“Cultural Appropriation” in Fiction

Let me start by saying that I find the concept of “cultural appropriation” itself to be wrongheaded, foolish, and kind of absurd. It assigns some kind of collective ownership of the nebulous basket of language, tradition, customs, food, clothing, fashion, and all kinds of other ill-defined elements that supposedly belong to a given people.

Nevermind the fact that peoples and nations interbreed and change and that cultures develop and assimilate and adapt.

And who is supposed to arbitrate these transgressions? If one single Chinese person indicts me for enjoying their dim sum, am I guilty of creating a problematic situation?

Does it matter that another Chinese person rules that it’s ok for me to eat dim sum, but that I may not make it myself? Or that a third, more rational native doesn’t give a crap?

Does it change the calculus when the majority of a country or culture like having their culture appropriated (the real term is “appreciated”)? I can tell you from my time living in Japan and consuming Japanese media that the people over there are flattered and pleased when foreigners try on kimono, or dress up as a popular anime character, or take an interest in  Japanese language, lore, history, whatever.

It’s ridiculous to think cultures should be treated like private (group) property.

And so I was disappointed when I was listening to an otherwise quite interesting discussion of an old weird tale yesterday, and the speakers posed the question of whether a white man writing about a black protagonist was cultural appropriation.

Really?

Thankfully they were gracious enough to rule that this was not the case – after all, the white (racist) narrator was really who the story was about.

I’ve gotta say, I find it quite troubling and a bit confusing, how such big fans of speculative fiction could conceivably buy into the idea of cultural appropriation, especially when it comes to the fiction they read.

Scifi and Fantasy are full of stories about aliens and other non-human beings. But they’re not real, so I guess this is in-bounds. Well, women write male characters and men write female characters. Should this gender appropriation be pooh-poohed?

Is Captain Blood cultural appropriation, because it sees an Irish protagonist written by an Italian author? Or is this okay because they’re both white ethnicities? Do “White People” all get lumped together into one culture?

Is Othello problematic because its noble Moorish (often portrayed as African) hero was written by a white Christian?

Should books written by White People only feature white characters? If you think so, it sounds like you’re ready to nix an awful lot of cool SFF and other great literature. And why? Because a few emotionally unstable people have nothing worse in life to worry about than some white dude writing a story about a black guy?

51isW1RdvyL._SX308_BO1,204,203,200_51oo82fc0kl-_aa300_Zorro

(Whoops – forget that last one – he’s one of those white hispanics!)

Are Japanese manga and anime highly problematic for featuring so many Caucasian characters?

And if you answer “yes” to all these questions, or even if your response is more nuanced or qualified, what’s the solution? Do we need a tribunal to determine which cases are acceptable and which are “problematic,” and then to rule on a remediation?

It’s such a silly piece of business. I’d be tempted to ignore it if I didn’t see the idea as such a threat to creativity and freedom of expression. Of course no one’s talking about outlawing cultural appropriation, but if it’s such a bad thing, I could imagine things moving in that direction in some quarters, someday. And really is there much practical difference between outlawing something and drubbing it out of polite society?

-Bushi

bushi

Advertisements

Crying like a man

Getting the baby into a routine, we’ve been playing music for him during bath time and on the changing table before bed. I’m in charge of the playlists, of course.

He seems to really like when I sing along to Dean Martin or Johnny Cash.

It has thusly occurred to me that while “real men don’t cry” is usually an axiom violently rejected or vehemently espoused, depending upon who you ask, allowances should be made.

 

-Bushi

bushi

Samurai Rebellion

Not to be confused with Samurai Revolution, Samurai Rebellion is a 1967 samurai flick starring an aging Toshiro Mifune.

This one pushes back a bit on the usual image of the samurai as an unerringly obedient servant-warrior.

Mifune plays a middling vassal to the lord of Aizu. As a young samurai, his sole focus was in swordplay and the martial arts, which in the current age of bureaucratic samurai aristocracy have become somewhat undervalued skills. Consequently, he considered himself fortunate when the head of a more prestigious family, impressed with his swordplay, asked him to marry his daughter.

Isaburo’s (Mifune) marriage is a cold one, unfortunately. His wife is a shrew and there is no love between them. But he’s a stoic man and he tolerates her. She bears him two sons.

This is all important backstory for the main plot of the film. Let’s fast forward.

Isaburo’s lord has become displeased with his mistress (who has already born him a son), and orders that she be married off to Isaburo’s son. The samurai and his family are initially displeased with this order and try to resist, but after the deed is done, Isaburo and his son are glad. Ichi winds up being a good wife and daughter-in-law, and she provides his son with the loving marriage Isaburo never had. She bears a daughter, and everyone is (for the most part) happy.

1

Suddenly the lord’s first son dies of an illness, and his son with Ichi becomes the new heir. And of course it is unfitting that the heir apparent’s mother should be married to a vassal.

The lord orders Ichi returned to the castle. Isaburo and his son resist, calling the order an unjust and tyrannical order, stealing a vassal’s wife.

