Saturday, 20 September 2014

Zatôichi, Yôjimbô and imaginations of power

One of the most memorable scenes of Zatôichi (2003, dir. Kitano Takeshi) is near the end, when the blind itinerant masseur Zatôichi (Kitano Takeshi) in a stroke with his sword blinds the "Kuchinawa boss" (Hiura Ben), saying that death is too good for him. The sense of cruel satisfaction here is, I think, a little bit different from the one produced by the typical action movie endings when the bad guys get what they deserve. Here the sense of satisfaction is mixed up, at least to certain extent, with what could perhaps be called the pleasure accompanying intellectual development. Who is the Kuchinawa boss? Is Zatôichi really blind? Questions like these help build up a curiosity in the viewer that is at least as important as the mere satisfaction in seeing justice being meted out. The scene, then, is not simply there to bring closure to the film by distributing justice, but also to reveal new aspects of the story itself.
However, what the ending really illuminates is not so much the personalities of Zatôichi and the Kuchinawa boss.  What it brings into view, in a breathtakingly sudden act of illumination, is a particular image of power. Recall that the Kuchinawa boss is a mysterious existence, whose identity is unknown for almost the entire film. Although suspicions soon arise that he might be associated with one of the two rival gangs fighting for supremacy in the little town, he is clearly not identical with the gang's publicly well-known nominal head, Ginzô (played by great actor and rock band bassist Kishibe Ittoku). Ginzô is seemingly victorious after having crushed the rival gang with the help of a newly recruited yôjimbô, the masterless samurai Hattori (Asano Tadanobu). Zatôichi dispatches Hattori, Ginzô and most other gang members in a climactic showdown and then heads into a dark alley to find Kuchinawa. The film now departs markedly from the realism to which it until then had paid half-hearted lip service. In an almost dreamlike sequence he is attacked by ninjas, the leader of whom turns out to be the town's innkeeper (Emoto Akira) who, before being cut down, proudly declares himself to be the Kuchinawa boss. Zatôichi, however, is not fooled. Guided by unfallible intuition, he continues insides the inn where the innkeeper's henpecked underling, an old man with a crooked back, is waiting for him. He is the real Kuchinawa boss, who has now seen his life work being reduced to rubble. "You are the worst of them all", Zatôichi says. A brief exchange of lines follows, before the old man shows his tattoos and definatly asks his antagonist to cut him down - "Kire!". But Zatôichi's sword, quick as a flash, only cuts through his eyes. "Live your life in blindness", Zatôichi says contemptuously - his eyes nailing the old man to the floor, grey as steel and merciless as pistol muzzles - and then he leaves. Meanwhile the villagers are preparing a matsuri (festival). Everything starts anew, the earth is purified and renewed, the house that was burned down by the gang is rebuilt, and all the actors appear on the stage in a joyous step dance, some dressed in jeans and sneakers - as if bidding farewell to the autidence like at the theatre.

Although these final shots break with "realism", they perform a crucial function in visibilizing a form of power that can be characterized as indirect, multilayered and hidden. Zatôichi's journey through the dark alley is metaphorically a journey to the heart of this power, a journey that is necessary in order to cut off the roots of the corruption pervading the visible everyday world of the town (a corruption hinted at in the name Kuchinawa, "rotten rope", with the additional meaning of "snake"). That this journey is necessary explains why the final dénouement must involve an intellectual development. It cannot simply be a showdown with the visible "bad guys" but must also involve a dissection of the interior of the sick body, making this hidden power visible and surgically removing it.

The Zatôichi-character is certainly entirely improbable - a seemingly weak and helpless figure who journeys about as a unfallible, divine justice machine, never losing a duel. Yet he fascinates. Why? At least part of the answer, I believe, is that he embodies the fantasy that a cure to Japan's ills is possible. He is the man who cures Japan of its rotten heart, from the disease that has eaten itself into its soul - from the sense of stagnation and decay that has befallen the "Japanese model" during its recent "lost decades". Seemingly alone in seeing the real culprits behind the decay, his nightly journey to the Kuchinawa boss becomes a journey to the hidden heart of Japan. Guided by supernatural intuition, he becomes the savior of the small, orginary good people while all the experts stand clueless.

