Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Why Die, Samurai?

"You reading again, Nobu?" sneered Yoshi.

"You feeling threatened again, Yoshi?"

"Why do you always have to talk like that?" an annoyed Yoshi demanded to know.

"Was just going to ask you same question," replied a monotone Nobu not bothering to look up.

When peace broke out in 1600 after centuries of internecine warfare, the samurai were left no useful purpose but to keep the peace. The central government never fully trusted the individual domains whom they feared might one day rise up in rebellion as before. Even now after a hundred years this suspicion had not been allayed.

Residing in a state of borderline paranoia and perpetual insecurity, the shogunate never failed to opportune on even the slightest mistakes of the outlying clans, harboring even more power to the central authorities. Of course, one suspects everyone a witch when a witch oneself. This enabled a slow rot among the ruling samurai whose moral authority they felt gradually slipping away in slow motion terror. (In another 150 years the samurai would finally lose all power and be outlawed)

With all the downtime, this made for cranky samurai. Long, hot days in the sweltering Edo sun presented an enemy no sword could slice: boredom. Waiting for a battle that never comes turns minutes to hours and hours to days. The oppressed mind is stretched to the limit wandering deserts of vast banality, all the while hunted by a new unspoken fear hounding every samurai: a life wasted. Tempers weren't just short this day - it was every day.

"Oda book again, isn't it?" Yoshi wasn't going to stop until he got his satisfaction. Nobu still didn't bite in oblivious contemplation. "Oda was a loser and a demon burning down temples. He got what he deserved when Mitsuhide assassinated him. Served him right!"

The chain yanking worked. "Idiot! Who are you to judge Oda? No other man could have started the drive for unification. Do not question his tactics unless you had been there and been him. Those were glorious times, wide open when a man could think and fight and make his way in the world."

"Time for thinking is over!" scoffed Yoshi. "Best to obey like the samurai dog you are!"

Much to Yoshi's delight, Nobu lowered his book in foaming fury. "There's two types of people in this world: those who think and those who do not. Each kind believes the other is immoral and a bane upon society. I think we know what kind you are, Yoshi, samurai lap dog!"

Kenbei, who had been lounging in the corner watching the dusty sun stream through the slatted windows, chuckled at this refrain. Was Yoshi's turn to lose his composure.

"Think all you want! See where it gets you. One day you'll go too far and we'll see who's crying then. If you had any real brains you'd be reverent and keep your stupid mouth shut."

"Only thing that scares me," retorted Nobu as he leaned back to his book, "is the thought of you 300 years from now piloting a 2,000 kilo car like a cannon ball down the road."

"Piloting a what?" Yoshi had been reduced to ashes, bamboozled and confused - and agitated to no end with Kenbei's returning laughter.

"Don't worry, Yoshi. Nobu has ridiculous dreams of flying palanquins and carts that travel twice as fast as any horse." Kenbei's face half hidden in the shadows made it impossible for Yoshi to read. He felt a lost fool standing between these two mental giants.

Nobu replied to Kenbei as if Yoshi had already left. "Wait and see, baka-san ["baka" is a fool], wait and see. Japan is the land of the gods and we will conquer the world!"

"That's baka-sama to you!" raged Kenbei in mock fury demanding his insult be suffixed with the higher title of sama over san. Both men laughed in appreciation - and laughed harder watching Yoshi retreat post haste chased by imaginary flying palanquins.


Less than a month later news spread like wildfire of Nobu's indiscretion. An unknown character had passed by him into the shogun's castle compound. Guard duty had always been an exquisite torture for Nobu and his unwilling spirit finally betrayed him. Lap dog Yoshi was right after all: the brain is dead in these foul times. Placed under house arrest, Nobu faced his fate with a caged heart.

Yoshi however could not have been more delighted. "He was probably busy reading!" he sneered still.

