Samurai vs. Ashigaru
This diorama is set in Spring during the Azuchi-Momoyama Period in Japan (1568-1600). This was a feudal period of constant battles between the various Japanese clans for dominance- the feuds spanned both land and sea. The clan leaders, called Daymios (warlords) surrounded themselves with their samurais and typically enacted traditional duels. Generally speaking, the Daymios’ armies would square off, and the samurais would pair off from each side and engage in hand-to-hand combat to the death. It was very different from the melee of medieval fighting in the West, where all the soldiers combined in one chaotic maelstrom. At the same time, these “maelstrom” battles did take place in Japan, especially when the ashigaru foot soldiers were involved and/or carrying teppo- a form of early firearm. I imagine Their Final Duel took place during one of these all-out battles, with a traditional samurai knight intent on the demise of a tekko-wielding and decidedly dishonorable ashigaru.
The Portuguese introduced the first firearms, called arquebuses to the Japanese in 1534. It was a simple early firearm with matchlock technology. Load the powder charge and ball into the muzzle and ram the powder and ball home with the ramrod. Open the priming pan, load it with priming powder and close the pan and blow any excess powder to prevent detonation. Then blow on the match (fuse) until red-hot, attach it to the sprung jaws of the cock and aim. Pull the trigger when your enemy is in range and FIRE to survive the day. These ‘shot’ weapons were despised by the samurai as being dishonorable and being killed by one of them was a disgrace. Some of the Daymios saw it differently however. Thanks to the advanced technology of metal works in Nippon, the arquebuses were soon being mass produced; these new Japanese versions were called teppo. Some of the Daymios soon realized that it was far easier training rookie recruits the teppo than selecting elites who might one day master the samurai weapons. It took a few weeks to teach an ashiguru the proper operation of a teppo, but it took years for a samurai to master their weapons of choice: the katana (long sword or battle sword) in tandem with the wakizashi (short sword). Many samurai also mastered the skills of archery, but in the end, it is easy to imagine how a few thousand low ranked foot soldiers with teppo could overwhelm a few hundred samurai knights, even with their immaculate expertise. History reveals that the Daymios who maintained tradition and shunned these new contemptuous weapons were those who were ultimately defeated. Incidentally, the period after this (the Tokugawa period from 1600 to mid-19th century) was one of relative peace. After 1600, Japan also went through a phase where the manufacture and use of firearms became out of fashion and indeed, many Damiyos outlawed them (perhaps this was a tactic of the various clans to maintain power).
So I envisioned Their Final Duel as an analogy depicting the struggles of tradition vs. modernity during this tumultuous interval in Japan. On another level, it is recognition of introduced western technology and how it forever altered the ancient samurai institution and the trajectory of Japan’s future.
The katana wielding samurai is wearing a jinbaori, a type of overcoat or surcoat that was used by both samurais and civilians to show the colors and symbols of his clan in battle. The jinbaori here is modeled after one that is preserved at the Castle of Osaka. It is made primarily of black and yellow silk; the yellow is used to depict a stylized design of Mount Fuji. There is a conspicuous, red stained hole in this samurai’s jinbaori depicting a bullet wound which doesn’t seem to be slowing him down. (The jinbaori on display in the Castle of Osaka lacks this embellishment of artistic license.) You can tell he is uttering a battle cry for strength and courage, as he knows he is literally staring down the barrel of a gun. Out of the few samurai warriors in this scale on the market, I purposely chose a samurai who looked older to better symbolize the venerable traditions of the samurai.
The teppo wielding ashigaru has only milliseconds before the katana lands a fatal blow. He knows well that a samurai knight will have no problem killing him with an accurate slash and stab from his two swords. You can see the matchlock mechanism has been sprung and is in contact with the priming powder in the pan; the charge will instantly ignite and the ball will fire. Here I depict the very instant before the priming charge ignites. The main reason for this is smoke and fire effects are really difficult to simulate realistically; I try to compensate with imagination. The character on the ashigaru’s powder canteen (residing on his right thigh) translates to ‘respect’; this is one of the 8 virtues of the Bushido (Warrior) code. I figured that respect was an appropriate character for someone wielding a teppo. (Even though, ironically, the ashigaru with teppo was not respected. But for me, this is one of the easier Bushido characters to reproduce. Painting a Japanese character is no easy task for the uninitiated.) Many armies displayed their Damiyo’s family emblem in battle by wearing flags attached to their armor; the lightweight flagpoles were constructed of bamboo. The emblem here is of the Mori Daimyo who were established at the westernmost tip of Honshu, Japan’s largest island. Again, I chose this emblem because it was relatively easy to reproduce…there is no underlying irony or historic accuracy by depicting this particular Damiyo’s emblem.
Obviously, my take is that both of these soldiers die simultaneously, as I named it Their Final Duel. But the ashigaru might have the advantage here…if I knew physics, perhaps I could formulate whose weapon would strike first. I imagine the samurai receives a fatal shot first, misses with both his swords, staggers, and while the ashigaru tries to grab his own katana sticking in the ground beside him, the samurai gains his equanimity and strikes a fatal blow. Both collapse in a bloody heap upon the grassy battlefield…in addition, death in Spring adds extra irony. Death and death…such is the sincerity of war.