Date written: August 10, 2015
Date I saw play: July 22nd
Somehow, seeing Kumagai Jinya (Kumagai’s War Chronicle) on DVD didn’t quite do it justice, and I understood the story much better the second time I saw it in the theater. This may have less do to the merits of the theater than it does with re-watch value, although I far preferred the acting of the live theater production I saw to the video. In any case I understood Kumagai’s position much better going into the story whilst knowing what was going to happen and what he was trying to hide. Although I like samurai stories well enough, sometimes it is really difficult for me to wrap my head around what appears to be an almost superhuman, alien code of morality and loyalty, and yet believe that somehow it could possibly be carried out by a human being. What the theater production did was to help me peek behind the mask to see the human side of Kumagai. But, since I had seen the very traditional Kumagai Jinya before, I decided it might be interesting to compare it with the Togitatsu no Utare, a deliberately anachronistic DVD production. I noticed that both plays toy with the question, what makes a samurai a samurai? and present characters who fall into a catch-22. Though they try to force their actions to fit the roles of a samurai, they ultimately fail to uphold all the myriad aspects of being one, including the moral aspect that the samurai demands of themselves. Further, society does not support the attempt to uphold of all of these aspects equally, for the clear-cut soldierly and martial aspects of being a samurai are preferred above all else. Individuals who are found by unfortunate circumstance to be found wanting by the demands of society are drummed out of the rank. The nail that sticks up is hammered down and discarded.
Kumagai Jinya follows the story of a proper samurai forced to make an impossible choice between loyalty and obedience by his general, Yoshitsune. Frankly, so long as it didn’t put family in danger, I think most people would be keen to invent a third option and desert the army if they could neither betray a debt or murder their own child. That Kumagai would accept the either/or framing of his dilemma and choose to murder his own son is almost unthinkable. The cure is far worse than the disease. And for one’s master to offer terms like that is likewise almost unbelievable, except the audience must put themselves in Yoshitsune’s shoes to know that he has concerns of his own. Yoshitsune ruthlessly requires absolute order in his army. Kumagai’s mercy on an enemy could well lose Yoshitsune his war down the line or lead to future rebellion, and his action casts his exact loyalty into question; in return, Yoshitsune demands the ultimate price that will prove Kumagai’s loyalty beyond a shadow of a doubt, trading one personally precious life for another with worldly position and value. Yoshitsune does this knowing that this price will break Kumagai as a warrior and he can no longer ask Kumagai to fight for him. Yet if Kumagai can no longer fight for Yoshitsune having been forced to do this, what was the point of testing the strength of his loyalty? The answer is, I think Yoshitsune wanted to punish Kumagai for his weakness and for not measuring up to Yoshitsune’s standard for his warriors, and Yoshitsune also wanted to make absolutely sure that Kumagai would become so sick of war he would never again take up the sword for either side so that he would not pose a threat to himself later. The moment Kumagai hesitated, he was done as a samurai in Yoshitsune’s eyes. He failed.
What Kumagai seems to think of being a samurai is more relational or spiritual than martial in nature, quite unlike Yoshitsune, yet he forces himself into the dutiful role of a soldier when he obeys Yoshitsune’s order and decapitates his son. He does not see any other option. In doing so, he stays true to his lord, but not true to himself. His loyalty to others, was so extreme it left him no loyalty to his own blood family. He failed. The cognitive dissonance was too much for him and it became impossible for him to continue living as a samurai. On the other hand, if Kumagai had run away and refused to behead his son, he would also be essentially abandoning his role as a samurai and probably branded a traitor and a fugitive as well. Kumagai avoided that fate, but he did not avoid the guilt from his decision. The truth is, given Kumagai’s compromised situation, there was no way he could escape being an imperfect samurai. Kumagai’s mistake, ironically, was that in looking to the fulfillment of his obligations first, he ended up making an even more immoral choice and committed the greater evil, losing everything as a result. If he had simply murdered the emperor’s son despite his attachments like Yoshitsune wanted him to, he would have been despicable but he would not have been so devastated.