It's wasn't long before the shogun's edict was handed down: seppuku, ritual suicide. One small slip, in the blink of an eye, life's meaning had been lost. Kenbei and Nobu sat side by side staring directly ahead in the seeping night on tatami mats, waiting for the dawn execution. A fountain of frustration, Nobu wrestled with the ignominy of his fate until finally he managed a strained smile at his friend. Kenbei turned his head, digested the smile and snorted in understanding.

"They say we serve the shogun to maintain order." Kenbei's gaze had returned to staring straight ahead, speaking as if answering a question of philosophy.

Nobu appreciated the attempt to comfort him. "Order always has been overrated." Both men smiled in their minor mutiny. Ah, what it would mean to return to open warfare! A man could breathe then, his wits his greatest weapon - and men like Yoshi used as fodder for suicide rushes. The mere thought of this stirred their souls in glorious envy.

Yet the night crickets continued their commentary in dutiful disdain of the world around them. They cared not of the joys or sorrows of men. Nobu noticed their indifference, causing him too to ask, "What is it all for?"

"When I die will the world be a better place? Will it ensure the safety of Japan? Would my continued existence add chaos to society? Dare I ask, Kenbei, at dawn will I commit a meaningless act?"

The nonplussed crickets continued to chirp having heard nothing of relevance. Kenbei agreed.

"Did you dare ask if you should stay samurai?! Or were you weak, liking the privileges and power, your sandals never touching the earth. You let yourself be blown as a leaf in the wind. How can you now complain of the wind you let guide you?"

"It is true I turned my head from the questions I asked. But I believe every life is valuable. I protested each of the unnecessary deaths handed down over the years. What a waste!"

"And you thought that would protect you?! Baka! That only marked you and like an idiot you finally gave them an excuse. But if you think your life is so valuable, run! Live like a hunted dog the rest of your days. Too weak to leave of your own volition, travel to the end of your days in penance, never to be samurai again!"

Kenbei's eyes were burning deep into Nobu's soul, exposing the rot in his heart - the very same rot Nobu had protested in the shogunate. Nobu was startled by Kenbei's mocking suggestion. He had not considered running as an option but now having imagined that life he could see that was no life at all. No way out. Kenbei, a surgeon with words, approved of the effect he'd had on his patient.

"Your soul will rise with the sun in the morning. Spit in their faces if you must as you insert the dagger - that they will never be able to wipe off! And what can they do after you're dead? For them too it will be too late. Imagine what will be said of you. Glory can still be yours! No more this self pity!"

Nobu turned to match Kenbei's twinkling gaze. Then he started to laugh, Kenbei following, until the room was filled with laughter. "You always were the only one who could make me laugh." How glorious to put a permanent stain on these preening men who speak of honor yet act without it. What sweet justice for them to live with a tale of rejection from within, that every villager will see the shogunate in a different light. Ruthless is as ruthless does.

CODA: As the sun broke over the mountain Nobu was nowhere to be found. Disguised and disheartened he vanished into the mountains never to return. A reward was posted for his capture and every samurai in the country vowed to kill him on sight. But Kenbei's words had continued to echo in Nobu's head throughout the night - and "what would be said of him" changed not one whit his eternal fate.

Which was the greater self-pity? To die or to at last try to make something of himself and his life? It was true, he'd been weak and lazy, a loudmouth living in fear. His heart trembled in anguish like a man who'd piled up a lifetime of debt. Oh, how ever to pay it off! Could it even be done? Had he the courage to go forward? All he knew for certain was the welcoming sounds of the birds around him, inviting his sandals back to earth.

Kenbei too had shared in the fury of Nobu's departure. But he quickly despised the talk of samurai who boasted of deploring without end Nobu's failure to commit seppuku. Empty words from empty lives. Kenbei came to understand the vision of his running friend, of his complaints of the hollowing from within and the cowards desperate to conceal it. He held in his hand Nobu's departing note - a single Kanji character for "Life" - with a wry smirk, realizing where his true loyalties must lie for him to die a man.

Inspired by "When The Sun Falls" (HI-WA-OCHIRU) as shown at Asian Film Festival of Dallas

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