Growing up in Berlin and Munich, Germany, John Wate found a passion in Manga comics at a young age. He was intrigued by the style of the Japanese graphic novels and began drawing his own at just ten years of age. Even then he knew he was meant to tell stories, but as he began transitioning away from drawing and into filmmaking, his innate drive to be a storyteller never wavered.
Now, Wate is a renowned director in his home country and abroad. Two of his past films, The Sword of the Samurai and The Samurai Bow, made it for 4 years into the top twenty of National Geographic Channel’s worldwide most popular documentaries. He is known for his unwavering dedication to his craft, and his work on projects like Epic Warrior Women, Samurai Headhunters, and Samurai Warrior Queens, projects that reminded him just why he got into filmmaking in the first place.
“One of the first manga stories I ever wrote when I was a teenager was that of a female samurai kicking ass. When I was sitting in the edit room watching Samurai Warrior Queens chasing inslow motion across a bridge towards the enemy with their blades drawn, I felt as though I was having my teenage wishes fulfilled,” said Wate.
The drama documentary Samurai Warrior Queens tells the real-life story of Samurai woman Takeko Nakano who in 1868 fights for her clans’ independence in a final battle that marks the end of the Samurai era. The legends of the Samurai seem to be an all-male affair; but contrary to popular belief, Samurai women stood their ground in countless battles and castle sieges. Takeko Nakano fights for her clans’ independence in a final battle that marks the end of the Samurai era.
“It is almost unknown that female samurai existed, let alone that they stood on the battlefield. Recent DNA from battlefields found that 30 percent of the sampled bones belonged to female fighters. However, for proud male samurai it was regarded as a shame if you had to rely on women to win your battle, so their presence was hardly ever recorded. The film can give them their place in history,” said Wate. “Takeko’s life provided a great arc and was pretty much a metaphor for the end of the samurai era as a whole. The role of female heroes has not received much attention until recent years, especially in Japan, and the story sheds a very different light on what in the West is often perceived as the general submissive and weak, moon gazing Japanese female persona.”
Wate enjoys strong female characters and had already come across different accounts of strong female samurai and wanted to show what their life was like. Their education, their ability to stand up against the more famous samurai in battle, it was all an intriguing topic that Wate wanted to really dig into.
Extensive background research of local folk tales and chronicles eventually led him to choose the life story of Takeko Nakano. She grew up in Aizu, a proud province in northern Japan where education, etiquette and martial arts were held in high esteem. Her father was a commander in a clan that understood itself as the protector of the Shogun. When the Shogun was threatened by other clans, supplied by Western firepower, the Aizu fought their last battles that eventually ended in the end of the samurai era. Takeko was very talented with the Naginata, a polearm or a samurai blade with a meter-long grip at the end. She was an instructor and took it on herself to recruit other female combatants to charge against the enemy but was eventually killed during the assault by a bullet.
To understand how she lived, how she might have seen her daily duties, why she refused to marry and fight instead, Wate traveled to her home province, went to research local archives, see their castle defenses, and really explore what her life would have been like. He then developed the script, cast the film, and got to shooting.
“I loved showing the world of the samurai, their attitude, ideals of honor and courage from a female perspective. In some ways they had to endure more than their male counterparts. Not only because they were often the pawns in the marriage game, but also because they had to fight and stand in for the actions of their husbands, their clan and the Shogun. I also found it fascinating and horrifying at the same time how they were taught to pursue grace even in death. Female samurai carried a dagger with them at all times once they reached womanhood to defend their honor. If they were in danger to be captured and raped, they would often have to commit suicide and were taught already as teenagers to tie their knees together with their belts, so that their legs would still look graceful after their death,” he described.
The film was distributed worldwide and nominated on the short list for the IMPACT Award, losing to the Academy-Award winning film Lincoln. It aired in the United States on the Smithsonian Network in 2015 where it still plays regularly, and is available to stream currently on various platforms, including Amazon and Hulu.
By Sean Desouza