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Castles of the Samurai: Power and Beauty    by Jennifer Mitchelhill & David Green order for
Castles of the Samurai
by Jennifer Mitchelhill
Order:  USA  Can
Kodansha International, 2003 (2003)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Having just watched The Last Samurai in its DVD release, I read Castles of the Samurai with great interest, admiring David Green's gorgeous color photographs. What is immediately striking is the combination of formidable stonework in castle foundations with the flowing, curved, almost delicate structures that rise above them - very much an 'iron hand in a velvet glove' look. In her Introduction, Jennifer Mitchelhill tells us about a blind peasant woman who sacrificed herself as a 'hitobashira' to stabilize a castle's walls (in exchange her son was to be made a samurai but that never happened). She tells us that 'daimyo', samurai lords, built hundreds of these late 16th/early 17th century structures.

The first half of the book shows striking color photos of surviving castles. Though the curved stone looks lovely, it also had a functional purpose, to distribute the weight of the high castle walls - we see many examples, with explanations of their construction. Like the European equivalents, Japanese castles often had moats, and shooting holes for bullets and arrows. They also had special 'stone-dropping windows'. The roof of Kanazawa castle (built in 1858) was tiled in lead, which could be melted down for ammunition, if needed. There are many images of 'kugi-kakushi', decorative ironwork that hides nail heads, as well as examples of a variety of shooting holes and of decorative roofwork, including mythical 'shachihoko' (tiger head and fish body).

The second half of the book tells us who built the castles, their use as fortresses, their aesthetics, and their decline. To introduce them, the author first tells us about the samurai, 'one of the most romantic figures in Japanese history', whose rise to power began in the 11th century. This evolved into the shogunate and the class of military leaders called 'daimyo', who mainly built castles during a forty year 'scramble for power'. Castle towns became commercial as well as administrative centers. The book shows strategic locations of castles on a map of Japan, as well as diagrams of varying layouts. Castle architecture is discussed, including the central 'tenshu', castle tower. Apparently fire, lightning and earthquakes often destroyed castle buildings.

Mitchelhill tells us that 'Samurai found beauty in nature, natural elements, restraint, and asymmetry, elements which can all be seen in castle architecture', an architecture that visibly combines grace and power. The book ends with information on locations and features of 45 castles that can be visited today. Whether or not you can manage a trip to Japan, I highly recommend Castles of the Samurai to anyone who shares my fascination with the country's history and architecture.

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