These days female action heroes are becoming ever more popular. In addition to The Hunger Games book and movie trilogy, there is Black Widow of The Avengers, Snow White in the movie Snow White and the Huntsman, and more.
Perhaps now is therefore a good time to take a look at an under-appreciated real-life warrior, Tomoe Goezen.
She was a female samurai warrior (female samurai were known as onna bugeisha).
An example of the consummate woman warrior, Tomoe Goezen was a legendary fighter at the time of the Genpei War (1180-85), a period that saw the birth of the samurai tradition in Japan. Goezen is not a surname but an honorific applied principally to women.
The sources differ on the details of her life. She was either the wife, concubine, or female attendant of the Japanese commander Minamoto no Yoshinaka. Skilled in the martial arts and fearless in battle, she was one on Yoshinaka's senior officers in the struggle for the control of Japan between the Taira and Minamoto clans.
Tomoe Goezen's beauty and prowess are described in the Hieke Monotogari (Tales of the Monotogari): "Tomoe was especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair and charming features. 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 armor, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors. "
Minamoto no Yoshinaka's ambition to head the Minamoto clan eventually led to his downfall. The clan chieftain, Minamoto no Yoritomo, decided to nip his cousin's designs in the bud and dispatched his brothers to kill him. Yoshinaka did battle with Yoritomo's forces at Awazu in February 1184, where it was said that Tomoe Goezen decapitated at least one of the enemy. With only a few of his soldiers left standing, Yoshinaka ordered Tomoe Goezen to quit the field. One account has her remaining and meeting death at Yoshinaka's side. Another has her surviving to become a member of a religious order. In yet another she casts herself into the sea, clutching Yoshinaka's severed head.
In the 1980s Tomoe Goezen was used as a character in a trilogy of fantasy novels, known as "The Tomoe Goezen Saga", by American fantasy and horror author Jessica Amanda Salmonson. Here you can see her life told in fantasy form.
References: The Tale of the Heike, translated by Helen Craig McCullough, 1988.
Hell Hath No Fury by Rosalind Miles and Robin Cross (pgs. 22-23).