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The Last Samurai - John C. Kirk

Feb. 1st, 2004

04:59 pm - The Last Samurai

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I went off to watch "The Last Samurai" last night at the cinema, which I thought was very good. I don't have much to say about the film itself, but it got me thinking about various general themes, so that's what I'll discuss here.

I don't know a great deal about Japanese history, but honour is important to me, so the samurai lifestyle has a certain appeal.

A while back, I read the start of the "Lone Wolf and Cub" series (Japanese comics). However, I didn't get very far with it. The scene that particularly bothered me was when a man was riding along by the riverbank, and saw a child floating face-down in the river. He then stripped off his armour, and dived in to rescue the child. However, it turned out that this was an ambush planned by Lone Wolf (the child's father), so that he could kill the other man more easily. This does not seem like an honourable way to behave, so I didn't think I'd enjoy the rest of the stories.

Now, I will accept the premise that these actions conformed to the code of honour in that time/place. They simply don't match my own values. More generally, my view is that I'm quite happy to be selective about where I get my values from. So, while it's probably a good idea for films to be historically accurate, that doesn't mean that I need to embrace the entire culture. Similarly, I'm not too fussy about whether my ideas originate in fact or fiction, e.g. I'm happy to borrow ideas from the Klingons.

A lot of my views are more rooted in the traditional English concept of "sporting behaviour". (As a side note, I list my nationality as British on forms, but I think that this aspect is specifically English rather than Scottish or whatever.) The ambush scenario bothers me because you are punishing somebody for doing the right thing. So, I would say:

a) Don't plan an ambush like that.

b) If you are intending to attack someone, but then he goes to rescue a child, wait until he's climbed out and got dressed again.

Some of my views on honour came from my teachers at school. Particularly when I was boarding, the staff were legally defined as being "in loco parentis" (Latin for "in place of the parent"). The idea was that in case of emergency, they could sign consent forms for surgery or whatever, if the actual parents weren't around. However, in some ways the term became more literal, since they gave me guidance.

One example is my judo instructor. One way to lose a match in judo is to be pinned against the floor for 30 seconds. Alternately, you can surrender, if you don't think you're going to be able to free yourself. On one occasion, I surrendered after 28 seconds; the instructor then told me that this wasn't honourable, so I never did it again. (The idea is that you're cheating the opponent of his victory.)

Another example is my first housemaster at secondary school. This one isn't tied to a specific time/place, but when he'd supervise us at rugby/football games, he'd encourage us to clap for someone who'd just been hurt (either re-joining the game or leaving the field).

One psychological phrase I've heard is "Behaviour that is rewarded tends to be repeated". This ties in with something from primary school, when I was taking part in some kind of obstacle race. The basic idea was that there were four beanbags spaced out along a field. You had to run to the nearest one, pick it up, run back to your starting point, and put it down. Then repeat this for the other beanbags, and for each person on the team. (Possibly alternate people would put beanbags down, rather than picking them up - I don't quite recall.) Anyway, on this particular day there were two teams (four people in each) having a race. And my team wasn't doing very well; I think we were only on our second person when the other team was on their fourth. So, it was pretty obvious that we were going to lose. The other team then took the opportunity to show off, by moving in extremely slow motion. I don't think Michael Jackson had done his moonwalk video by that point, otherwise they'd have probably done that too. Meanwhile, I was doing my best to encourage my team. We were all running as fast as we could, but unfortunately that wasn't very fast in absolute terms. Anyway, as expected, the other team finished first. However, the teacher who was in charge then gave my team the points, on the grounds that we'd been doing it properly.

So, sometimes striving for the impossible does actually pay off. That's why I've included Gunn's quote from Angel ("Never give up. Never surrender.") on my TV quotes webpage, since it impressed me. And there have been a couple of other cases where it's worked for me, when I've been trying to learn a new skill. I tried the back bridge in gymnastics for weeks until I finally managed it, and when I went SCUBA diving it took me hours of choking until I figured out how to breathe without my mask on. I can be stubborn at times...

Actually, looking at these examples now, it seems odd that they're related to sports, given that I'm not particularly active nowadays.

I think that there is a certain romantic appeal of old fashioned weapons (swords, bows and arrows), partly from English folk heroes (Robin Hood, Camelot), and partly from fantasy stories. Intellectually, I realise that being hacked to death with a sword is probably worse than a quick bullet in the head, but that doesn't diminish my emotional reaction. I just try to balance the two.

There have been a couple of interesting views on this in Peter David's work (people who've known me for a while will probably have noticed that I'm quite a fan of his).

In "Knight Life" (a novel about King Arthur returning in the present day, and running for election as Mayor of New York), Arthur is asked for his opinion on gun control vs the constitutional right to bear arms. He recommends swords as an alternative to guns. Paraphrasing from memory: "They're good for upper body strength, and too heavy for a child to lift." Sounds good to me.

In "Young Justice" (a comic about young superheroes, e.g. Robin and Superboy), there was a storyline about Arrowette (an archer who became my favourite character in that comic). The basic point was that you need a licence to buy a gun, whereas anyone can just walk into a sports shop and buy a bow and arrows, i.e. a lethal projectile weapon and ammunition for it.

