Watched Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins the other day (trailer here). Here is a film that takes the heroic crusade story, strips it of any sanitation, and presents it in a raw, relentlessly pure form. The protagonists represent moral outrage in pursuit of a shogunate advisor; this advisor, the antagonist, represents pure authoritarian cruelty. This is one of those defining stories of Western culture, mostly manifested as tales of revenge: Medea (no, not the Tyler Perry creation), The Searchers, the films of Park Chan-Wook, right on up to Die Hard. In all of these films, and thousands of others, there's a crossing-over from the role of "protector" to the role of punitive crusader... from "we need to stop him from hurting people" to "it's time the bastard got what's coming to him."
Takashi Miike purifies this narrative by reducing each side to a 180-proof distillation of itself. I'll try not to give too much away, but in a harrowing scene early on (not the first scene! So don't let your guard down!) the film provides the necessary evidence that Lord Naritsugu isn't just a bad leader – he's a monster, an absolutely deserving target for the audience's hatred and the protagonists' retribution. Here, Takashi Miike does the things that have made him famous in other movies, like Audition and Ichi the Killer: he provokes absolute revulsion, creating one of those rare situations where voyeurism is actually kind of painful for the audience.
So Niragitsu is painted as unabashedly sadistic and cruelly authoritarian. Throughout the film, he's also portrayed as totally indifferent to the world, morally and politically and socially, a blasé despot whose fascism comes less from ambition than from lethal boredom. In nature, even "animal instinct” has a sort of rationality, usually springing from a sense of self-preservation or a vested interest in dominance. Niragitsu doesn't even have this virtue. He embodies the tyranny of sadistic irrationality, and indeed, comes the closest of any villain I've seen to pure nihilism. By the end of the film, he's willfully defied human nature and the ethics of war by wantonly murdering families; he's broken the mandate of brotherhood and military loyalty by disrespecting the remains of his most loyal subordinate; he's even flaunted self-preservation, walking willfully into traps and thanking his assailants for making his life more interesting. Niragitsu is a force of chaos
This makes the thirteen ronin tasked with murdering Niragitsu a de facto force of order and rational retaliation. Interestingly, their motivations are actually split at the top of their hierarchy. On one hand, there is Sir Doi, who hires the assassins, and whose motivation is very political. He sees the threat that Niragitsu poses to the legitimacy of the shogunate, and he is acting to neutralize it. On the other hand, there is Shinzaemon, leader of the assassins, whose motivation is moral outrage. The pivotal scene of the film, referred to above as causing "revulsion," has Sir Doi trigger Shinzaemon's retaliatory instinct, and the rest of the film follows through the brutal, precision-targeted punitive act that results.
So the opposition -- our protagonists -- are embodying both sides of the rational-response position: they are there to protect the political system from breakdown, and they're there to punish a cruel and chaotic criminal maniac.
The desire to inflict punishment sets the stage for some of the most compelling, cathartic moments in the film -- in particular, the presentation of a scroll reading "Total Massacre," and the withering gaze of a master swordsman within a chamber of loose swords. This is male posturing at its finest, obligatory in a movie of showdowns and stand-offs -- those pivotal moments that join the samurai film with its cousin, the Western.
As I was just beginning to forget this vicious slice of filmmaking, I got around to reading Barack Obama's speech about our approach to Libya, and it reminded me that this sort of posturing and aggression and retaliatory instinct appear on the world stage, as well. Whether in the case of Iraq or Libya, it seems that the US has lately been spending a good deal of its military capital on protective/punitive tasks in global politics. This is because, according to the Commander in Chief, "Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different."
Like Miike's moral schema, whose violent moral indignation is underwritten by a political mandate, Obama sort of had a situation with two competing motivations: to restore order and allow the country to stabilize, and to aggressively depose Colonel Gaddafi. The parallel isn't too exact, I admit, but there's still an analogue between the two sets of cases. Obama spent a good portion of his speech speaking to that tension -- the tension between acting cautiously, in support of political stability, versus bringing down the vengeful might of a powerful nation upon a ruler who has proven cruel and unpredictable.
In referencing Iraq, Obama was drawing attention to a situation where we acted upon our deeper moral instinct -- the morality that comes from emotion, rather than calculation. When we went into Iraq, we were taking a sort of 13 Assassins approach to the problem: our political aims (protect ourselves from supposed WMD's) and our moral aims (punish a relentless enemy of America and of democratic values) appeared to coincide, although in retrospect, the political aims seem like they might have been a bit of a pretext for the moral righteousness. Anyway, after that conflict, America got to have its own little drama of catharsis, when the public got its hands on those cell phone videos of Saddam's hanging.
But Obama's speech was largely about point out that though the situation in Libya is dictated by a broader sense of ethics and protecting just causes (his answer to the true isolationists), it can't be about the need for retaliation and punishment. It can't be about creating an enemy for the United States to crusade against; rather than an emotional morality of retribution and closure, this conflict has to be built upon a rational morality, a calculation of responsibility and a flexibility of approach. And I think that if Gaddafi got executed by the opposition tomorrow, and we got to see it, very few Americans would feel a sense of self-indulgent pride.
After all, we haven't made that kind of an enemy out of Gaddafi. Because as much as it makes good entertainment, it makes for terrible politics. America has no business instituting a policy of Total Massacre.
But anyway, to end on a shamelessly editorial note: luckily, we have a principled, calculating leader at the helm of the armed forces in this country. We have a commander in chief who believes in the importance of the international community, and who believes that the best way to serve American ideals is to create international partnerships. Only in this way will the United States succeed in fighting despots, rather than becoming one.