Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Young Lovers, Jiang Hu, and Rebel Samurai

One of the great joys in my life is that I am married to a woman who not only loves movies as much as I do, but who has similar tastes in film. Week after week we rush to the movie theatre to watch the latest releases or to watch classics on the big screen. Twice a week I check our mailbox for the little red bundles of joy that Netflix sends our direction. Daily my wife and I flip the channels -- TCM, HBO, Starz, etc. -- hoping some old favorite, or unseen gem turns up (the other day it was The Shop Around the Corner.

My wife and I love movies, and when it comes to movies we love tales of romance. Sure like any "manly man," I like my action movies. At least once a month some, obviously evil, force overcomes my will power and I am forced to watch Point Break and Roadhouse, luckily my wife is often possessed of the same schlock loving demon. But nothing satisfies me more than a good romantic comedy, or tale of tragic romance. Recently this affectation led my wife to watch two movies, Tristan and Isolde and Samurai Rebellion.

The Pre-raphaelite inspired imagery, costume design, and apparent combination of romance and action were what inspired us to watch the latest telling of Tristan and Isolde. We weren't disappointed. In fact we enjoyed the film very much, especially the visuals. The marriage scene between King Mark and Isolde looked as if it were directly lifted from John William Waterhouse's The Lady of Shalott.



Unlike many of the critics of the film, I was not disappointed that the film strayed from Wagner's version of the tale. There is no magic potion in the new version of the film, there is no magic at all. I think the critics whose were disappointed because of the differences do this version a disservice on two levels. First, to compare this work to one of the highest artistic achievements in a particular medium is unfair and uninformative to the common viewer. It fails to view the particular telling in context, both in medium and intent. Which leads to the second disservice. Tristan and Isolde is a part of a large body of works. Wagner's telling is one of possibly thousands of versions of the tale, so failing to properly adapt Wagner isn't even a legitimate criticism. A better question would be, "where does this new version stand in the larger collection?" Somewhere in the top quartile would be my sentiment. I have always been compelled by Chretien de Troyes careful analysis of the conflict of public duty and private desire, the same conflict that lovers encounter in the lands of jiang hu.

This version of Tristan and Isolde fits very well within the Chretienesque narrative. King Mark is likeable and lovable. Tristan is loyal and loves Mark. But Tristan loved Isolde before he knew who she was because she concealed her true identity from him during their initial romance. This is a significant twist from the typical, where it is Tristan who conceals his identity, but one which makes the movie work without anyone in the love triangle needing to be villified. I could discuss more about why I liked the film, but I think that Roger Ebert did an excellent job in his review.

David Chute was the reason we watched the second tragic romance Samurai Rebellion. Rebellion, like Tristan and Isolde and the tales of jiang hu, is a story where the central conflict is between duty and passion, but in Rebellion the lovers are not alone. This time the lovers have a champion, but the champion is also struggling with the tensions between duty and passion. We know from past movie experiences (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers) that there is no right choice when faced with this conflict. If you choose duty, as the lovers do in Crouching Tiger, you are doomed to sadness, isolation, and death. If you choose passion, as the lovers do in Flying Daggers, you are doomed to sadness, isolation, and death. The choice is typically a winless scenario. This is both true of the Chinese tale of jiang hu and the arthurian tales of courtly love, but is it also true in feudal Japan?

Samurai Rebellion, it's Japanese title is literally "receive the wife," is the story of Isaburo (Toshiro Mifune). Isaburo is a man living a an age of peace whose chief talent is his skill at killing. He is a man out of place, but who adheres rigidly to the code of Bushido. His talents as a warrior have allowed him to achieve a position of some comfort and prestige under his local Daimyo. At the beginning of the story the Daimyo has two male children by two different wives. The first child, the Daimyo's heir, and the child's mother live in Edo with the Shogun with the heirs of the other Daimyo. Recently, one of the Daimyo's mistresses (a woman named Ichi) has given birth to a boy, giving the Daimyo a second son. After giving birth to the child, Ichi is sent away for a recovery period. When she returns she finds that the Daimyo has moved on to another mistress and thinks of his mistresses as nothing but pawns. She would be willing to accept this fate, but for the fact the newest pawn gloats at her position over Ichi. Thus Ichi attacks the new mistress and eventually strikes the Daimyo.

As one can imagine, this is not a good thing. The Daimyo, who is angry and dishonored, contacts Isaburo and demands that Isaburo's son Yogoro marry the insolent Ichi. Isaburo, who has lived a life in an unhappy marriage and had always hoped his children could avoid his fate, attempts to refuse the Daimyo as politely as possible, but in the end the marriage is made. To everyone's surprise Ichi and Yogoro are a near perfect match, they truly love one another and soon Ichi gives birth to a baby girl. Isaburo has been granted his wish, his son is in a happy marriage and has the beginnings of a family. Isaburo could not be happier.

It is then the Daimyo's first child succumbs to illness at Edo castle, making Ichi's child with the Daimyo the new heir. The Daimyo asserts that Ichi must move to Edo with the male child and abandon her marriage to Yogoro. Ichi and Yogoro refuse and, to the suprise of many, are supported in their decision by Isaburo. The conflict between duty and passion has been set in its path, and must meet its inevitable end. But it is in the resolution that a remarkable lesson is learned. Not by the characters, but by the audience. By watching the mounting tensions, and the drama that unfolds, the audience learns what it is like to see genuine love.

The Chinese tales of jiang hu, and the Arthurian tales, always seem tragic, but this is where the Japanese version differs from the other narratives. In most narratives the lovers seek to live with one another. For Yogoro and Ichi, merely being together is enough. It leads one to believe that the residents of jiang hu would do well to learn from the following passage from the Hagakure:

Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one's body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifes, spears and swords, being carried away by surging waves, be thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one's master. And every day without fail should consider himself as dead.
There is a saying among the elders' that goes, "Step from under the eaves and you're a dead man. Leave the gate and the enemy is waiting." This is not a matter of being careful. It is to consider oneself as dead beforehand.


Isaburo knows he is a dead man once the conflict begins. His only desire is that the injustice of his Daimyo be known in Edo and that his son's marriage, and the love of his son's family, be acknowledged. It is beautiful and powerful to watch a man who has no expectation of life, merely justice...a higher justice.
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