The Devil Himself
So I have a confession to make – I really like samurai shows. I like Samurai Champloo, Samurai 7, Rurouni Kenshin, basically anything with a sword and a guy dressed up in a robe and I’m there. (Well with the exception of Samurai Deeper Kyo, I could have taken or left that one). And if it takes place in Feudal Japan or during the Bakamatsu, I’m buying it. No ifs, ands or buts.
But I’ve noticed an idea that seems to permeate these shows – that by killing you sacrifice part of yourself, or in the most dramatic (or melodramatic terms) you end up becoming a demon. It reminds me of those tribes that would eat the flesh of their enemies to become stronger, only with the added bonus of becoming less human.
This is an idea that intrigues me, mostly because there aren’t any easily analogous counterparts in Western fiction. Sure you might have an anti-hero who does bad things for good reasons (i.e. Wolverine) and is haunted by those things. But generally the idea behind those characters isn’t that they become less human, just more hardened. And you have those anti-heroes who are actually bad people who do good things for the wrong reasons (i.e. Edward from the Anita Blake books). But it wasn’t like they started the story as good people.
An even more these characters generally on some level are folk heroes. So they’ve sacrificed themselves, so that they might bring about a better future. In all honesty there’s only two closely related concepts in Western thought that I can think of: the noble warrior and the revenge story.
Fire in the hole because hell hath no fury
Like I hinted before one of the closest links between this archetype and Western fiction is the idea of a hardened veteran. This archetype generally pops up in war movies. Most recently, I saw it in Jarhead. The guy who goes off to war to do something good for his country but ends up walking away scarred. Sometimes this shows up more than others, but it doesn’t seem to completely encompass this idea I’ve noticed in anime. It isn’t like these characters have thrown away their humanity rather their humanity is still quite intact which allows them to see the general ridiculousness of war.
On the other hand you have the classic revenge story. Generally those protagonists end up throwing their entire life away in the pursuit of revenge. As if that fanaticism sucks away their humanity. But first and foremost, these heroes, no matter how likable, are always undone by their obsession, not by some noble need to protect their way of life. In the end, the idea of self-sacrifice is missing.
So where’s the beef?
While the first time I saw this concept played out it was novel, it’s really starting to wear thin. I don’t mind the moral question about killing, that’s fine. It adds a little bit of tension. But I swear if I hear another person say, “Would you be willing to sacrifice your humanity?” I’m going to beat my head against a wall. It’s like these shows feel the need to whip out their theme and proceed to beat me over the head with it.
In fact, with the exception of the Kenshin OVA, I haven’t seen this theme dealt with maturely in anime ever. And I think it’s a shame, considering that for what is a very Eastern theme (the juxtaposition of nobility with committing evil acts), that anime can’t seem to deal with it better.