Japan is associated with a lot of images, with the samurai being the most famous in my opinion. The image of a noble warrior living by the code of bushido has become a romanticised ideal. Samurai lived and died by their duty, but men weren’t the only people who could take up the sword. Female samurai existed as well. Called onna-bugeisha (female martial artists), they belonged to the same class as male samurai and were allowed to carry weapons to protect their household.
I think the best comic representation of a female samurai is Katana. The character’s backstory is rooted in tragedy and it follows the tropes of family honour, revenge and sacrifice. Katana is a reflection of the fearlessness of the onna-bugeisha, so I’m looking into her importance as a superhero.
Fighting to defend family honour
Katana, whose real name is Tatsu Yamashiro, attracted the attention of two brothers. Maseo and Takeo Yamashiro both loved her, though Tatsu chose the former. Takeo refused to attend the wedding, leading to him being disowned by his brother. Takeo joined the Yakuza, rising through the ranks. He returned to battle his Maseo, demanding Tatsu as the prize.
Takeo murdered his brother with the sword that became known as Soultaker. To protect her children, Tatsu attacked Takeo, but her children were already lost. She heard her husband’s voice come from Soultaker and she vowed to hunt Takeo down. Taking the codename Katana, she studied under a samurai master and left for America.
It wasn’t long before Katana met Batman and the Outsiders. The team chose to help her in her quest to find Takeo. Eventually, Katana tracked her brother-in-law to Tokyo. Having stolen Soultaker from Tatsu, Takeo delivered it to his Oyabun. Katana was forced to kill the enslaved soul of her husband, but she and the Outsiders managed to defeat the Yakuza. Katana killed Takeo, finding a measure of peace.
From that point on, Katana became full member of the Outsiders. She assisted Batman on a number of black op missions, putting her skills to good use. However, Tatsu continued to carry the weight of her loss, signified by her ownership of Soultaker. Even though her husband and children were at rest, Katana continued to fight for justice. In addition to being a member of the Outsiders, Tatsu has served with the Birds of Prey and Suicide Squad.
A respectful take on warrior women
I think Katana’s story can be described as a modern retelling of the life of an onna-bugeisha. Female samurai were highly trained warriors who favoured the naginata. It was a versatile weapon, made up of a polearm and curved blade. It suited a female warrior because of its length, which compensated for the strength and size of male opponents. The traditional role of onna-bugeisha was to defend the household from bandits. But, they didn’t hesitate to ride into battle, just like Katana.
Katana chose to defend her home and family against Takeo when he attacked. With her household destroyed, Tatsu went out into the world to reclaim her honour. The character can be likened to the legendary female samurai Tomoe Gozen, who served with distinction during the Genpai War. During the Battle of Awazu in 1184, Gozen charged the enemy, threw herself at the strongest warrior and took his head off. Gozen was described in The Tale of the Heike:
“She was also a remarkably strong archer, and as a swordswoman she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot. She handled unbroken horses with superb skill; she rode unscathed down perilous descents. Whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armour, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valour than any of his other warriors.”
Like the onna-bugeisha who came before her, Katana is a fighter. She might have come from a dark place, but she refused to let tragedy define her. Katana found a purpose with the Outsiders, allowing her to carry out her duty as a samurai.
To learn more about how comics represent samurai, you can read my thoughts on characters like Wolverine and Colleen Wing.