"Samurai Tales" is a series of vignettes: pen portraits of characters and incidents from the mid-19th century, when Westerners had forcibly returned to Japanese shores and the Tokugawa Shogunate was crumbling as a result. There were plenty of interesting incidents and characters during those turbulent times, and many are documented in these pages. I particularly "enjoyed", if that is the right word, the chapter on official execution, a task handed down in one family from father to son, with each executioner named after his predecessor. By the 1860s the post was held by Yamada Asaemon VII, being the 7th generation, and the monopoly on the manufacture and sale of medicine made from human liver - livers cut out of executed corpses - was also passed down. A yucky but lucrative family business.
The book suffers a little from too much stylistic innovation, with "Settings" and "Players" listed at the beginning of each chapter, and italicised psychological editorials inserted at the front and often elsewhere too in each tale. The latter in particular should have been dispensed with. Hillsborough is also for my taste too in awe of his subjects: their courage and their willingness to sacrifice for a cause may be admirable, but respect for those who value human life so cheaply should surely be tempered. Young samurai playing a version of Russian roulette to demonstrate their bravery is an example not of nobility but of stupidity. Samurai behaviour that is absurd is never held up as such: the tendency of the great hero Ryoma Sakamoto to pee in friends' front gardens when departing their houses is reported straight-faced and as a further sign of his greatness.
The main joy in "Samurai Tales" is in the information unearthed, rather than in how the stories are told, but for any fan of this period there is more than enough of that joy to justify purchase of this book.