By Nina Boal
WINNER - 2009 Samurai Fiction Contest
Johnny Jones wanted so much to be a samurai from long ago. He had learned to love samurai at a Japanese Cinema Festival he had attended. He had seen Toshiro Mifune, the famous actor, playing a samurai named “Yojimbo” and Johnny remembered how Yojimbo had strutted into town, swords in hand, ready for action. Johnny wanted to be able to wander around the country, strut into any town that he would encounter and draw his sword. He wanted to be able to defeat the evil criminals and have beautiful, adoring Oriental geisha girls sigh over his presence.
To Johnny Jones’s great dismay, the year was 2009. He was thirty-five years old, with pasty pale skin, scraggly brown hair and a bit of a beer paunch. He lived in the basement of his parents’ house in Kenilworth, a suburb of Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. He had a job as a clerk in the local Blockbuster DVD Store. He did have a girlfriend, but she never sighed over his presence; instead, she used his employment at Blockbuster DVD store to score free DVD rentals from him whenever she wished.
Johnny had once read in a Stephen Turnbull book about the samurai martial art of kenjutsu sword fighting and he wanted very much to learn the sword, which he knew was the Soul Of The Samurai. So one day, he appeared at the dojo of the Chicago Kendo Club. This wasn’t kenjutsu, it was a school for something called “kendo,” which was a “modern martial art” – he figured that this would do for now. However, instead of teaching him how to mightily sweep his sword to cut enemies down, the chief sensei made him remain in the corner for beginners, swinging his bamboo practice shinai up and down. He was to “practice the basics” the sensei told him. This wasn’t real sword fighting with a real sword, Johnny knew. He quickly tired of such condescending treatment – a samurai from old certainly wouldn’t put up with that! He left the school after two sessions.
Instead, of opening himself up to being insulted by any modern kendo sensei who knew nothing of Bushido, Johnny determined to spend his spare hours and minutes in studying the writings of real, historical samurai. These writings were included in his dog-eared copies of “Hagakure” and “Bushido: The Soul of Japan.” Each day, he committed the important passages to heart. When he wasn’t poring over these important volumes, he was earnestly viewing his DVD collection of all of the Toshiro Mifune, Zatoichi and any other samurai films he could get his hands on.
One day, Johnny found a mysterious ceramic Japanese tea pot at a yard sale. Some force emanating from the object drove him to spend $3.95 on the precious antique. Eagerly, he took his prize home to his basement, placing it on a coffee table.
Winding strands of what looked like puffs of smoke suddenly began trailing from underneath the lid of the tea pot. Eagerly, Johnny opened the lid. Out popped a jolly fat man who looked sort of like one of the pictures of Buddha that he had seen in his Stephen Turnbull book. Johnny jumped back, startled. “Do not be afraid,” the little man said in perfect English. “I am a mountain spirit from Japan who has specifically been assigned to you. You have diligently shown the true spirit of the samurai as very few people have. Thus I wish to grant you any three wishes that you might want. But do always remember the saying: be careful what you wish for – you might actually get it.”
Waves of shivers sped through Johnny – he smiled widely in absolute happiness. Could this be true? Because of his great devotion to Bushido, he was to be rewarded with his greatest desire. He swallowed hard and then spoke. “I know what I want. I want more than anything to be transported to the Age of the Samurai, just like in the movies. I want to join their ranks and become a samurai.”
“No sooner said than done,” the spirit said, grinning. “Your first wish will be granted. Not only will you go back to the Age of the Samurai, but you will speak, write, and understand Japanese perfectly and you will arrive there as a full-fledged samurai with all of the accoutrements that a samurai needs. You will even have a new name, one fit for a samurai; do remember that in Japan, the family name precedes the given name. So from now on, your name will be Mifune Musashi.”
“Oh, this is just so wonderful,” Johnny whispered, hit voice trembling with excitement.
“And always remember,” the spirit continued. “That, at any time, you can give me your two remaining wishes.” The spirit waved his hand. “Let’s not tarry any further.”
