samurai” doesn’t quite live up to its full potential.
While we definitely found the docuseries to be an informative and epic window into the Sengoku Jidai, it would have benefited if it had committed to one particular approach. It could have gone the way of History Channel’s “Vikings” or BBC’s “Ancient Rome: Rise and Fall of an Empire”, as a docudrama. Or it could have gone for a more traditional route. Choosing to focus more on the cultural and societal aspects of ancient Japan. In lieu of being shackled to one particular story arc. In this case, Nobunaga’s. Still, we found “Age of Samurai” to be an excellent showing.
This is no doubt due to its stellar attention to detail and its stunning visual splendour. The costume design and sets in “Age of Samurai” are utterly gorgeous. Which adds a significant immersion factor to the entire viewing experience. The performances, though chopped up in brief segments, were highly engaging and compelling as well. Again, if this was a full-on docudrama, we would definitely binge-watch this series in one sitting. Shout out to actors Masayoshi Haneda, Masami Kosaka and Hiro Kanagawa who played Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Ieyasu. If you guys ever decide to make a historical film or series, we’ll be more than happy to check it out.
“Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan” is an absolute delight for fans of old samurai films, amateur military historians and avid Japanophiles everywhere. Armed with entertaining reenactments and thorough research, this docuseries is definitely one you do not want to miss. If you’re looking to take a break from the endless parade of serial killer documentaries and crime dramas on Netflix, then trust us when we say that this is exactly what you are looking for. You can now catch “Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan” on Netflix today!
So what are your favourite samurai films? Are there other documentaries you’d like us to review in the future? Be sure to let us know in the comments down below!
Netflix's Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan Review
“Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan” is an absolute delight for fans of old samurai films, amateur military historians and avid students of history. Armed with entertaining reenactments and thorough research, this docuseries is definitely one you do not want to miss.
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