High Moon: The Japanese Western

Imagine, if you will, a young, handsome, vigorous man. He’s married to a quiet, gentle, attractive woman who clearly thinks the world of him. He holds down a prestigious job, which carries its risks. These risks don’t bother him, per se, but he is looking for a little more out of his life — maybe working with kids, opening up a school, teaching them his craft. Before he can act on this ambition, though, he is disabled in the line of duty. Now blind, in his mind’s eye, the doting affections of his beautiful wife begin to take on the color of pity,

He turns morose, consciously pushing her away. At the same time, because he is unable to work, responsibility for keeping the fledgling family afloat falls to his partner. At a loss as to how she will make her way, she consults with her husband’s extended family. Hearing that she has had a chance encounter with an established power broker in town, they suggest that she seek out his support.

Soon thereafter, talk circulates that the young wife has become the big man’s mistress. The husband puts a tail on his wife and, after verifying her furtive doings, banishes her from his home. Divorce proceedings ensue and the cuckold resolves to avenge his lost honor against his powerful rival. During his preparations he learns that his wife, in fact, was raped by the rival, then blackmailed into continuing the liaison. This further motivates the blind man who, ultimately manages to best his antagonist in a dramatic duel.

In fiction — whether a novel, a video game, a TV production or movie — plot is key, but so, too, is setting. Each plays a critical role in generating meaning and eliciting audience affect. The tale above could be told in many settings — France, Nigeria, Bolivia, the US — actually, just about anywhere. Similarly, given its universals — of love and deception, of shame and revenge, of power and exploitation, of human suffering and endurance — it could also be told at various points in time: Medieval, Pre-industrial, Industrial, Post-Industrial.

Obviously, a story like this would work better in some places and specific eras than in others. In the case of the movie considered here, Bushi no Ichibun, the place is Japan, the time, during the middle to latter stages of the samurai period, in the epoch called “Edo”. For those of you not up on your Japanese history, that would be between 1603 and 1868.

The fact that the tale is told in Japan, during a time that hierarchy prevailed, where — excuse the pun — blind service ruled, where honor was the coin purchased in exchange for fielty, and morality was demonstrated daily in the way one lived, viewers are presented with a brew that lends drama and even pathos to the tale that could have been told anywhere. Not only is Japan an ideal setting for the story, but in director Yoji Yamada’s skilled hands, the situation of a samurai stuck in the lower ranks of his caste, and rooted in a claustrophobic castle town, becomes the perfect backdrop for this morality tale.

The English title for Bushi no Ichibun is “Love and Honor” and that certainly captures one of the hooks of this plot. The samurai holds a position of honor and that honor is enhanced by the noble way he was disabled; nonetheless, that honor is lost by the actions of his wife. In turn, acts construed as dishonorable work to ensure that love is lost. Ironically, it is his wife’s love that impelled her to discard her honor in the first place, embarking on what was a no-win effort to salvage their once-blissful union.

These are the bold strokes. The details that lend poignancy to this particular tale are found both in script and execution. Had this tale been told in a modern, advanced society, the script might have offered us a fireman falling through the floor of a burning building as he tried to save helpless inhabitants from certain death. The script might even have depicted his noble act as a suicide mission he volunteered for.

As for Bushi no Ichibun the act engaged in is certainly heroic, however the heroism is of the mundane sort. It lies in the daily task of tasting the lord’s food to determine if it has been poisoned. Although this section of the movie only consists of two food-sampling scenes, Yamada does an exceptional job of creating the necessary atmospherics. We are given a character who feels trapped no less than a prisoner awaiting the delivery of a death sentence. The audience can feel his oppression, his mounting panic to escape, and the great sense of relief he experiences in those light moments he shares with his wife at the end of the day.

Certainly acting plays a role in this. And Kimura Takuya, one of the members of SMAP (the band we have covered on these pages before), does a credible job as a samurai named Shinnojo. Kimura has matured as an actor, and he meets the dual challenges of playing a sightless person who, therefore, must act with everything but his eyes, and also a swordsmith skilled enough to convince us he could be certified as a samurai. In the case of his on-screen wife, Kayo (Rei Dan), does a modest, but convincing turn.

Perhaps her best moment comes when she is advised that she should call on the town’s powerful administrator to help secure the yearly ration of rice accorded to working samurai. The cloud that briefly flits across her face is enough to signal to the viewer that she may already have spied her impending fate. While she may not be expecting to be assaulted, she does appear to foresee what the lord ultimately cackles as he clutches at her kimono: “nothing in life comes for free.”

Not to be misunderstood: this movie is not deep philosophy; nor is it high art. What it is, though, is hard-wired information. Bushi no Ichibun tells us about a society — about this particular ReDot society — from which it is drawn. And it doesn’t simply tell us of a ReDot world lived two centuries ago. Don’t be fooled by the period trappings. Just as westerns have often served as a marker of contemporary American transitions and deep-seated cultural values, the samurai tale has served a similar function in Japan.

