I was going to start this review with a joke about the ‘Last Samurai’ Saigō Takamori’s testicles, which were huge, but as it would take more than four hundred words to tell, I shall refrain. Instead, to have any chance of describing Alexander Bennett’s close investigation into the culture of the Japanese sword and those who wielded it, embedded in a lucid, scholarly ramble through centuries of Japanese history, we must use those words to contextualise. Samurai were hereditary clans specialising in the arts of war. In the late Heian Period (794–1185), the emperor and his kuge (nobles) were challenged by powerful samurai alliances and eventually ceded power to Minamoto Yoritomo, who established a samurai government in Kamakura in 1192. The emperor formally appointed Yoritomo as sei-i taishōgun, or generalissimo. This domination by the samurai of central governance (with the emperor in Kyoto retained as de jure ruler), with the concomitant political struggle between samurai houses, was to last until the Meiji Restoration of 1868.
Samurai are, of course, famed for their prowess with the katana (long sword). However, as Bennett explains, referring nerdishly but nicely to contemporary records examining wound patterns of battlefield injuries, most battlefield deaths were caused not by sword cuts but by arrow wounds. During what was nearly a century and