Their lord orders them to commit seppuku for their insolence, and they answer they that will be glad to comply…when his head and those of his stooges are delivered to them.

2

What will happen? Watch and find out! Just so happens this one is available (for now) to watch online, here.

Without giving away too much, I will say that while I didn’t find the ending very satisfying (it’s not as bleak as some other J films I’ve seen, but neither is it happy), I found the movie’s focus on justice and love over blind loyalty and “honor” to be refreshing. Mifune, as always, is excellent, and the rest of the cast is great, too.

I did notice the tip of a boom mic in one scene, but whatcha gonna do…

-Bushi

bushi

 

Samurai Revolution

I just finished watching Kudo Eiichi’s Samurai Revolution Trilogy (not to be confused with Samurai Rebellion) – 13 Assassins, The Great Killing, and Eleven Samurai. All three films are available on Kanopy, should you have access through your local library. If not, you can probably get them through the Criterion Collection.

Eiichi’s three films share many commonalities, but interestingly differ in approach and style.

13 Assassins (1963) revolves around a plot to kill an evil daimyo, who rapes the wife of a samurai and then cruelly murders her husband. One of his retainers commits suicide in protest, but the affair is covered up because the daimyo is the Shogun’s younger brother and will soon be elevated to a powerful position.

The Council of Elders is instructed to “act with discretion” by the Shogun, but one of the men cannot abide the disgraceful behavior and the certain chaos that will accompany the daimyo’s rise. He therefore secretly summons one of Japan’s most formidable samurai and convinces him to lead a suicide mission to slay the evil lord.

In 13 Assassins, the heroes are competent and brave. Their plan is well-crafted and executed, and justice is clearly on their side.

Their main nemesis, as is so often the case, isn’t really the daimyo himself, but his chief retainer and bodyguard, who matches wits (and ultimately swords) with the leader of the samurai band. Despite his distaste for his lord’s behavior, he serves loyally to the end.

3

A great film, and my favorite of the bunch.

The Great Killing (1964) tells the story of a samurai conspiracy to stop the ascent of the Elder Councilor, who has maneuvered himself into a position of great power. Soon the Shogun will retire, and the Councilor’s puppet is set to be installed as his successor. Many samurai perceive this to be a great injustice and the Councilor to be evil, and so they plot to kill him.

Unfortunately for them, their conspiracy is uncovered and they are hunted down and rounded up. Many of them are tortured for information. One of the protagonists, a loyal vassal, is confused for a conspirator. His wife is slain and he is captured, but then escapes and winds up joining the plot.

Notably, it is a woman (who comes across as strong and self-possessed; not the typical demure Japanese flower you might expect) who recruits him to the cause.

2

Ultimately the last holdouts of the rebellion, who are notably flawed and even evil in their own ways, decide to strike at the puppet Shogun-to-be, as he is the easier target.

Their attack is clumsy and uncoordinated, in contrast to that of 13 Assassins. The assassination breaks out into a disorganized brawl, and each member of the conspiracy is killed before he can accomplish his objective.

In the end, it’s a samurai who wasn’t even involved in the plot who goes berserk at his friend’s death and slays the target before being cut down himself.

There’s a great analysis of this film to be found here.

This one wound up being my least favorite of the three. It’s dense, confusing, and only one of the protagonists winds up being sympathetic. In a way, it’s kind of an anti-samurai flick.

Eleven Samurai (1967) takes kind of a middle path between the other two (good synopsis here). Once again a cruel and unjust daimyo is protected from his behavior by his relationship to the Shogun. After trespassing upon the territory of the neighboring fief and murdering a fellow lord, things are hushed up and the facts altered. It is proclaimed that his lands were rudely encroached upon and a stray arrow struck the offending lord. As punishment, the slain lord’s fief is to be dissolved and his clan abolished.

Of course a plot is crafted by the victimized fief to take their revenge. Notably, one of the men who was to join the plot dies of an illness, and his sister takes his place (another interesting strong woman type role).

Somewhat similar to 13 Assassins, the heroes in this tale act like heroes. They’re mostly competent, brave, and loyal. They’re also fairly skilled fighters. Unfortunately for them, their well-laid plans keep being thwarted, and their final attack winds up being an impromptu attempt to catch the lord before he is able to reenter his territory.

The final scene is action-packed. Several of the assassins, cut and dying, throw themselves upon a fire to ignite gunpower they’ve stashed in their clothes. Another of the samurai hurls daggers (darts?) at foes. Of course there’s swordplay, too.

In the end, the original conspirators are all killed accomplishing their mission. The lone survivor is a ronin who joined their cause along the way.

The thing that struck me most about Eleven Samurai was the lack of that samurai fatalism in the leader of the group. He admonishes his men more than once, saying that their lives are his to spend as he will, but that they should not be so willing to throw their lives away. Although he accepts the likelihood that they will all die, he also seems to allow for hope that some of them may survive.

Likewise he grieves when his young wife kills herself in a show of loyalty to him (sometimes the wives of samurai would commit seppuku to follow their husbands in death), and exclaims that she needn’t have died.