Togitatsu no Utare (The Nail That Sticks Up) asks a slightly different question. Can one who isn’t born into the system of the samurai become a samurai, to change social classes? Tatsuji, the hero of the play Togitatsu no Utare, fails to fit the confines of either the samurai he wants to enter or the commoner class that he left. His get-prestige-quick schemes always get him what he wants temporarily, but what he really wants always slips away. In fact, what he wants isn’t really clear: as Tatsuji tumbles from one crisis of his own making to the next, what he wants out of the situation changes, for the grass is always greener. Tatsuji continually propels himself into something new, something exciting, with new conflict. When the situation doesn’t suit him, he changes the rules. He never rests in one place long enough to learn the rules and dedicate himself to put in the effort to achieve one single thing. How did he ever think he could become a samurai? Although Tatsuji blames this on an accident of birth, I disagree. I think Tatsuji doesn’t understand any aspect of society at large, high or low. Tatsuji is skilled at negotiating with and charming individuals, but he is not good at succeeding at fooling society at large, for he cannot anticipate the long-term results of his actions. When Tatsuji fools the village into hailing him as a hero for going on a revenge quest, he is finally caught when it is inevitably revealed that he has lied to them and he is actually the villain being pursued for revenge! The village wavers at first, but they turn their backs on him, equally as excited by the real revenge vendetta as they were by Tatsuji’s false one.
On the other hand, at first glance, Tatsuji appears to a shoo-in for a successful merchant. He is glib, quick-thinking, persuasive, flattering, prestige-loving, and perhaps above all, utterly shameless. Tatsuji does not hesitate to say or demonstrate whatever he needs to, whether it is utterly ridiculous lies or abject genuflection that borders on the satirical in order to get what he wants in the moment. Given these qualities, it is laughable for Tatsuji to consider himself a samurai: a samurai is all about honor and perseverance, but Tatsuji has no perseverance, no honor, and no pride in himself. Perhaps he even has no self-esteem. He seeks the prestige and the great deeds to give himself that self-esteem he is lacking as fast as he possibly can manage it. Perhaps this accounts for his inability to focus on a single goal: there are as many ways to pursue the celebration of others as there are stars in the sky, and to Tatsuji, it really doesn’t matter whether admiration and fanfare comes from a samurai lord’s wife, an old kendo master, a village of idiots, or a pair of pretty ladies. It doesn’t even matter if the attention is negative. Tatsuji welcomes even the attention of bullies, for then he can best them and make fools out of them and make himself a pitiful figure in the light of them. A samurai is not this insecure. In principle, a samurai has all of the prestige and power they need in society simply by being a samurai, and so they do not need to milk their deeds great and small for all they are worth or insist on their involvement in them.
But is Tatsuji really lower class, or even a good merchant? I cannot see that either. For one thing, the way he gets carried away by his own schemes doesn’t bode well for his financial success. Also, for a merchant to keep his customers’ respect, a certain amount of restraint when flattering or apologizing is necessary. Tatsuji might survive as a merchant, but anyone who knew him for long would surely come to despise him for his fast talk, his use of dirty tricks, and his lack of shame. Furthermore, Tatsuji is unable to anticipate how his change in status would affect his relationship with those of his former rank, which seems to suggest that one reason he is so desperate to change social classes is that he doesn’t understand them very well to begin with, either. As a samurai, Tatsuji’s former peers see an opportunity to exploit him for money and an object of amusement. Tatsuji is quite unable to motivate his servants to do his bidding quickly. Yet as one who used to be of that class, Tatsuji should have known that this might be how they react. Again, it is the nature and structure of society at large that bests Tatsuji. And of course, a real samurai would have the capital and the knowhow to use their status to make the servants work for them. Tatsuji does not have that kind of experience and the other samurai and lower-class are unlikely to teach him better as long as his ignorance makes him an easy target for exploitation.
Utare no Togitatsu asks the question, “Can one successfully change ranks and become a samurai?” but it does not completely answer its own question. Actually, Tatsuji is a rather pitiful individual that does not fit anywhere, and changing ranks does not affect that: in fact it makes his difficulty comprehending the workings of society even more difficult, for the change in status itself introduces a new learning curve every time—a learning curve that Tatsuji does not trouble himself with or apply himself to tackling. It is not that it is impossible to change ranks. It is that Tatsuji’s character and his get-honor-quick mentality are not suited to the samurai lifestyle that Tatsuji chose. But no matter what, Tatsuji’s lack of self-esteem and self-reflection dooms him not to fit anywhere, and his relentless pursuit of self-esteem will lead him nowhere. The material, external things that he pursues, including samurai status, cannot give him what is internal. Unfortunately, while Tatsuji could exist imperfectly but indefinitely in the lower class, his ambition leads him to the higher stakes of revenge, honor, and retribution that ultimately kill him. The hapless Tatsuji sees society’s obsession with revenge as an opportunity to gain prestige and rank, but that obsession turns on him and leads to his downfall.