[Content warning: violent death]
This is a remarkably rare description, given the alleged frequency with which such incidents occurred. Or, maybe they didn’t. In the “wild west” movies are full of gun-fights, but if you look at the actual history of such incidents, it seems the gun-fights are notable perhaps because of their rarity.
“I can carry my memory back to the days when all samurai wore the two swords and used them as well when necessity arose. When quite a boy I witnessed an exciting duel to the death between two ronin (and unattached samurai) and three samurai. The struggle took place in Kpjimachi ward in the neighborhood of Kudan where the Shokonsha now stands. Before proceeding with my narrative I ought to explain for the benefit of my foreign listeners (there were two of us present besides another Japanese gentleman) the usage of the old feudal days in order that the incident I am about to describe may be better understood. The sword of the samurai, as you know, was a possession valued higher than life itself, and if you touched a samurai‘s sword, you touched his dignity. It was deemed an act of unpardonable rudeness in those days for one samurai to allow the tip of his scabbard to come into contact with the scabbard of another samurai as the men passed each other in the street; such an act was styled saya-ate (saya = scabbard, ate = to strike against) and in the absence of a prompt apology from the offender a fight almost always ensued. The samurai carried two swords, the long and the short, which were thrust into the obi, or sash, on the left-hand side in such a manner that the sheath of the longer weapon stuck out behind the owner’s back. This being the case it frequently happened, especially in a crowd, that two scabbards would touch each other without deliberate intent on either side, although samurai who were not looking for trouble of this kind always took the precaution to hold the swords with the point downwards and as close to their sides as possible. But should a contretemps of this description occur the parties could on no account allow it to pass unnoticed. One or both would at once demand satisfaction, and the challenge was rarely refused. The high sense of honor which prevailed among men of this class forbade them to shrink from the consequences of such an encounter. So much by way of introduction. The episode I am going to describe arose in precisely this fashion. The parties to the duel were a ronin and three samurai, as I have already said. The roninwas rather shabbily dressed and was evidently very poor. The sheath of his long sword was covered with cracks where the lacquer had worn away though long use. He was a man of middle age. The three samurai were all stalwart men and appeared to be under the influence of sake. They were the challengers. At first the ronin apologized, but the samurai insisted on a duel and the ronin eventually accepted the challenge.
By this time a large crowd had gathered, among which were many samurai none of whom, however, ventured to interfere. In accordance with custom, the combatants exchanged names and swords were unsheathed, the three samurai on one side facing the solitary opponent with whom the sympathies of the onlookers evidently lay. The keen blades of the duellists glittered in the sun. The ronin, as calm as though engaged merely in a friendly fencing bout, advanced steadily with the point of his weapon directed against the samurai in the center of the trio, and apparently indifferent to an attack on either flank. The samurai in the middle gave ground inch by inch and the ronin as surely stepped forward. Then the right-hand samurai, who thought he saw an opening, rushed to the attack, but the ronin, who had clearly anticipated this move, parried and with lightning rapidity cut his enemy down with a mortal blow. The left-hand samurai came on in his turn but was treated in a similar fashion, a single stroke felling him to the ground bathed in blood. All this took almost less time than it takes to tell. The samurai in the centre, seeing the fate of his comrades, thought better of his first intention and took to his heels. The victorious ronin wiped his blood-stained sword in the coolest manner imaginable and returned it to its sheath. His feat was loudly applauded by the other samurai who had witnessed it. The ronin then repaired to the neighboring magistrate’s office to report the occurrence, as the law required.