In the past, I've been very opposed to gun ownership. My view has been that the only purpose of a gun is to injure or kill someone, and that saying you want it for target practice is a pretty feeble excuse. However, when those same arguments are applied to archery, it becomes a bit more blurry. I still haven't quite worked out where I stand on this.

I remember a sketch I saw a while back (possibly on Monty Python), where two men are preparing for a duel. One is offered his choice of weapons from a box containing a sword and a pistol, and he chooses the sword. His opponent then says "Right, I'll take the pistol then". The joke here is that both people are supposed to have the same weapon, otherwise it's vastly unfair. So, there is a practical argument for saying that you shouldn't stick with swords if all your enemies are carrying guns. Similarly, most people will probably have heard of The Charge of the Light Brigade during the first world war. The conclusion drawn from this was that if you send men on horses against cannons, they will lose, so there weren't any more cavalry charges after this. On the other hand, I can see that avoiding an arms race is a good thing.

A related issue came up in an episode of Star Trek (the original series): "A Taste of Armageddon". Basically, there were two planets at war with each other, but it was all done by computers rather than by actual bombs, missiles, etc. The computer on each planet would then draw up casualty lists after each simulated attack, and the people who were named would walk into suicide booths. This had been going on for centuries. Kirk put a stop to this, and told them that war shouldn't be civilised and pleasant - if it's too "clean and easy" then there's no incentive to stop it.

Thinking about my own exposure to these various disciplines, I did some judo (as mentioned above). I also did archery at school for a couple of terms, but I was never very good at it. Ditto for fencing - I liked the idea, but my enthusiasm outweighed my ability. I do own a sword (a replica Viking longsword from Blades Unlimited), but I have no real idea of how to use it. Mind you, I remember a Quantum Leap novel I read ("Knights of the Morningstar", by Melanie Rawn), where Sam is using a sword, and he tells himself "Idiot! Don't try to be an olympic fencing champion, be Luke Skywalker!" So, thinking about the wooden sticks that were used in the film, I'd guess that kendo is probably closer to sword skills. I did chat to some people from the Kendo club at Durham (at Freshers' Fair), but I never actually joined the society (I joined more than I had time for as it was). Still, that's something that it might be interesting to do in the future, if I wind up living/working near a club.

I also investigated Tai Chi a while back, since I'd heard that it was a good way to be able to move faster (which appeals to me). Apparently, the idea is to slow movements down, then work on making them continuous rather than discrete. Once you've done that, you can then speed up again, and get to a higher top speed than before. This all sounded good, so I bought a video. However, the mystical aspect put me off - I couldn't take it seriously when it said things like "Now draw down the life force from the air into you". So, I never watched that video a second time (if anyone wants it, let me know). I might try that again sometime, if I can find somewhere that just focuses on the physical side of it.

The film also mentions books. I bought a copy of "The Art of War" (by Sun-Tzu) a while back, but never got round to reading it. My main motivation for this was that it seemed like a good example of a "super-villain book". Not that I aspire to being evil, but I'm thinking particularly of Lex Luthor (from "The New Adventures of Superman", i.e. the Dean Cain series), where he quoted from that to show off how intelligent and literate he was.

Speaking of books, at the end of "Komarr" (a Bujold novel), there's a discussion between Miles (the hero) and Ekaterin (his girlfriend), shortly after he's rescued her.

He took a deep breath. "I bluffed them into believing that I wouldn't let them go no matter what they did to you and the Professora. Except that I wasn't bluffing. We could not have let them go."

She stared at him in disbelief; his heart shrank. "Well, of course not!"

"Eh ... what?"

"Don't you know what they wanted to do to Barrayar?" she demanded. "It was a horror show. Utterly vile, and they couldn't even see it. They actually tried to tell me that collapsing the wormhole wouldn't hurt anyone! Monstrous fools."

"That's what I thought, actually."

"So, wouldn't you put your life on the line to stop them?"

"Yes, but I wasn't putting my life - I was putting yours."

"But I'm Vor," she said simply.

His smile and his heart revived, dizzy with delight. "True Vor, milady," he breathed.

I've never been in a situation like that, and I hope that I never will be. However, I think that Miles made the right choice. So, if/when I ever get married, I think that the woman in question would need to have a similar attitude to Ekaterin, otherwise it will probably lead to problems down the line.

There's a similar situation in the Trek novel "Triangle" (by Peter David), which is set shortly after the film "Generations". Basically, Deanna Troi is being held hostage by the Romulans, who then say to Riker and Worf "Do what we want, then we'll let her go". They're both in love with her (or at least they claim to be), but Worf says no, whereas Riker says yes. This then leads on to an interesting discussion.

There's no real conclusion here, since this is just a collection of my thoughts rather than a structured argument.

(By the way, apologies if anything here sounds disjointed - I'd just about finished when my computer crashed, so I had to retype it all.)


[User Picture]
Date:February 1st, 2004 11:51 am (UTC)

"God created men and women ...

... and Colonel Colt made them equal". The trouble with choosing swords over pistols is that it means that those with big muscles win. At least with a pistol anyone can use it.
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