Johnny felt himself being taken down a swirling, tornado-like vortex. He found himself in a lord’s mansion on a warm summer day. He was dressed in samurai clothes, stiff and formal. Two swords were inserted into his sash. Real swords, he marveled as his fingers touched the braided hilts. He ran his other hand over his shaven forehead and onto his hair. His hair had been oiled and fashioned into a perfect top-knot. He wasn’t “Johnny Jones” any longer; he was the valiant samurai Mifune Musashi.
Johnny (Mifune Musashi) looked around him. In front of him was a ledger book. An ink brush was right beside it. He scratched his topknot and looked quizzically at one of his fellow samurai. “Why is this ledger book here? Aren’t we supposed to be using our slashing swords to go off into battle?”
Laughter greeted his inquiry. “What battle?” the fellow samurai replied. “This is the 13th year of Genroku.” Johnny (Mifune Musashi) knew by the magical powers the spirit had given to him; it was 1701. The samurai scoffed again. “There haven’t been any battles in over a hundred years. We are samurai, serving our lord. We do this service by keeping his account books up-to-date. Yosh! We have to get back to work, finish up our bookkeeping.”
Mifune Musashi yawned. If he was a samurai, why wasn’t he slaying enemies? Sitting here all day, doing account books wasn’t what he had read about in “Hagakure,” “Bushido: The Soul of Japan,” or his Stephen Turnbull book. He shrugged. He had to be stoic, like a real samurai. He picked up his ink brush – he was going to serve his lord perfectly. When battle came, he would be ever ready.
Two hours later, he was perspiring; he had to wipe all of the sweat from his brow. His stiff, formal kimono and hakama were itching him horribly. Plus he had been sitting on his knees in the formal samurai (seiza) position. His knees were killing him; he had always been subject to touches of arthritis. He wondered why the air conditioning hadn’t been turned on. He needed to go to the bathroom.
A few minutes, he did his business in the privy. It stank; there were no flush toilets here, even for samurai. It was steaming hot; there still wasn’t any air conditioning. But he had to be a good samurai and bear these awful conditions.
Later that evening, he was sitting, awaiting supper, with several of his colleagues. Beautiful Oriental maidens, with flowered kimono, tripped in. Ah! Now we’re really in the Japan of old. He was ready for his dinner. He couldn’t help it, he found himself licking his lips.
Then, the most beautiful girl Mifune Musashi had ever seen knelt gracefully, right in front of him. He had to hold his breath to stop from drooling all over her; he knew that this would be impolite and un-samurai-like. What delectable dish would she serve him? Would it be king-sized egg rolls as an appetizer? Or would it be steak teriyaki, a huge platter of the juicy meat, his favorite? Perhaps it would be accompanied by a side of egg foo young.
The girl placed the dish in front of him. He squirmed. There were two small strips of something bright pink that looked like dead slugs, along with two slimy rods of what looked like green seaweed. How could he possibly eat this stuff? He fought against the nausea that threatened to erupt inside him.
His stomach settled as his eyes searched and found a small bowl of white rice. At least he could eat the rice and skip the rest for now. Except that there wasn’t a fork or spoon; instead, there were two slender, lacquered chop sticks. In all of his exploration of real samurai culture, he had never learned how to handle chop sticks – most Japanese and Chinese restaurants he had visited had supplied him with forks and spoons. However, this was real-life Samurai-Era Japan; he realized that there wouldn’t be any forks and spoons. So what was he to do? It was a real dilemma. He remembered a movie he had seen where a hungry samurai had picked up a bowl of rice in his hands and gulped down the rice, without using any chop sticks. He was glad that he had seen so many films; they truly supplied him with great historical information about Samurai Culture.
He picked up the rice bowl and started pouring the rice into his mouth. However, the rice grains were sticking together, forming a baseball-size lump. The lump of sticky rice fell over his face and rolled down his freshly-pressed samurai clothing. A stain began to spread on the front part of his kimono. Mifune Musashi could see everyone in the room staring at him; this was not what had happened in the film. The samurai broke out in raucous guffaws while the Oriental girls tittered in laughter. He felt his face grow red. He was losing face and had to do something. He excused himself and ran out into a courtyard. He wasn’t going to stay around in this boring castle and write in ledger books all day among samurai and Oriental serving girls who laughed at him. And especially, he wasn’t going to eat that disgusting whatever-it-was that they were trying to serve him – he deserved real samurai food, fit for one of his dedication. Above all, he wanted a position where he could find some real samurai action.
