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Sunday, Aug. 26, 2007

Marine sniper in a modern-day retelling of the legendary 47 ronin


Author Stephen Hunter's series character Bob Lee Swagger, the ex-marine sniper who gained the nickname "Bob the Nailer" for his wartime exploits in Vietnam, has few soft spots. One is his late father, Earl, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor for valor on Iwo Jima.

So when Philip Yano, a retired colonel in the Japan Ground Self-Defense Forces, requests Swagger's help in locating the sword that Yano's father carried into battle on Iwo Jima, the two form an immediate emotional bond.

Swagger succeeds in tracking down the sword and flies to Tokyo to return it. But Yano's sword, it seems, has a dark history, one that certain people are willing to kill for, and what started out as mere modern-day mayhem metamorphoses into a resourceful retro-telling of Japan's most famous vendetta, the tale of the 47 Ronin.

Hunter, an acknowledged master of the thriller genre whose 1993 novel featuring Swagger, "Point of Impact," made it to the silver screen earlier this year as "The Shooter," discusses his latest work, scheduled for release in September.

In the book, you have a Japanese kendo (fencing) instructor tell your American protagonist that he "hated 'The Last Samurai.' " How did you feel about that film?

I hated it as well, because it put the little white guy at the center of a Japanese story, and he proved to be smarter, faster and tougher than anyone. In one sense, "The 47th Samurai" is a rebuke to that movie and to the "White Samurai" genre, where that generally happens as well; I made certain that my hero didn't become a better swordfighter than the Japanese, but only a passing adequate one, with definite limits on his skills. His only chance lay in figuring out ways to cheat rather than any innate superiority and he knew that he was doomed against a first-class swordsman.

Did the appearance of two Clint Eastwood films on Iwo Jima influence the timing of "The 47th Samurai"?

Absolutely not. The project was conceived and designed before I even knew the two Eastwood films were coming out. I was three-quarters of the way through the first draft when I saw "Flags of Our Fathers." I was worried that people would somehow be "sick" of Iwo Jima by the time the book came out, and one friend advised me to change the location to another island. But in the end, because Iwo stands for something in the Japanese and the American imagination, I decided to stick with it.

What were some of the more challenging aspects of setting a work in Japan?

Not to trivialize it, not to fall into the cliche of American-in-Japan-finds-the-little-yellow-folks-funny. I tried to imagine a Japanese mind-set and base the motives of the Japanese characters on cultural concepts that have meaning in Japan more powerfully than in America. My worst trouble, however, was with the thing called "Japlish," or the imperfect English spoken in the tourist trade by many Japanese, often to comic effect. Usually I represent Japanese English speakers as fluent and eloquent; on a few occasions I did try and reduce the vocabulary and some of the connective words, because such forms of communication do exist and are a common experience for Americans visiting Japan. I hope my ear for it was good enough so that when Japanese read it, they aren't insulted.

Do you think your American readers will be able to empathize with the tale of the 47 ronin, which took place in 1701?

Who can guess what Americans will empathize with? I only know I empathized with it, and thought it was one of the coolest stories of revenge I'd ever heard and wanted to use it as a basis for a book from the start. I hope the characters and the action and the plot carry the book whether Americans recognize its antecedents or not.

You seem to have spent a great deal of time researching Japanese history and sword fighting. . .

I get obsessed sometimes and in a state of almost reverie; and remember also that the first part of the project, the "research," occurred before I'd even conceived the project. I just had to see samurai films, sometimes two a night, many great, many more really good, pretty many mediocre and a few stinkers. The movies led me to the swords, which led me to the histories, which led me to books on sword fighting. I tried in those sequences to evoke the grace, violence and majesty that I'd seen on film . . . to create, if you will, prose poems that in their rhythms and power and anatomical reality make the reader feel the fight as real, not a movie construct.

In this book, Swagger bonds emotionally with several other characters. He's no longer a tough loner with encapsulated emotions, but has gone a bit sentimental and even mushy. . .

I'm aware that Bob has grown. He is becoming more like his father, with a sense of humor, and a confidence in his ability to speak the language, motivate and lead people in larger contexts than strictly military. He has overcome his bitterness at Vietnam, transcended his exile, taken care of much family business, and now exists as a fully involved person. This may disenchant longtime readers, but if he doesn't grow, he isn't interesting to me.

As Swagger's wife could attest, he took a long time to domesticate. Does the book's happy ending suggest his fighting days are probably over?

I think the old boy may have a fight or two left in him, but no soldiering, no "missions," no "projects." He'll definitely be less physical and more a thinker, a calculator, an investigator, a man with a natural gift for forensics, for understanding the dynamics of a violent encounter. But old men can win gunfights based on skill and savvy as opposed to blinding speed and super reflexes of the young; we might see him do that a time or two.

"The 47th Samurai" is published by Simon & Schuster, 384 pp., $26 (cloth)


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