Book Review: Samurai! and Putting Gurren Lagann and Kenshin in Perspective

Saburo Sakai

Subtitled: The Rise and Fall of the Japanese Naval Air Force by Saburo Sakai with Martin Caidin and Fred Saito

Every kid growing up seems to think they’re either extremely special, extremely plain, or extremely weird; I fell into the weird category. Almost from the moment I learned to read I sought books normally reserved for “adults”. By sixth grade that meant Tom Clancy novels like The Hunt for Red October, The Cardinal of the Kremlin and military history books. My focus eventually shifted onto greener pastures and I never picked up another book in either genre until just recently.

I had this book sitting around on my one bookcase for many months; it was a hand-me-down from my Dad, he thought I might be interested since I watch a fair amount of anime and am interested in learning more about the country and culture. I was slightly interested but this wasn’t the type of book I read anymore so I just let it sit there. Coming off a multi-day party at my sister’s house with people coming in from all over the state and featured lots of D&D, barbecuing, and fireworks over the Memorial Day weekend; I needed something to unwind on that didn’t require much effort and I decided now was as good as time as any to give Samurai! a chance.

When I finished reading Samurai!, I mentally kicked myself for not picking this up sooner and since I figure there’s probably at least a few people out there that would really enjoy this book as well, here’s my review.

Final  Score: 11.5/12  Near Perfect
3.5/5  Medium

Pros: Fast-paced, gripping, deeply interesting from a historical standpoint and also from the standpoint of learning about the life of an amazing person, easy-to-read and doesn’t require the reader to be an expert on the Pacific theater of WW2
Would have been perfect except the book stops at the end of WW2 and from what the book mentions, in passing, of Saburo Sakai’s life after the war, I would have really loved to read an in-depth account of what happens to him after the war

Book Review

Samurai! was originally published in 1956 and is an autobiography of Saburo Sakai, one of the greatest Japanese pilots of WW2 and either it’s first or second top flying ace to live through the war. Sakai talks about his humble birth, early personal set-backs, his career in the Navy as a fighter pilot from the early conquests of the Japanese empire to it’s crushing defeat and his eventual marriage while facing the uncertainties of living through the war.

I expected a book such as Samurai! to be one of those dry historical books that even someone like me, who likes history, to find boring. At least, I thought to myself, I could find out if this was a good book to read when I needed something to put me to sleep. I should have known better; how many times have I had an anime completely surprise me? By the fifth page I was hooked and hooked badly; everything else was a distraction until I could finish.

What I failed to properly account for, among other things, was the quality of character that Saburo Sakai possessed and the deeply interesting life he lived. Reading the book one realizes how humble he was; for a man with 64 confirmed kills and dozens of more probables during WW2, I expected long accounts of his kills to convince us of his great skills but that wasn’t the case. Instead, he spends a great deal of time talking about his friends, his subordinates, and his exemplary superior officers. He also repeatedly goes in-depth about the courage and determination displayed by Allied pilots that he witnessed firsthand as well as his mistakes. One specific example was his description of the time that he survived being attacked by 15 Allied planes at once without sustaining even a single bullet hole on his plane. His comrades on the ground watched his aerial acrobatics and mobbed him in joy, praising his flying ability when he came back alive but he berated himself then and in the book for making such a rookie mistake that allowed those 15 planes to attack him.

I don’t want to spoil too much more of book so I’ll end the book review section by saying that I highly, highly recommend Samurai! – it has positively everything a person could want in a story, including a love story.

A very injured Saburo Sakai.

Connecting Anime to Samurai!

Expect spoilers of both the book and the anime shows I talk about, so read on at your own risk.

Gurren Lagann has been on my mind recently; everyone, including myself, knows it’s over-the-top and absurd and a bunch of other adjectives that let people dismiss it as, at best, a supremely entertaining but shallow anime. Yet I always had a nagging feeling that there was depth to Gurren Lagann that raised it above the moniker of being entertaining but shallow into being a truly great work; I just couldn’t convincingly say why I thought that though.

Reading Samurai!, I began thinking about how grounded in reality Gurren Lagann actually is. Saburo Sakai was born into a profoundly poor family in a poor area of Japan and had to eek out a living on a 1-acre farm. His father dies while Sakai is young and he turns into a teenage delinquent when all his hard work in high school doesn’t translate into good grades and he feels frustrated at his low status as a result. He eventually falls for the first girl he becomes acquaintances with after leaving his village. He joins the Navy as a means to prove his worth and rapidly raises from the very lowest rank to becoming an officer in only 11 years. When he visits his old village after becoming an accomplished pilot, the village master suddenly is very proud that Saburo Sakai came from his village. Even how, after surviving the war Sakai is denied a truly happy ending when his wife dies very young a few years after the war ends, reminded me of Gurren Lagann.