This image of Japan as ruled by a power that is hidden and unaccountable is also popular in literature. Turning to Murakami Haruki’s writings, for instance, one finds a vision of the system as an encompassing whole – composed of big companies, shady right-wing organizations and criminal syndicates – in which all opposition is recuperated and co-opted. In A Wild Sheep Chase, "the man in black" describes the shadowy syndicate headed by the right-wing “boss” in the following way:
We built a kingdom…. A powerful underground kingdom. We pulled everything into the picture. Politics, finance, mass communication, the bureaucracy, culture, all sorts of things you would never dream of. We even submitted elements that were hostile to us. From the establishment to the anti-establishment, everything. Very few of them even noticed they had been co-opted. (Murakami 2003:118) 
Matthew Strecher observes that this syndicate – being an organization which “is neither government, business, industry, nor media, yet which somehow holds all of these powers at its disposal” – is “a manifestation of the postmodern State: hidden, elusive, and unaccountable”. It is the very “adversary State against which his [Murakami's] generation battled in the 1960s” which “is now more powerful, and, indeed, more deadly, than ever” (Strecher 1998:358, 361). The picture of society as a total system is perhaps carried farthest in Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, in which Japan is dominated by two giant conglomerates known as the System and the Factory. While battling each other in a war of information, the two conglomerates are also suggested to be “two sides of the same coin” and maybe even run by the same persons (Murakami 1993:299).

Famous kuromaku Tanaka Kakuei
The pervasiveness of this image of power also in Japanese political philosophy is quite striking. Famous intellectuals like Maruyama Masao and Karatani Kôjin, for instance, have repeatedly struggled with how to theorize and critique the particular amorphous form of Japanese power, where the real centers of power are hidden and withdraw from public scrutiny (Here I won't write more about this, but if anyone's interested, please see Cassegard 2007). It goes without saying that this image of power is also closely linked to the way power is actually exercised in many layers of Japanese society - the most well-known example probably being the crucial role played in Japanese politics by kuromaku (lit. "black curtain") - powerful politicians or ex-politicians who act as wirepullers and king-makers behind the scene, often being far more powerful than the serving prime ministers.

Yet this image of power hasn't always been as pervasive as it is today. One way of bringing that out is to compare Zatôichi to an earlier, classic film to which it makes repeated references and of which it might almost be seen as a pastische, namely Kurosawa Akira's 1961 film Yôjimbô. Let me quickly enumerate some of the similarities. The setting is the same: a small rural town in which two rival gangs battle for supremacy and in which the good, small people suffer. In both films, strangers arrive in town that act as catalysts for the mutual destruction of the gangs and the restoration of peace. In both films, a masterless samurai arrives and finds employment as a yôjimbô (bodyguard) in one of the gangs. In both films, a revolver - a sinister piece of Western technology - appears in the final showdown but proves unable to stop the hero. Furthermore, in both films, the inn functions as a form of prototypical "public sphere" where people meet and information is exchanged about the situation in town.

Now for the differences. The most immediately striking difference is that in Zatôichi, it is no longer the masterless samurai who acts as the purifying force, but an itinerant blind masseur (ama). While Hattori is not evil per se, he soon becomes enmeshed in evil and part of the general corruption. Corruption has become much more pervasive. This is evident in the fact that the "public sphere" of the inn too has become corrupt. While the inn functioned as neutral ground and even as a shelter for the yôjimbô of Kurosawa's movie, it is now a place which is run by an innkeeper who reports to the Ginzô gang and who, in the end, turns out to be one of the gang leaders.  

Public sphere?
Instead of the masterless samurai, it is Zatôichi who acts as the cleansing catalyst - a figure belonging to the despised stratum of itinerants, which in premodern Japan also included beggars, lepers, mendicant monks and various kinds of preformers and prostitutes. At the same time, he is equipped with supernatural sword-fighting skills and seemingly also with supernatural intuition. From a realist vantage point, Zatôichi is clearly even more "impossible" than Kurosawa's hero. This "impossible", supernatural quality is underscored by his anachronic chapatsu hairstyle (hair dyed yellow, as among many young Japanese today). The uncanny, crow-like appearance and the equally uncanny ability to find his way - being quite unstoppable, despite his staggering gait - also suggest something almost divine. In terms of folklore, Zatôichi seems to be a form of kami, perhaps of the type Origuchi Shinobu called marebito (divine visitor). Indirectly, he also seems related to other creatures of folklore, such as the tengu - goblins living in the mountains said to possess divine fighting skills.