Roger Ebert has written: “The Western in its glory days was often a morality play, a story about humanist values penetrating the lawless anarchy of the frontier.” There is some of that in ReDot tales of the samurai. Disorder and the fight for justice can be found in a classic like The Seven Samurai. And even when the morality of samurai strikes the viewer as far from pure — as in a movie like Yojimbo — the warrior’s character is often superior to the mendacious, rapacious social forces massed against him. Thus, do we find a slew of quasi-virtuous ronin — the rootless, masterless warriors of earlier times — in ReDotPop’s period dramas.

However on the whole, these costume pieces — which are continually reproduced in TV series, mini-series, movies, and novels — are more about order than lawlessness. In many of these stories it is the reaction to order, rather than against disorder (as in the classic American western) that provides the key motivation for characters and works to propel the plot. In the ReDot world, samurai stories have appeal because they are consumed by an audience that is full of order; an audience looking for ways to manage and work through the ubiquitous, lurking, framing, codifying, smothering presence of fixed social organization and external determination. Samurai stories have legs, they have survived all these years because they provide for their viewers models for survival, if not grace and nobility, in the face of hierarchy and continually assaults on moral integrity.

In his recent review of “3:10 to Yuma Ebert observed that: “In hard times, Americans have often turned to the Western to reset their compasses. In very hard times, it takes a very good Western.” America certainly is living through its difficult, conflicted, confused moments — it is currently over-extended militarily in a morally opaque universe; it is presently stretched far too thin economically, with seemingly more foes than friends on call. And, coincidental or not, America is certainly suddenly flush with westerns, all worthy of critical acclaim.

HBO’s Western historical drama, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, was nominated for 17 Emmy Awards. 3:10 to Yuma and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” are both in theatrical release and receiving serious critical attention. As Robert Duvall, Emmy Award winner for AMC’s “Broken Trail” exulted at this month’s Emmy ceremony: “We all want to do westerns . . . The western is here to stay.”

In the same way, ReDotPop’s version of the western, the samurai genre, is also here to stay. Though not quite flowing at the same volume, they continue to be produced. And likely for the same reasons. As moral compass, as spiritual guide, these productions speaks of a world now gone — where correct conduct, dignity, and honor punctuated social paces and served as the demarcation between right and wrong. And in the ReDot realm, a vocal call has gone out for a return to such a world.

In the last two years, it has become fashionable to demand a bushido revival in everday life; everywhere, it seems, one can the plea for return to traditional values, many of which reflect an intentional departure from the West, and an embrace of the thought styles buried in the centuries and originating from points East. In the worst (which is to say, the most provocative) case, it is all rather predictably rightist, nationalist, and acerbic superior-than-thou rhetoric. Still, it does provide an unmistakable punctuation mark — when marketed as polemic non-fiction or romantic costume drama — with its brisk sales. At the moment, the idea that Japan is a special enclave that has been corrupted by too much western individualism does seem to resonate with certain ReDot audiences.

Interestingly, central in this process is the glorification of nature. Nature is depicted in Bushi no Ichibun in constant references to the elements: the gusting of wind, the rustling of leaves, the presence of rocks along a human’s path, communion with animals, the endurance of bugs, the falling of rain, the play of fireflies in the garden. This natural dimension is often claimed to be absent in the west and, by contrast, forms one of the core essences of Japan. It is placed squarely at the core of cinematic art. So much so that one wonders why Shinnojo did not insist on his duel during the full moon; a natural touch which not only would have helped even the odds, but would better fit the samurai’s reverence for the aesthetic.

It will come as no surprise that despite a duel at high noon, Shinnojo prevails. He does so, of course, through skill, determination and the quest to reclaim his lost honor. He does so, by paying homage to the way of the warrior. Unfortunately, if the warrior’s way is the road to be traveled in contemporary Japan, the lesson that may prevail could be a dark one, with a not-too-pleasant final destination.

In Bushi no Ichibun, although Shinnojo starts out as glib and projects a lighthearted spirit following his gastronomic mishap, he heartily embraces the samurai axiom that “the essence of Bushido lies in death”. Once he articulates this refusal to fear death, he finds himself emotionally ready to square-off against his chief antagonist and, thus, reclaim what has been lost. The return of his wife, Kayo, is only one of the unexpected (and far-too-Hollywood) results. However, the larger message of the film has nothing to do with perfect, requited love. Rather, the biggest message is that, for the true warrior, after the certitude has been set, then choices become simpler, action can occur unfettered; a person can behave free and clear of all obstacles.

One worries, though, that such a philosophy — glorified in the steady stream of popular entertainments centering on samurai — carries an overly-simplistic potential. After all, grooming a society of people committed to the ultimate reality of death may not be the best way to get out of today’s business meeting intact, or maneuvering one’s car safely off the freeway. It may just be a prescription for mayhem.