Mr. Yokoyama observed in conclusion that in the feudal days, for obvious reasons, the art of fencing was more sedulously studied than that of jujitsu. (grappling)
There are so many interesting tropes in the story. The obviously more time-worn ronin is the one that everyone should assume is the most dangerous: his gear is well-worn because he has carried it for years and miles and it has perhaps done some work from time to time. In Kobayashi’s utterly brilliant 1962 film Harakiri, an arrogant young lordling runs afoul of just such a character – a man who has fought in many battles before and who ran out of fucks to give long ago [Spoiler: he finds out that there is one thing remaining that he does give a fuck about, and unfortunately for the arrogant young lordling, he caused that person to suffer a horrific and humiliating death] If you haven’t seen it, you should – it’s a fascinating anti-authoritarian mediation on cultural expectations. Another absolutely delightful film about samurai culture is Takita’s When the Last Sword is Drawn which is set in the meiji restoration and features some of the political street-violence of the shinsengumi, who were sort of like The Proud Boys except with swords and genuine courage. It’s not a great work of art like Harakiri or anything by Akira Kurosawa, but it’s important because it explores aspects of samurai culture like what happens to ageing battle thugs decades after the fighting dies down.
The duel scene in Seven Samurai is canonical, especially the way Kambei Shimada mutters “what a waste” before the duel starts; Shimada also being experienced enough to know exactly what is about to happen. If you haven’t seen Seven Samurai you cannot claim to be a fan of cinema.
Great American Satan says
Men are still willing to die over bullshit. It shouldn’t be like that. I’m like that too, but as I get older and farther removed from my angry youth, these scenarios make less and less sense to me. The most recent honor-obsessed samurai show I watched was a cartoon called Samurai Champloo. I found myself completely unsympathetic to the main characters with that motive.
I am having a really hard time understanding how any thinking person could think that has anything to do with “honor”.
Marcus Ranum says
I am having a really hard time understanding how any thinking person could think that has anything to do with “honor”
The narrator was an elderly Japanese man who was referring to things that happened in the mid 1800s. I was going to say that was a rough time in Japanese history but really it’s all rough.
I agree that’s nothing to do with “honor” – it’s more like (as Eric Cartman says) “you will respect my authoritah!” lethally demonstrating one’s privilege.
Rob Grigjanis says
‘honour’ is one of those words which can mean a lot of different things, and is often laced with irony (intended or not). Kind of like ‘gentleman’. Churchill supposedly once said something like “rugby is a thug’s game played by gentlemen, while football (soccer) is a gentleman’s game played by thugs”. Here, ‘gentlemen’ are the upper class (i.e. largely rich thugs), while ‘thugs’ are lower class, regardless of their character.
‘honour’ used in the military sense usually means little more than an adherence to a specific code of behaviour, applying largely to ‘gentlemen’ (officers, knights of yore, samurai, etc). And as shown above, these codes can be viciously brutal.
Funny game, the (almost) winning (& life-saving) move is not to play..
Kind of makes you wonder how they managed to have any samurai at all. (Well, maybe just the one…)
I suppose there’s an argument that this approach helps to weed out the ones who can’t control their temper.
It has always struck me that lethal dueling between members of the Samurai class must have been substantially exaggerated – just as the stories of cowboy shootouts and lethal European duels were as well. It’s almost a necessity.
Anyone who has been in a serious fight can tell you that skill is only one of the factors that influences the outcome. You could be the most skilled swordsman in the world, but the morning you get into a fight with a hangover – or when your shoe breaks at a critical moment, or the shallow puddle you stepped in turns out to be deeper than expected, or any one of a million possible factors – suddenly your skill might not be determining the outcome as much as you thought. If you make a habit out of putting yourself into situations where your survival hangs on a knife edge of chance, skill, attention and luck – sooner or later it isn’t going to work out for you.
Also the numbers don’t work. If each member of the class gets into just one duel in their lifetime – that means that fully half of the class dies early in a civil swordfight – every generation. Assuming that most dueling happens during the peak-violence years (18-30), that’s got to be quite a few deaths before procreation. If even a small portion of the class gets into 10 lifetime duels – the number dying in honor fights vastly increases. Just how many kids were Samurai-class families having? Who would be left to fight the wars?
Rob Grigjanis says
A bit harsh, but I see your point. It is, IMO, one of the best films ever made. Many have said the same of Citizen Kane, and I sort of agree that it’s a must-see. The way it was shot is fucking brilliant; light, shadow, space. But Jesus H Christ what a boring story. Rosebud, yawn.