“Spirit!” Johnny called out frantically. “I want my second wish!” The jolly fat Buddha man appeared. “This isn’t the real samurai life,” he stated firmly.
“But here you are a samurai, serving a lord. That is what samurai do,” the spirit replied cheerfully.
“No, no!” Johnny said. “I want action, like in ‘Yojimbo’ or ‘Sanjuro’ where I wander around, righting wrongs and putting bad guys in their place. I want to be a samurai like him!”
“Your wish is my command,” the spirit replied. A puff of smoke, a whirling vortex and…
Mifune Musashi found himself in the middle of a muddy side street. He stared into a mud puddle; he could see his reflection. He still had his two swords. His hair was no longer neatly groomed and waxed in its top knot. Though he still had a top knot, it was tangled and fly-away around his face and head. Instead of the nice silken formal outfit he had once been wearing, he was now wearing a tattered gray kimono with holes and a few patches on it.
“Now I can be a mighty swordsman!” he shouted. “I can save peasants and beautiful Oriental maidens from villains!” He strode down the muddy street. Shortly afterward, he sauntered into Taro’s Rice and Noodle Shop – because of the spirit’s magic, he actually could read the Japanese characters. He was hungry and, if he wasn’t going to be able to eat a thick steak teriyaki, at least he figured that he could get juicy noodles – not that horrible raw gunk he had been served inside the castle.
A beautiful Oriental girl came tripping up. “O-Samurai-Sama,” she cooed. “What can I get you today?”
Mifune Musashi pounded his fists on the table. “I want a huge bowl of your best noodles,” he demanded.
“Comin’ right up!” the beautiful Oriental girl cooed. A huge pile of noodles was placed before Mifune Musashi. He still didn’t know how to use chop sticks, but he could dump the noodles into his mouth and slurp them. Though it wasn’t a juicy steak teriyaki, it still was delicious. The beautiful Oriental girl held out her hand. “That will be 3 mon.”
Mifune Musashi reached into his kimono. Alas, no coins could he find inside. “What happened to all my money?” he grumbled. “Isn’t getting enough money for my needs part of this ‘spirit’ deal?” He shook his head.
“Oh, great!” the Oriental girl frowned. “Another broke, free-loading ronin. Well, if you can’t pay for your meal, we have plenty of dishes that need to be washed.”
“Wash dishes?” Mifune Musashi had his hand on the hilt of his katana. “Samurai don’t wash dishes! You should give me my meal for free because I’m here to protect you against evil wrongdoers.”
“Jubei-sensei!” the girl called out. Out came the meanest, burliest ragtag slob of a samurai. His top-knot stuck up like a bottle brush and he had only one eye, his other one covered with a sword tsuba. The Oriental girl groaned wearily. “Please explain things to this guy. He just doesn’t understand.”
Mifune Musashi looked into the samurai’s face. Jubei-sensei towered over him. There were scars running criss-cross over his cheeks. He took a swallow from a sake bottle, then sprayed the sake out of his mouth over the hilt of his sword. “Do you have any questions?” he growled. Mifune Musashi gulped. Maybe I should have stuck around at that kendo school for a few more swordfighting lessons, he considered. For now, he figured that it would be best if he were to practice discretion as the better part of valor.
And so, shortly afterward, he found himself in the restaurant kitchen, apron over his kimono, bent over a tub to wash the noodle-dishes and sake bottles. As in the castle, the inn had no working air-conditioning. Plus of course, there was no running water; he had to haul in buckets of water from a well in back of the restaurant. This wasn’t the sort of samurai adventures he had imagined in his mind. Samurai were supposed to fight against evil yakuza gangsters, not slave away in steamy hot kitchens.
Afterward, Mifune Musashi was wandering down the street. He gathered that, as part of his samurai adventures, he was supposed to earn his own money. For that, he needed a job – and not one washing dishes in a smelly kitchen. He remembered a movie where a samurai had hired himself out as a bodyguard. He walked up to the next inn he saw: Jiro’s Geisha Tea House. “That looks like a place that needs a good bodyguard,” he told himself. Plus, he figured, there would be a ton of those gorgeous Oriental geisha girls that he could feast himself on. He walked up to the door and knocked.