One of the more useful ideas given to us by Fredric Jamison is, I think, the one that ideology can be understood as the attempt to forge an "impossible", ideal solution to a real contradiction (an idea which, admittedly, ows a lot to Lévi-Strauss as well as the Frankfurt School). One of my friends, Göran Wernström, used this idea in his dissertation in order to argue that Kurosawa's films are animated by an impossible desire to combine socialism with a Confucian respect for hierarchy (Wernström 1996). To solve the contradiction, Kurosawa constantly had to portray "Confucian supermen" - as in Yôjimbô or the Seven Samurai - who through their superior fighting skills help bring about a society in which the small, ordinary people can live in peace but who then have to disappear from that society in which they no longer have a place, and thus "abolish themselves".

Confucian superman?
In Zatôichi, by comparison, there is no longer any hope in the elite, and no room for Confucian hierarchy. Instead, we might say that it is animated by an "impossible" desire to fuse populism (the idea that the "people" is right against the elite or establishment) with a celebration or belief in supernatural powers. The "people" in this case is a people without clear borders except against the elite: it comprises ordinary farmers and townsfolk, but also more marginal elements such as the town's "village idiot", prostitutes and former criminals.

What is problematic here, perhaps, is that this "people" is not really portrayed as capable of helping themselves. Despite the toughness and resolve of the Naruto siblings, for instance, they would have been helpless against the gang without Zatôichi's assistance. While Kurosawa's earlier film offered a kind of role model - a model for the elite, to be sure, but nevertheless a role model that at least some people might strive to emulate - Zatôichi offers little but faith in the possible arrival of the gods. There's little that the small people can do except to wait for the arrival to town of the divine surgeon with his razor-sharp lancet.

In view of the fact that Zatôichi is a film that is usually described as a comedy, that invites lots of laughter and that prominently features lots of beautiful dancing and a matsuri (festival) at the end, it might seem surprising that the film is actually so dark. It's image of society - a nest of corruption that can no longer be cured of its ills through ordinary human powers - is far darker than in the earlier film. This, perhaps, explains the prominent role in it of folklore and religion. In other films too, Beat Takeshi seems to delight in Japanese folklore. Perhaps this is best seen as a religious movie - an apocalyptic, millennarian, religious movie.


Cassegard, Carl (2007) “Exteriority and Transcritique: Karatani Kōjin and the Impact of the 90’s”, Japanese Studies 27(1): 1-18.

Murakami, Haruki (2003) A Wild Sheep Chase (tr. by Alfred Birnbaum), London: Vintage.

Murakami, Haruki (1993) Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World (tr. by Alfred Birnbaum), New York: Vintage.

Strecher, Matthew (1998) “Beyond ‘Pure’ Literature: Mimesis, Formula, and the Postmodern in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki”, The Journal of Asian Studies 57(2): 354-378.

Wernström, Göran (1996) Medvetet/omedvetet och filmberättande : en studie i Akira Kurosawas film Sju samurajer, Lund: Lund University.

Friday, 5 September 2014

What's good about popular culture and flea markets

The pleasure I get when watching a science fiction anime is similar to that of visiting a flea market. Like a flea market, the anime brings me the debris of history. Here and there I experience moments of recognition. Some spaceships look like aircraft carriers, soldiers wear WWI German uniforms and Char Aznable wears a samurai kabuto. Yet the scattered remains come in no apparent order and do not seem to form a message. Recycled in popular culture, they become images lacking connection to whatever they once may have signified.

At the same time the opposite process also occurs. As I sift through this refuse the images turn into symbols. This process is at work in dreams as well. In dreams, images are torn from their familiar context and lose the meaning they had in daily life, but at the same time they acquire new ones that are yet to be deciphered but nevertheless, so to speak, radiate from behind their back, like a halo or the rays of an eclipsed sun. The surrealist poet André Breton loved flea markets and travelled to them in search of such meaning, which he hoped would break forth, like a flash, when things were juxtaposed in a shocklike montage. Inspired by the surrealists, Walter Benjamin claimed that every piece of rags or refuse was a potential “dialectical image” which might trigger the sudden flash of recognition, the involuntary memory, which would help dispel the dreamworld of capitalism. 

If this is true, then popular culture is not just a depository of meaningless historical refuse, but also a place where this very debris might turn into an explosive language, capable of awakening and at least rudimentarily articulating a longing for that better future or Utopia, illuminated by which this present can be turned into an object to criticize.

But enough for today! With these words, let me signal my intention to discuss, if I have the time, some works of popular culture – beginning, perhaps, with Gundam or Godzilla – in future posts.
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