For the last couple of months, I’ve been experiencing a lack of major motivation for painting or gaming. Nothing has really grabbed my fancy for a new project, and in fact I’ve been starting to think that perhaps my time in this hobby had finished. But in the last few days my imagination has finally been stirred anew, and I’m finding myself enthusiastically day-dreaming again about a potential new period to game – samurai!
This new enthusiasm first emerged from watching a re-run of the old TV 1980 mini-series, Shogun. This series, set in Japan in the early 1600s, really brings feudal Japan to life. It features an English ship pilot, whose vessel is wrecked upon the Japanese coast. He is forced to deal with the two most powerful men in Japan, who struggle for the title of ‘shogun’, which will give ultimate power to the one who possesses it. Whilst quite slow-moving, the story is beautifully told and filmed – every scene is so exquisitely Japanese in its setting, colour, custom and language. I was entranced.
Then on a recent trip to my local library, my eye was caught by a novel about samurai, David Kirk’s Child of Vengeance. With an endorsement on the front cover from well-known historical writer Conn Iggulden, this looked like it could be an entertaining read. And so it turned out. As the Amazon blurb states, this novel is ‘a bold and vivid historical epic of feudal Japan, based on the real-life exploits of the legendary samurai Musashi Miyamoto’. I couldn’t put it down until it was finished (and, fussy reader that I am, that really says something!).
Truth to tell, this is not the first time that samurai have caught my attention. A couple of years ago I also began thinking of getting into this period. I was initially inspired by the Wargames Foundry range of wonderfully characterful samurai figures. These were originally old Citadel figures from the 1980s, I believe, before Wargames Foundry re-released them.
I even went so far as to purchase a set of skirmish rules, Rich Jones’ Bushi No Yume. These are a very interesting set of rules, written by a guy who has been into Japanese ‘bujutsu’ (martial arts) since he was a child. The core rules themselves are deceptively simple, but they have oodles of character-adding special rules and ‘karma’ cards covering both history and (if you want) Japanese fantasy. So you can easily recreate the feel of a ‘chanbara’ movie, the Japanese equivalent of a spaghetti western.
But something else must have distracted me from my burgeoning interest in samurai, because I never took this project any further. However, the idea has remained lurking somewhere in the back of my mind, and has now re-emerged as a result of watching Shogun and reading Child of Vengeance.
But what really inspired me this time was reading about North Star’s forthcoming release of factions (or ‘buntai’) of 28mm figures as a tie-in with the new Osprey skirmish wargames ruleset, Ronin.
This is a set of skirmish wargame rules set in late 16th century feudal Japan. Players build small warbands of models and battle each other, as well as non-player factions, in duels and skirmishes. The rules pay tribute to the films of Akira Kurosawa such as Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. North Star have produced four buntai so far: samurai and ashigaru, Buddhist warrior monks, martial arts school students, and bandits.
As you can see above, the North Star samurai/ashigaru buntai looks fabulous painted up. Colour schemes can vary wildly depending on which clan you’re representing. All in all, I feel these figures capture the look. Right now there is also a special deal, in which you can buy all four buntai plus the Ronin rulebook for 100 pounds, with free postage anywhere. I’m tempted by this, maybe as a shared project with other locals …
However, North Star aren’t the only options for samurai miniatures. One maker in particular that is really worth considering is Perry Miniatures. Their samurai figures look just as nice as the North Star ones, albeit not so heroic in stature (though that could be just the photos). However, they don’t sell the figures as ready-made packs for each buntai, as this range seems to be aimed more at larger armies. So it would be a matter of picking a number of poses and mixing them into a themed buntai myself.
Like North Star, there is no doubt that the Perry figures have captured the Japanese look and feel. I especially love this set of samurai in everyday clothing. They look as though they’ve just walked out of the Shogun TV series.
One thing I’ve learned from this latest rush of enthusiasm is that (like Western history) there are huge differences between samurai over the period of time. The North Star and Perry miniatures figures are set in the 1500s and 1600s, or the ‘Sengoku’ (warring states) period. Armour by this time had simplified from its hey-day. For the much more lavish and boxy samurai armour, you have to look at earlier periods before the introduction of gunpowder. And one company that makes figures for these times is Westwind Productions.
Samurai warriors of the early periods were skilled archers. These figures show the unusual quivers and asymmetrical bows used in Japan. Whilst the figures themselves, from these photos, don’t look quite as good as those by North Star and Perry, there is something about the boxy armour and the typical side flaps to the helmets worn in this earlier period that I really like. And they appear to my eye more like those old Japanese samurai prints, such as the one heading this article.
Another maker of samurai from the earlier periods is The Assault Group. They also look like quite nice figures.
This photo from The Assault Group’s gallery shows just how colourful the early armour is (in this case from the Gempei War that took place from 1180-1185). What a wonderful challenge to paint! This particular figure was painted by Kai Teck.
Back to the later Sengoku period, and there is yet another option – plastic! Wargames Factory have put out a number of boxes of samurai troops. You assemble these figures, and can end up with a very reasonably priced army. As can be seen here, they paint up well. My only gripe is that they look a little wooden in pose. I would prefer something akin to those dramatic exaggerated poses seen in the old Japanese prints – which I think most of the previously mentioned ranges gave captured to some degree.
However, wooden poses or not, there is no doubt that painted up, these figures can indeed look superb.
Yet another option – going bigger! Steve Barber puts out a small range of 42mm samurai figures from the Sengoku period, which look rather well-done judging from the photos I’ve seen.
At their large size, these would be awesomely impressive models. That spear must be about 8-10cm long. I also like the way Steve Barber has captured the asymmetrical bow correctly – many makers have their archers holding the bow in the middle as if they were European bows.
If I’m looking at bigger figures, then I should also look at some smaller ones. These are plastic 1/72 scale samurai made by the Russian firm Zvezda. According to Plastic Soldiers Review, the Zvezda samurai are very good miniatures indeed.
The posing of the Zvezda figures in my opinion is great, with lots of dash and vigour. If I was to go small-scale, these figures would certainly be worth considering. And at the lower price, they would make large armies possible. But I must say that I’m not used to painting figures this small, and I’m not 100% convinced about soft plastic.
So far as scenery is concerned, most of what I already have in the way of roads, rivers and trees will suffice (though with maybe a bit of cherry blossom added to some of the latter!). However, to give it that Japanese feel, it would need some buildings or other typical Japanese bits and pieces. Sarissa Precison do some attractive 28mm Japanese buildings as pre-cut wooden kitsets.
Another interesting scenery maker is and Plast Craft Games (Fukei), whose simple but characterful buildings would really give that oriental feel.
Plast Craft Games also make some nice resin pieces, such as this Japanese grave set.
Anyway there it is – as you can see, my mind is churning over with the possibilities of collecting samurai figures and terrain. Even the process of writing this posting has got me more enthused. There are just some major decisions to make first, not the least being what scale, what manufacturer, what period, what rules … Ah, the daydreaming will keep me going for some time!