Across the Nightingale Floor
The samurai, gruff warrior of feudal Japan, is wandering pop culture’s dusty streets once again. Akira Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai is in rerelease this season, and at least seven new samurai are here or nigh, what with The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise; Kill Bill, with Uma Thurman; Samurai Jack on the Cartoon Network; and Onimusha 2: Samurai’s Destiny on PlayStation 2.
Lording over them all, for now, are the two Shigerus, one from Takashi Matsuoka’s Cloud of Sparrows, the other from Lian Hearn’s Across the Nightingale Floor. The identical names, the hilts on the jackets, the birds in the titles — this is the mass-marketable samurai reveling in his moment.
In a Shigeru showdown, the lord of Sparrows would win. After savagely murdering 19 people, Shigeru is recruited by his nobleman nephew Genji, who needs the firebrand’s help fending off usurpers in 1861 Nippon. Matsuoka’s is a likably straight-up samurai epic; he casts the regulars (sexy geishas, meddling Westerners, fearsome shoguns) and mixes romantic incident with lots of gore.
In the dismayingly nonspecific Nightingale, set ”in an imaginary country in a feudal period,” Shigeru adopts a teen with mystical powers and preps him to fight an evil lord; briskly told, it’s not so much a samurai tale as it is a Star Wars one. Tellingly, this is the first book of three, already optioned by Hollywood, and the full title is the Lucasian Across the Nightingale Floor — Tales of the Otori: Book One. Odd that Star Wars, which George Lucas famously adapted from Kurosawa’s samurai movies, should return as the ripped-off basis for a swordplay series of its own.
But it helps explain the samurai vogue. Pop culture always follows what’s worked, and Obi-Wan Kenobi starring in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sounds pretty cool. Sparrows: B Nightingale: B-