In ‘Samurai Awakening,’ Japanese culture, history, demons come alive

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 3, 2012 

When a typical American boy spends a year in Japan on an exchange program, he’s expected to have his mind opened to new experiences.

In “Samurai Awakening,” young David Matthews achieves that and more — for a price.

A new entry in the young adult paranormal category, Benjamin Martin uses Japanese culture and history to build quite a compelling tale.

With many unexpected twists, it’s entertaining but suffers from being a first novel. Occasionally, the writing stutters as if Martin was afraid that he’d never get a chance to write a sequel and therefore puts everything into this one book.

It would be a pity because the characters are well-drawn. You end up caring if they live or die by the end.

In “Samuri Awakening,” young David is not your typical disillusioned American couch potato teen; he’s just bewildered and alone.

At his new Japanese school he doesn’t fit in with other kids who, having grown up together, mock him to his face knowing he speaks Japanese poorly. His host family’s twins, Takumi and Rie Matsumoto, look out for their new guest but the only person who David doesn’t feel awkward with is Grandpa, the 85-year-old patriarch.

When Grandpa is threatened by an elemental spirit in the shape of a tiger at the Matsumoto family shrine, David reacts immediately to save him. It changes his life. He becomes possessed by part of the tiger, ends up being threatened by various forms of undead, and finally becomes a hero.

Martin, who now lives in Japan, knows its myths and legends well. For example, he describes a ghost of a young girl attacking one of Daniel’s schoolmates:

“The obake smiled, making its feral visage that much more horrifying. Its arms outstretched, elongated fingers groped in the night, searching out Natsuki. Closing on her the obake swelled with the anticipation of a kill and the nourishment her soul would provide.”

David learns martial arts, kendo, hunting, self-control and discipline. He has close encounters with ghosts, demons, and death.

At the end he decides to stay in Japan to fight evil. Actually, he has little choice. He’s chosen his path. He’s grown up.

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