From the 10th century many Buddhist foundations in Japan maintained private armies, and used them for many of the usual reasons religious armies of any faith are used – the pursuit of power and wealth. Unlike many other religions differences in doctrine did not provoke battle, but at various times the orders supported or opposed emperors, fought local warlords and very often fought each other, usually for no other reason than to gain a very earthly supremacy. What is more many of these armies had an excellent reputation for strength and efficiency, and they often participated in the many wars that were a hallmark of medieval Japan. It was not until the end of the 16th century that these warrior monks (‘sohei’) finally disappeared.
Such warrior monks are usually depicted wearing a head cowl from which only their face is visible, or else they go to the other extreme and cover their shaved heads with nothing but a headband. When going into battle they would wear armour much like their secular counterparts, which might be on top of or under their normal robes. The style and amount of this armour would depend on the means of the wearer or his temple, but those who could afford a full set looked no different to any other Japanese warrior of the time. The figures in this set are a good reflection of this, with the kind of mix of costume and armour already described. While styles of armour changed over the centuries this was often a matter of detail, and older suits were often worn for many years, so there is nothing here to date these figures more precisely. However we found no problems with the accuracy of the costume.
The favoured weapon of the warrior monk was the naginata, a long blade mounted on an even longer staff, and seven of the poses in this set are so armed. The length of blade and staff varied over time, and those in this set are also varied, which again means they are not tied to one narrow time period. A further pose is of an archer, who is holding a very long bow in the correct position, i.e. well below the mid point. Strangely though this man has no sign of any arrows. The last four poses are of men handling the arquebus, a primitive early matchlock musket. The monastic orders were enthusiastic about this weapon when Europeans first introduced it into Japan in 1543, and quickly acquired a reputation for its skillful use.
Although most of the poses are quite flat we liked many of the choices. The naginata is being properly used by these figures, and all of them are quite animated. The first pose in the second row looks much like a famous statuette of the warrior monk Tajima, who is alleged to have cut arrows out of the air with his naginta. Not a great choice for a set like this then, unless of course you believe this was common practice! Clearly the archer and gunners are not so animated, but again the poses are fine. What is missing is figures using either a sword or a spear, both of which were common, but RedBox say a future set will include these poses.
The sculpting on these is not particularly good but there is plenty worse. Detail is reasonable but not clear and sharp, and the desire to make all figures one piece, rather than have separate arms or weapons, means many weapons are unrealistically pressed against the body. An area of particular concern is the sword, which is worn thrust through the belt on the left hip. Most of these figures have one, but while its style and length varied down the centuries those in this set seem much too short to us. Indeed one figure (the last on the first row), has no more than the hilt of his sword. While it could be argued that these are daggers, not swords, they certainly should be swords, just much longer than they are. There is relatively little flash however.
Where monks were well armoured, for example by wearing a helmet, then they looked much like any samurai and can be represented by figures from the Zvezda sets, so this set limits itself to the ordinary monk and does a reasonable job. Apart from the missing and poorly done weapons we have mentioned this is a fair effort. Inevitably the figures don’t look great when stood next to the beautiful Zvezda figures which they complement, but they add an interesting element to the slowing expanding range of medieval Japanese figures.