Cloud of Sparrows by Takashi Matsuoka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Cloud of Sparrows is a study of the contradictory nature of the Samurai in a time when their world was inexorably moving forward. They are ruthless killers, incited to decapitate a foe over insulting words, but are also moved to tears by the nuance of a gesture, or a perceived boon found in what was not said, or not done to spare feelings and perception of a reputation. This brutal beauty is reflected on an individual as well as a cultural level, and it is into this passionate, yet rigidly structured society that Lord Genji ushers in foreign Christian missionaries, who become a catalyst for the events of the story.
Genji himself is a huge juxtaposition of ideas, welcoming the outsiders but at the same time not taking their religion seriously, even as he plans to assist them in setting up a mission location, he seems more fascinated and amused by a new toy, more interested in how it is unsettling his rivals than in their purpose for being there. He is the more forward thinking of the Great Lords, but also has difficulty letting go of some traditions and ingrained ideas, even as he recognizes they are outdated, and sometimes downright ridiculous. Coupled with the difficulties of navigating political waters, he also carries the burden of prescient visions, which often make no sense, but sometimes are all too clear.
Genji and Heiko, Matthew and Emily, Shigeru and even Genji’s loyal warriors and servants are all excellent characters who are tested to their limits throughout the course of the story. We learn the history of how the Americans came to be in Japan and see the Samurai way of life beginning to crumble under the press of time and traditions that cannot be sustained as the world moves in. It is by turns beautiful and violent, poignant and humorous, sensitive and senseless, and it was exactly what I wanted on my visit to this culture and time period.
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