Most amazingly, Sakai witnesses a series of events that is eerily like Kamina’s death scene. An explosion has knocked everyone on a Japanese bomber unconscious except for the flight navigator. The navigator takes control of the plane, even though he has no knowledge of flying, and barely gets it back to base where a new problem appears. He absolutely has no clue on how to land the plane and is very hesitant to try since he’ll probably kill everyone on board so he starts flying in loops around the base. On the third loop, with fuel running out, the navigator begins the landing and Sakai can tell it’s not going to end well when the pilot suddenly wakes up. The pilot lands the plane and then lapses back into unconsciousness.

So maybe that’s it, at least part of the reason for the greatness of Gurren Lagann, if one strips away the fluff to Gurren Lagann, we’re left a very accurate portrait of heroism and a testament to what one person can really achieve.

Connecting Saburo Sakai’s life to anime doesn’t stop there. If his life up to the end of WW2 seemed very Gurren Lagann-esque, his life after the war took a very Kenshin-like turn. He made a vow never to kill again and declined the repeated offers to join the new Japanese Air Force. Instead, he opened a printing shop and hired the widows and other family members of close friends that died during the war. He didn’t live in the past and found friendship with the Allied pilots he fought against.

And once again I find an amazing similarity between Sakai and an anime. The forward of the book was written in 1956, just after the cease-fire on the Korean peninsula and Sakai ends the forward by saying that if Japan needs him someday in the future because Communist forces threaten the nation – he would fly again to defend his country but he prayed fervently he won’t need to. Fifty years of hindsight knows that turn of events never happened but in the case of Kenshin, he was called upon to save the nation from Shishio even if that would mean breaking his vow.

There’s other moments in the book that reminded me of a specific anime to a lesser degree. I question the high number of christian schools found in anime so I had to chuckle when I read that Saburo Sakai’s high school was a school run by American Methodist missionaries. There was also the Melancholy of Haruhi moment when Sakai, who had been his small town’s top student, discovers that he isn’t special at all when he goes to high school in Tokyo and finds hundreds of better students. And the story of how he got to the marriage altar felt like something straight out of a Key story.

In conclusion, I wasn’t looking for it but after reading Samurai!, I gained a new level of respect for shows like Gurren Lagann and Kenshin. I already liked them a lot because it’s nice to find shows that showcase true heroism but I never really thought how true-to-life these shows could be.


4 thoughts on “Book Review: Samurai! and Putting Gurren Lagann and Kenshin in Perspective”

  1. Very interesting. I don’t know a lot about WWII, and especially not about non-kamikaze Japanese pilots, so this review was already eye-opening on that account.

    I especially liked hearing about the print shop. It is a very different kind of heroism than war-time bravery, but I think many people sunk into despair after the war. It sounds like Saburo Sakai was a positive force in his community, leading them towards the brighter future that eventually came.


  2. I agree that Gurren Lagann has many properties of a great work. What to expect from Gainax, anyway? ><

    I think that you're definately right about the heroism aspect of Simon's billdungsroman-like (I just know I spelled that wrong) journey, but I also believe that there's more to it. I can't quite put my finger on it either…


  3. private academies are normally Christian. They are also normally higher in discipline or with a higher focus on academic scoring. And the way the Japanese system is setup, I suspect religious private schools there get a lot more freedom and power to decide their own fate, then the same kind of school in America. Any American cognizant of the current political climate can easily figure out why that might be the case.

    I never particularly thought the heroic scenes of Gurren Lagann were unrealistic.

    You’ll notice that what you would have understood in Sixth Grade, cannot compare to what you can understand now with real life experiences. The difference is stark, but the exact nature of the differences isn’t easily actualized or theorized. But when you starting reading a material that you read before, you’ll easily note what you didn’t note before.

    More than half the reason I refused to Watch Gurren Lagann for so long was because the artwork looked like a power rangers recreation and the action scenes made no sense (in episode 25-26) English dub. I watched parts of that episode on youtube English dub to see what the show might be like, hoping that I would forget most of it if I decided to watch the show later. Good thing I didn’t understand much of anything that went on, though I knew someone had to make a sacrifice. Just didn’t know who or what or when. Eventually I watched the first episode, still didn’t like the characters and artwork. But I kept seeing it rated highly and very popular and people recommended it from other anime I saw listed. So I continued on, knowing that I would get used to the artwork if I kept watching it. If it was worth watching that is.

    If somebody had gotten the human emotions and character of a hero wrong, I would easily notice it. Like I notice political or security mistakes. It is clear Gurren Lagann is an epic work because it follows the epic mode of story telling and made it through unscathed (mostly). The mistakes those kinds of story tend to make fall into the specialization fields (war, politics, psychology, firearm safety, battlefield tactics, war strategies, etc). They rarely fail due to an improper understanding of the Heroic symbol or avatar. It’s not like Hollywood, for example, that couldn’t find a hero if you paid them to make one.


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