1.PNG

There’s a lot about these three films to process. They’re still rattling around inside my mind, anyway.

-Bushi

bushi

Bushi vs Samurai

Every once in a while someone asks us what a “bushi” is.

Aside from that obvious answer, it’s a Japanese word. We had a somewhat interesting Twitter thread yesterday on the topic. Feel free to click on one of the conversation boxes to navigate the whole thing.

The short answer is that “bushi” means warrior. Sometimes it’s interchangeable with “samurai.”

The longer answer is that…it depends who you ask.

I decided to do a little scouring of the J Internet, to see what the natives say. Here’s one Japan-informational blog that addresses the question:

日本人にも答えづらい「侍」と「武士」の違い – (Even Difficult for Japanese to Answer: The Difference between “Samurai” and “Bushi”)

I’m not going to attempt a line-for-line translation of this article, as it would take a lot of time and my translation would no doubt be rather crude. But let me summarize. My notes are parenthesized in red.

1. Mrs. M (presumably the author of this blog) says that there are many questions foreigners want to ask Japanese people, one of which is the difference between “samurai” and “bushi.”

The answer, she asserts, is that most Japanese people don’t know and so there are very few people who can clearly answer this.

But Mrs. M’s explanation is this:

From the Edo period (~1603-1868) onward, the basic distinction was that samurai were sword-toting martial arts masters. Bushi were samurai who served a lord.

26448_9_720x526

In historical dramas, she notes, townsfolk call anyone with a sword “samura-san,” not knowing if they’re a ronin or the retainer to some lord.

From the Heian period (~794-1185) on, however the distinction changed with the times. The original root for the word “samurai” was “saburau,” (meaning “to serve”). “Samurai” referred to those employed to protect holdings like nobles’ estates or temples. 

“Samurai” occupied a lower social rank in the earlier periods.

In high school textbooks, the Heian period marks the emergence of the term “samurai.”

And so it’s not incorrect to say that samurai are the same as bushi. The distinction between the two differs (or even disappears) depending upon the time period in question.

In the context of the Edo period, however (if I understand this correctly), samurai were retainers to lords, but were not considered to be “employed.” Bushi, on the other hand, also worked for lords but were basically hired soldiers. The famous Shinsengumi (imperial secret police force) was comprised of “bushi,” not “samurai.”

By the end of the Edo period, anyone disciplined and determined enough to obtain a sword and learn how to use it could become a samurai.

Ultimately the best answer, by Edo standards, is that bushi were warriors for hire who served a lord. Samurai were experts of the martial arts who served (but were not hired by) a lord. If you’re talking about other time periods, the answer is much less clear.

This is a simple explanation from one Japanese blogger. I admittedly have no idea about her level of expertise, so take this as you will. Still, interesting topic.

-Bushi

bushi

Site Spin-Offs

Well, it’s happened!

pcbushi.com will remain the Homeland. There is only one place where bushis may be hatched and reared, and this is it. I must admit, though, things have become somewhat diluted. We’ve got fiction, political commentary, movie write-ups, musings on video games, book reviews, thoughts on various stringed instruments…

As this place has grown, I think it’s become a bit snug in certain places. Therefore, while we’ll still be writing here about a variety of things (aka rambling almost incoherently about nonsense), we’ve sewn the seeds for two new, more narrowly dedicated sites:

Bushi SF/F – focusing on my writing and on scifi and fantasy topics

Kaiju Bushi Stuff – a dumping ground for Kaiju’s mad, brilliant fictions

Please update your bookmarks or website block lists accordingly.

-Bushi

bushi

Upcoming release: Cirsova #9

I’ve got another project in the works and so I lost track of this, but better late than…too late. Glad HP reminded me.

Cirsova #9 and #10 are up on Kickstarter, and the funding project is in its final days. I’m taking this particular opportunity to plug because I’ve got a short story dropping in #9. It’s the tale of a pair of reptilian searchers, who must brave the perils of a dead city in the hope of unearthing ancient weapons and technology to aid their struggling tribe. If that sounds at all interesting to you, and/or if you’re curious about the kind of fiction that oozes from a mind like mine, be sure to get your claws on this.

e1af4d3f71f9c34677732332bdec3214_original

Now I’m a Cirsova fan (though I’ve made some perhaps harsh remarks about issue #1). I love what Alex is doing in fostering this kind of publication, and I’ve personally bought every issue that’s come out thus far. I admit, I’m behind in the actual reading (that reminds me that I also need to read more of Cirsova contributor Sky Hernstrom’s stuff in light of the praise he’s been drawing). So certainly, I am plugging this Kickstarter because I’ve got a stake in it. But rest assured I’d be buying issues #9 and #10 even were that not the case.

One last note – these issues are already funded and already happening. Backing the Kickstarter just gets you the next two issues and serves to fund the next round of Cirsova issues (should he raise enough cash). So backing doesn’t just mean buying these zines; it means supporting a budding scifi/fantasy publication amidst the decay of a dying industry.

-Bushi

bushi