If you’re reading this in the UK, this Sunday at 16:30 on Sky Cinema Greats is a film about duelling that you can probably find elsewhere if you’re elsewhere. It has some of the best-shot and (I think) actually realistic swordfighting on film. It is “The Duellists”, Ridley Scott’s first movie.
And if you don’t want realism, there’s always “The Princess Bride”.
Marcus Ranum says
The Duellists is a life-long favorite. Harvey Keitel as a MFGA French hussar is fantastic casting, the costumes are glorious, and the fights are pointless. Its based on the story by Conrad and was made for next to nothing.
Rob Grigjanis says
Not just the swordfights. The shots of the French countryside are stunning.
Marcus Ranum says
In the sabre duel in the wine cellar, the sparks flying off the blades were produced by electrifying the blades.
That must have been crazy arduous to shoot. When I was fencing, a short epee bout was enough to leave everyone sweaty and wobbly. Those big napoleonic sabres, though – they’re really something else. Huge and heavy.
The reality of getting a hole poked in you with a blade is also pretty sobering, in a pre-antibiotic world.
@ Rob Grigjanis: yes! In particular the ending which was made in Dordogne, I believe. Magnificent countryside, very well filmed (and if I remember correctly you can even see a river overflowing its banks in the background). A fine movie indeed.
And about Kurosawa, try “Ran” if you are in the mood for some japonaiserie, but 99% surreal. But those colors, costumes, landscapes, soundtrack! Sad story tho.
Rob Grigjanis says
outis @14: After Seven Samurai, my favourite Kurosawa films are Red Beard and Dersu Uzala.
Marcus Ranum says
“Ran” is my favorite version of King Lear.
Life and death situations are exciting. If you’re encultured enough to not be scared of death, or at least not admit it most of the time, then I could see being in duels as quite attractive. All the adrenaline, proof of your skill(or luck), being egged on by companions.
Remember, this was before we invented motorcycles :P
People will do a lot of stupid shit to get social approval.
Plus it makes for a very simple life: you have to worry about training, and fighting. You don’t have to examine all the existential shit.
Natalie Reed once wrote about how drug addiction focuses your life on just the addiction. I could see that dueling culture doing something similar, and that’s quite attractive if you don’t want to deal with the complexities of the world.
That was the second most impressive thing to me in season 1 of Game of Thrones – Jason Momoa’s Khal Drogo is a peerless badass whose undoing is not some lucky strike by a less skilled or less ripped opponent, but rather his own over-the-top macho posturing to an inferior opponent who he actually kills rather gorily with his bare hands, having driven the man’s blade into his own pecs just to show off how hard he is. That, and the lack of anti-biotics.
(The most impressive thing was the scene in which Maester Aemon reveals who he is to John Snow. In his 90s and blind, he is played by the late Peter Vaughn, in his 90s and blind, previously best known as genial Harry Grout from the sitcom “Porridge” and thus playing very against type. There’s a moment where his face changes, an incredibly subtle movement of tiny muscles around his sightless eyes when he says “I was helpless, blind, frail. But when I heard they had killed my brother’s son, and his poor son, and the children. Even the little children!”. It’s chillingly brilliant.)
I can see capitalism doing the same thing all around me.
Rob Grigjanis says
Nice non-military treat. Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is on TCM now. I loves me some Jacques Tati.
Matters of warrior-code honor, enforced by dueling and death, always reminded me of the scene in the movie “Jabbeerwocky” where the knights fight for the honor of the right to go kill the monster. The king, as is the way of tyrants, is very much into the blood sport form … ‘the thrust of the dagger into unprotected groin’ … but, after the numerous deaths are seen to threaten the institution of knighthood, the matter is decided by a decidedly less lethal game of hide-and-go-seek.
Honor systems, trial by combat, systems tend to self destruct over time.
I wonder if something more is at play than honor or dignity in a samurai’s defensiveness about someone brushing up against his sword. In particular, deliberately carelessly brushing up against a samurai could be a ploy to reach for the samurai’s sword to disarm him. It seems to me that a samurai would want to maintain a “no fly zone” in the vicinity of his sword.