Did female samurai warriors exist? Well, not really. “Samurai” is a masculine term and, thus, all samurai were men, but, several female warriors have joined samurai on the battlefield throughout Japanese history. The most famous “female samurai” was Tomoe Gozen.
Tomoe Gozen, according to Tale of the Heike, “was especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features. She was also remarkably strong archer and, as a swordswoman, she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot.” Tomoe Gozen was truly badass, and, she fought with her lover Minamoto no Yoshinaka, on the battlefield, against his cousin Minamoto no Yoritomo’s forces in the Battle of Awazu on February 21, 1184, during the Genpai War (1180–1185). She took, at least, one of her enemy’s heads, which is, at least, one more than I have taken.
But, is the story, as told in Tale of the Heike, fact? Well, historians debate the topic to this day, but, it doesn’t matter. The legend of Tomoe Gozen has inspired countless female samurai in Japanese films, television, manga, and, of course, in American comics. Two such comics are The Blade of Kumori and Shinku, both written by Ron Marz (Green Lantern, Witchblade).
The Blade of Kumori was originally published in 2004-05 by Aftermath, an imprint of Devil’s Due Publishing (who originally published Hack/Slash). However, low sales forced its cancellation after issue #5. The final chapter was included in the trade paperback collection published by Arcana Studios in 2011.
Kumori is a descendant of the samurai of the Ashina clan which has survived in secret, working as bodyguards and assassins. She is asked by her father to journey to America to kill Cameron White, a high-tech vigilante hero. Kumori confronts White, in New York City, but fails to kill him believing that he does not deserve to die. Later, in Istanbul, Kumori regains her honor by killing a Pakistani scientist who was selling nuclear secrets to rogue nations. But, she tells her father that she is plagued by thoughts of her previous failure, and that she will kill the American. Then, Cameron White, who is enamored with Kumori, shows up at the gate of the Ashina clan compound in Japan! But, to make matters worse, Synth, a skilled female assassin that Kumori faced previously, is contracted to kill both Kumori and Cameron White, and, crashes the party. A bloody battle ensues!
The Blade of Kumori was an awesome comic, and, I was very much disappointed when the series was cancelled after issue #5, without resolution, in 2005. However, I was excited when I learned that the final chapter would be included with the long-awaited trade paperback in 2011. But, I was disappointed, once again, when I saw the finale’s artwork. Kumori looked almost like a horrifying vampire! But, having closure, at last, to the story was cool!
But, then, Ron Marz surprised me with another awesome comic …
Shinku is a creator-owned series, by Marz and Lee Moder, published by Image Comics, beginning in 2011. The first trade paperback, Shinku, Vol. 1: Throne of Blood, collects the first story arc (issues #1-5). This wonderful volume also includes a gallery of alternate covers and pinups, sketches by Lee Moder, and the first 10 pages of the original vision for Shinku as a black, white and red book. Very cool.
Shinku is the last of the Tadataka clan once led by the daimyo Tadataka Shingen. In feudal Japan, the Tadataka clan was defeated by the Yagyu clan led by the daimyo Asano. The Yagyu clan are vampires. In modern Japan, Shinku continues the war against Asano and his vampire clan “that has lurked in the shadows for centuries.” She rescues Davis Quinn, an American scientist, from a Yagyu elder at a club. Davis can develop a virus to infect the vampire blood, and, so Shinku brazenly confronts Asano, in his hotel, not to kill him, but, to get a sample of his blood. But, Davis needs time. Meanwhile, Asano hires a skilled assassin, Sakura-san, to kill Shinku. Sakura-san wounds Shinku, but, fails to kill her, much to Asano‘s dismay. So, Asano decides to take matters into his own hands. He brazenly confronts Shinku, in her apartment lair, and kidnaps Davis, taking him to the Yagyu clan temple. Shinku, of course, follows, and a bloody battle ensues! “Is this over now?” Oshima, Shinku‘s ex-sumo servant, wonders, on the last page. “No,” she replies. “We’re just getting started.”
Shinku, the comic, is bloody, action-packed fun, and I hope Ron Marz is able, unlike with The Blade of Kumori, to continue the series, since that last line promises further vampire ass-kickings to come. Shinku, the character, is similar to Kumori. Both are Japanese, obviously, but, both are also beautiful, highly-skilled samurai, and, both have only known what they do. However, Kumori is able to open her heart for love, whereas Shinku is a cold hard bitch driven only to kill vampires! The man (or woman) who could melt Shinku‘s heart would have to be, I think, just like any other man (or woman)… only more so!
Now, in Japanese manga, one of my favorites featuring a sort of “female samurai” is Lady Snowblood (1972-73) by Kazuo Koike and Kazuo Kamimura, in which Yuki (aka Lady Snowblood), an assassin, seeks vengeance for crimes committed against her family. The manga was adapted into a live-action film, Lady Snowblood (1973), starring the lovely Meiko Kaji. The movie inspired the character of O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) in Quentin Tarantino‘s Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003). A sequel, Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance, followed in 1974. But, Lady Snowblood was really more like a ninja.
Hmm, female ninja …