Presently, a shoji door slid open and an elderly gentleman bowed to him. “O-Samurai-Sama, this is Jiro. What can I do for you?”
Mifune Musashi bowed in return – he was beginning to get a handle on the local customs. “Do you need a bodyguard? I am a strong swordsman and could serve you well.”
The elderly gentleman, Jiro, replied. “Yes, I’m looking for a bodyguard. I pay 3 mon a day.” Mifune Musashi frowned: 3 mon a day didn’t seem like a very high salary. His stomach growled. He figured out that 3 mon a day was better than nothing, and it might fill up his stomach a bit.
“Come into my front courtyard, please O-Samurai-Sama,” Jiro invited. Mifune Musashi followed him to the courtyard. When he got there, Mifune Musashi gasped in astonishment. There were around seventy-five samurai, all kneeling on the stone pebbles; each one was as ragged and tattered as he was. “I am conducting preliminary interviews,” Jiro explained. “When I get through the preliminary interviews, I will select a few for second and third interviews in the coming weeks. After that, I will make my final selection for the position.”
Mifune Musashi sat down in the courtyard, in that infernal sitting (seiza) position. As he continued sitting on the hard stones of the courtyard, his knees began itching unbearably; his arthritis was killing him again. The sun bore down on him, and perspiration began pouring down his forehead and into his eyes. Finally, he got up; his knees almost collapsed underneath him. He spoke to the the samurai next to him. “Tell Jiro-san that he can take this job and shove it!”
Mifune Musashi stomped out onto the street – how dare this lowly commoner treat samurai like that! He remembered something that he had read in his Stephen Turnbull book – or perhaps it was in the last copy of BLACK BELT that he had picked up at a news stand. Something about how any samurai could strike down any upstart commoner that he felt like striking down. “I’ll take care of that insolent peasant!” he shouted. He turned back toward the door of Jiro’s Geisha Tea House. Two samurai who looked like sumo wrestlers met him at the door, brandishing their swords. Mifune Musashi decided that perhaps he would be better off gazing at the lovely peony blossoms along the road.
At the end of the day, Mifune Musashi, gazing at the peony blossoms, felt his stomach rumble. He saw a sign on a door: “Umbrella maker wanted. Please contact Saburo inside.” Perhaps that was what he could do for now, until he could find beautiful Oriental girls and oppressed peasants to rescue with his mighty sword.
Soon, Mifune Musashi was inside Saburo’s workshop; Saburo, a short, wizened man, had hired him. Mifune Musashi took a little whisk and began applying oil and rice paste on the surface of the umbrella. Perhaps he could do this with a flourish, like a samurai brandishing his sword. He whipped up the whisk, knocking over a pot of rice paste. The pot of rice paste knocked against the oil pot. Both pots spilled as their contents flowed all over the fresh new umbrella-covering paper. Saburo strode in screaming. “That’s 500 ryo’s worth of umbrella paper you have ruined! You’re fired!”
Later that night, Mifune Musashi was trying to sleep on the cold, hard floor of a local temple. He was famished. The locusts and crickets were buzzing with ever-increasing volume. Tears were streaming down his face – what had happened with his brave samurai adventures? Where were those beautiful Oriental girls that he was supposed to rescue? Instead, he was sweating, dirty, starving, trying to get sleep in a temple where the locusts were droning so loud that they were making him go both crazy and deaf.
“Spirit!” he cried out. “Please grant me my third wish!”
The little fat man appeared before him. “I hope you’ve learned your lesson,” he said.
“Oh, I have, I have!” Mifune Musashi gasped out. “You once said, ‘be careful what you wish for – you might actually get it.’ I’ve found that I’ve really gotten it really good. I don’t want to be a samurai any longer.”
The little spirit smiled hopefully. “And so, my grasshopper, what would you like?”
Mifune Musashi (Johnny Jones) knew in his heart exactly what he desired. “I want to be a ninja!”