Oriental expert’s key role in 18th century samurai blockbuster

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Today sees the release of holiday season blockbuster 47 Ronin, a film starring Keanu Reeves, telling the story of a group of roaming samurai who in 1701 set out to avenge their murdered lord.

And while the production will be lauded for its acting and special effects, what is less known is the impact a Leeds oriental expert had on its genesis.

Stephen Turnbull, who lives in Horsforth and worked as a lecturer in Japanese religion at Leeds University, was used as a consultant for the movie and played a major role in the design of the sets, costumes and weapons.

“I met Keanu a few times and he asked me questions about the legend,” said Mr Turnbull. “He summed it up by saying, ‘So, 
basically, these guys became great heroes in Japan because they kicked ass.’ Which is more or less true.”

“I had a ball,” he said. “To be based at Universal Studios with a pass to go all round the place and then at Shepperton where they built a complete Japanese castle was unbelievable.

“From the back this castle was just scaffolding but from the front and inside it was amazing, and it was my castle, I designed it.

“There was an 18-month period of editing and splicing so goodness knows what the film will turn out like, but I think it’s going to be good.”

Handily for those who fancy 
following in Keanu Reeves’ footsteps, Mr Turnbull has just written a book explaining exactly how 
to become a fully-fledged samurai.

Samurai: The Japanese Warrior’s Unofficial Manual gives instruction on all the skills required to join the ranks of Japan’s most revered warriors.

“Up to when the civil wars ended in 1615 you could rise from the ranks if you were a peasant soldier, “ said Mr Turnbull. “From then on it was impossible, you had to be born into it. The whole idea of this book is that we’re looking at a young man who has been born into the right class but that’s not enough, he’s got to prove himself. It’s all about being a true samurai.”

A would-be samurai would have to master all manner of skills –from the best way to lay siege to a castle to the art of conducting a tea ceremony. That’s right. A tea ceremony.

“Tea ceremonies were the Japanese samurai equivalent of Facebook,” Mr Turnbull said. “It was where you met and hatched plans with your friends, confidants and people you wanted to impress.

“It was networking at the top level and, if you were good at it, people would want to come to you.”