bu·shi·do (ˈbo͞oSHēˌdō) – A Japanese collective term for the many codes of honour and ideals that dictated the samurai way of life, loosely analogous to the concept of chivalry in Europe.
The “way” originates from the samurai moral values, most commonly stressing some combination of sincerity, frugality, loyalty, martial arts mastery, and honor until death.
The teacher was hesitant about taking on another student, having seen the horrors of the teacher-student progression throughout the ages. Each previous relationship turned acrimonious or fatal. The next generation would try to reach atonement for the former, yet like a horrible loop, tragedy and failure ensued. Now this teacher was facing the prospect of training his second student. The first came from privilege. This new adherent came from nothing, or so we shall soon learn.
This is not a plot synopsis from Star Wars – The Last Jedi, or rather, it is, but it’s not solely the property of that movie. I’m referring instead to Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and the hard road traveled by noble samurai Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura). Now a ronin – samurai without a liege to serve – Shimada has been propositioned by peasants who are attacked by ruthless bandits year after year. Save us from the next onslaught. He seeks former samurai to aid him in his mission, but he does not want students, he doesn’t want followers. They have a way of losing their futures, and often their lives, to the lonely samurai path.
But still, he winds up with two students, the wide-eyed and naive Katsushiro Okamoto (Isao Kimura), born of privilege and money; and Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a wild man who claims to be a samurai already, yet connects with Kambei not as a peer, but as a thinly-veiled, awestruck student. We’ll learn later that he is, in fact, born a peasant, much like the ones he defends and reviles at the same time. He is born from nothing.
By the end of the film, the teacher will see the terrible curse of the samurai way destroy these two and many more. Kikuchiyo will die in the mud of the village. Katsushiro will find love, but be rejected by her at the end of the film, for now he is a samurai and the rice-farming peasants don’t want him around until they need him. Samurai are harbingers of bad things, they attract danger. His newfound love is torn apart by these two very different worlds.
Anyone who would have a problem with my benchmarking Star Wars against samurai pictures clearly knows very little about either. George Lucas famously touted Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress as a prominent influence on the original Star Wars. The series’ characters all seem to have names of an Asian dialect: Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi…the screenwriter that worked frequently with Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi (Ugetsu) was Yoshikata Yoda. This is not arbitrary.
Neither is the plot device in The Last Jedi where we see Luke Skywalker’s defense against his student and nephew Ben Solo, now Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who has purportedly turned to the dark side. Meanwhile, Ren’s testimony of the occurrence is much different, with a mad-driven Skywalker (played by Mark Hamill) prepared to kill his nephew in his sleep to prevent a supposed oncoming evil. This multiple-view narrative plays into Ben Kenobi’s exhortation from Return of the Jedi when he tells Luke that he told him the truth about his father “from a certain point of view.”
It also is the crux of Akira Kurosawa’s celebrated film Rashomon, about the murder of a nobleman and the rape of his wife. In that film, all witnesses and implicated figures give their testimonies, and while they’re all roughly similar, they’re also very different in fundamental ways, with the speaker glorifying himself in his own account to the detriment of whatever the truth might be.
In essence, there’s no such thing as ultimate truth – just different vantage points viewing an event, further colored by one’s own ego, fear, and desire to protect themselves.
This is not symbolism retconned into a space opera. this is the story that was always there but ignored by an audience that wanted Flash Gordon instead. The Jedi are tragic figures, doomed to fall on their own lightsabers again and again.
This is not, however, the story the Star Wars fans wanted. They expected the story of a fiery, confident Luke Skywalker, training an army of Jedi away from prying eyes on the planet of Ahch-to. They also expected a story wherein Skywalker has succumbed to the dark side of the force, like his father Anakin Skywalker, also known as Darth Vader. They wanted Luke to secretly be Supreme Leader Snoke. They wanted Rey (Daisy Ridley) to be Luke’s long-lost daughter who would ultimately drag him from his downward spiral. In other words, they kind of wanted a rehash of Return of the Jedi.
What director Rian Johnson gave them was something altogether different from the fans’ frankly boring plot concepts – another seething fighter with a war boner and a snazzy costume and gear for neat tricks – but absolutely in line with the story that was already there, the story buried within George Lucas’ fantasy structure. For having the temerity to follow that line that was so clearly drawn underneath the dazzling artifice, Johnson got…middle fingers and responses closest to death threats.
In other words, the toxic state of nerd culture as it currently exists raged on as the creators of this particular movie failed to meet every fan’s individual dream request and, once again, dared to make strong women characters central to the overall narrative (which is one more sin of George Lucas for allowing Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia to be as daring as the menfolk, consarn it).
Johnson has managed to walk the samurai/Jedi path by making a movie that was worth being made, assembled at the highest level of his craft, and like so many who followed in these footsteps, seems to have been punished for doing so. So it was with Kambei Shimada, so it ever shall be.