Manga brings young rebel samurai leader to life

Hojo Tokiyuki asks Suwa Yorishige, “Hey, what if you died here?” The boy’s commitment to surviving influences his fellow samurai as well.

In 1335, two years after the fall of the Kamakura shogunate government, a rebellion was staged by remnants of the Hojo family, which had produced a succession of the shogunate’s regents, and their followers. The central figure of the rebellion was Hojo Tokiyuki, a young samurai lord who was just 10 years old at the time.

Mangaka Yusei Matsui has turned Tokiyuki’s life story into a manga called “Nigejozu no Wakagimi” (“The Elusive Samurai”). The dynamic and realistic historical manga has been serialized in the Shukan Shonen Jump weekly boys’ manga magazine since last year. Its publisher, Shueisha Inc., has released six volumes of the manga in book form. The dramatic, action-packed story and solid historical views of the manga have even caught the eye of academic historians.

“A host of children come along in the wild turbulence of medieval times, and they take back the lands usurped during the time of their parents. It’s a remarkable and gratifying incident, like a scene straight out of a manga, I thought,” Matsui said of the rebellion.

The mangaka was in elementary school when he first learned of Tokiyuki, in a history manga for schoolchildren.

“I researched him again after I became an adult, and it turned out he’s still interesting. What’s more, no one had ever depicted the subject. I thought it would suck if someone else took on the subject before me. I wanted to draw it myself,” Matsui said.

Little is known about Tokiyuki’s life. His name appears sporadically in historical writings and chronicles, such as “Taiheiki” and “Baishoron.” He was a son of Hojo Takatoki, who was the last regent of the Kamakura shogunate government in what is now Kanagawa Prefecture. The shogunate was brought down by Ashikaga Takauji in 1333. After his father’s death, Tokiyuki was given shelter by Suwa Yorishige, a feudal lord and the head of Suwa Taisha shrine in what is now Suwa, Nagano Prefecture. Two years later, Tokiyuki raised an army and staged the 1335 rebellion. His forces briefly recaptured and occupied Kamakura, but they were subdued in just 20 days or so by Takauji, who hurried to Kamakura from Kyoto.

This scene introduces Ashikaga Takauji as a hero and the outright central figure of the Nanbokucho period, which is about to begin. “Nigejozu no Wakagimi” portrays him as a dark, enigmatic hero.

Tokiyuki managed to escape. After Takauji rebelled against Emperor Godaigo, the Imperial regime was temporarily split into two dynasties: the Nancho southern dynasty led by the emperor and the Hokucho northern dynasty ruled by Takauji. During the Nanbokucho era (the era of southern and northern dynasties lasting from 1336 to 1392), Tokiyuki joined with the southern dynasty even though the emperor was his former foe, and continued to fight against Takauji. Tokiyuki entered Kamakura three times in his life. It is not too far-fetched to say the young, unyielding samurai lord was the greatest rival of Takauji.

“The more I did my research, the more I became convinced that it was an era of people who were good at running away,” Matsui said. “Bushido, or the way of samurai, valorizes an aesthetic of graceful dying. In fact, this was an aesthetic from the peaceful Edo period [1603-1867]. To samurai during the Kamakura and Nanbokucho periods, victory was about running away and surviving. In this manga, I’ve made it clear that Tokiyuki’s special talent is his skill in running away, and I’ve described him as ‘a monster of survival instinct’ because I thought that was not historically wrong.”

Since “Nigejozu no Wakagimi” is carried by Shukan Shonen Jump, Matsui makes sure that it has all the excitement of a boys’ manga. Despite his cosseted upbringing, Tokiyuki is extremely sincere and caring to friends.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Yusei Matsui speaks in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo. “I am an amateur history fan, but I don’t want to draw falsehoods,” he said.

“The challenge for me is how I can give readers a cathartic experience through his running away. I’ve modernized Tokiyuki’s personality a little bit. The manga also contains my message that we should value our lives more,” Matsui said.

Matsui is known as the creator of the bizarre school comedy manga “Ansatsu Kyoshitsu” (Assassination Classroom). “Nigejozu no Wakagimi” is his first try at a serious historical manga. With supervision by historian Kazuto Hongo, Matsui has been trying to depict the period’s culture, customs and military equipment, such as armors and swords, as closely to the historical truth as possible.

“I don’t want to make light of history,” he said. “The absolute hero of the Nanbokucho period was Takauji. But I realized that it’s possible to depict the whole picture of this complicated era through Tokiyuki. This is a very challenging serialization, but it would be boring if all period manga were about the popular eras, such as the Sengoku warring-state period [from the 15th to 16th centuries] and the bakumatsu period [the last years of the Tokugawa shogunate in the mid-19th century].”

“I want people to know that such an interesting person existed in medieval times. I want to encourage people to learn more about the history of our country, without sounding pushy,” Matsui said.