________________ CM . . . . Volume IX Number 15 . . . . March 28, 2003


Samurai Spirit: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Life.

Burt Konzak.
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 2002.
132 pp., pbk., $12.99.
ISBN 0-88776-611-0.

Subject Heading:
Samurai-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 5-9 / Ages 10-14.

Review by Julie Chychota.

**1/2 /4


The men laughed. “Can you not count?” one of them asked. The others snorted. The vultures moved in, slowly closing the circle around the doctor. Shoulders relaxed, stomach muscles taut, the prey waited. His eyes intense, not looking at any one of them in particular, the samurai doctor seemed to see everywhere. He faced them, knowing he was drawing upon his deepest power, something honed from years of training. One by one they attacked, each one from a different direction.

The doctor blocked each blow using a different counter-attack. One by one he sent them flying - one with a dislocated elbow, the next with a dislocated shoulder, a third with his wrist out of joint, a fourth struck hard in the jaw and left powerless to utter any more threats. Those left standing backed away down the street.

The doctor went to each of his attackers in turn, and with firm hands set each joint back in place. (From “The Samurai Doctor”)

Author Burt Konzak weaves Samurai Spirit: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Life from the two subjects that interest him most: martial arts and philosophy. The collection, a tapestry of oriental proverbs, poetic verse, popular folk tales, and the occidental author’s own personal anecdotes, is designed specifically for young adults. In recounting narratives ancient and modern, Konzak supplies for his readers positive role models who demonstrate great mental and emotional stamina under pressure. Since the author began as a teenager to pattern himself after the heroes of ancient tales, he believes that these stories will likewise motivate others to develop true “samurai spirit.”

     Initially, Konzak explains, the samurai were a class of Japanese warriors renowned not only for their military skills but also for their pursuit of intellectual and spiritual excellence. As the stories in Samurai Spirit: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Life demonstrate, a samurai could be young or old, rich or poor, male or female: material circumstances were of little consequence. Of great importance, on the other hand, were the virtues that a samurai was to embody, virtues such as courage, concentration, discipline, determination, humility, integrity, loyalty, perseverance, respect, strategy, and compassion. To cultivate those same virtues in one’s own life today, then, is to exhibit “samurai spirit,” in Konzak’s terms.

     Although its Cataloguing-in-Publication information classifies Samurai Spirit: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Life as “Samurai - Juvenile fiction,” it could just as conceivably be listed under the alternative heading of “Self-esteem,” or perhaps “Self-improvement.” Fiction and non-fiction, after all, seem closely intertwined here, for the ancient tales allegedly are based upon the lives of historical samurai, while the anecdotes that Konzak interjects are autobiographical. Yet Konzak admits that he has shared these stories often, and “in the telling they have changed,” for like all great stories, they are “part of an oral tradition, so they grow and change to reflect the times they are told in” (p. 2).

     Perhaps because it stems from the oral tradition of storytelling, which privileges words over image, Samurai Spirit: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Life contains little illustration. There is, of course, the recurring graphic of a fierce samurai that marks the beginning of each folk tale. But essentially the cover art carries the sole responsibility of visually depicting the concept of “samurai spirit”; fortunately, it does so with panache. The startling combination of a brick red and midnight blue background, along with the formidable-looking samurai in the forefront, one hand gripping the sword that rests on his shoulder, an intense, inscrutable expression on his face, imparts the thrill of the unfamiliar, the uncanny, the extraordinary.

     With respect to layout and organization, a quick glance at the “Table of Contents” shows that the author has grouped the 35 narratives according to seven themes. Each thematic division contains anywhere from two to seven stories. The titles of folk tales appear in regular type while titles in italics denote various threads that make up Konzak’s life story. Similarly, the book’s font style changes along with the mode of narration: Konzak’s reminiscences, related in the conventional first-person, are set in a sans-serifed font, whereas the Japanese tales, told from a third-person point of view, appear in a serifed typeface. The author’s autobiographical accounts, incidentally, make up approximately one-fourth of the content. Frequently, a block of text enclosed within a round-edged border acts as a segue from one story to the next. In these segues, the author defines concepts and terms, such as kiai, zen, dojo, ku-fu, bushida, as well as customs, such as the tea ceremony. Samurai Spirit: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Life concludes with a list of books and videos recommended for readers who want further explore the world of martial arts.

     The ancient stories themselves all occur in the Far East, but geographical variety informs the settings. Incidents take place in the mountains, on the plains, on an island, even in the courts of the shogun. Like the settings, the characters, too differ distinguishably from one another. For example, the samurai in these stories range in age from 17-year-old Tokimune to 80-year-old Masanari. Among them are a doctor, an emperor, a governor, a monk, a teamaster, and a reformed thief or two. Musashi Miyamoto, the most famous samurai of all, is both the hero of one story, and the inspiration for the protagonist of another. Regrettably, only one of the many stories has a female as its protagonist, the charming and beautiful Ohashi in “Freedom from Fear.” Ohashi’s story, one of patient endurance and resilient resolve, introduces a softer, more pliable texture into an otherwise coarser warp. In any event, although the stories expose the seamy underside of life, in this collection, the mind always triumphs over matter, and strategy wins over strength.

     On the whole, this samurai sampler is knit with a heavy moral fibre. Konzak evidently feels strongly that the samurai mind set and behavioral code have the potential to stop the fabric of society from unravelling. Subsequently, if the characters seem a trifle flat and thin, despite their charming displays of wit and inner strength, it is in keeping with their primary purpose, which is to instruct rather than entertain. Additionally, the book privileges content over style in that the majority of sentences are short and choppy, simply structured, and lack variety. This effect may be a result of the stories having been translated into English, or may be a consequence of transferring into writing tales rooted in an oral tradition, where shorter sentences are the norm, and predictable patterns aid memory. Nevertheless, what its style lacks in sophistication, the book makes up for in its energy. Samurai Spirit: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Life passionately affirms that by cultivating the “samurai spirit,” one can face conflict with self-confidence and self-control, and regardless of the outcome, still retain one’s self-respect.

     This book is best promoted as recreational reading. Its subject matter may not interest those outside the pull of martial arts or philosophy, but it should find its niche in a small, select readership.


Julie Chychota is an alumna of the University of Manitoba.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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