Thursday, September 30, 2004

Ronin Soap Opera, Sept. 26

(Given the title, I assume my readers will understand this may be a violent post. Also, before reading this, you may want to see my language disclaimer below.)

Last Sunday I watched NHK's ronin soap opera "Shinsengumi!" I don't watch every episode, but I catch it when I can. It's a pretty good series about a band of warriors called the Shinsengumi, of course, who try to defend the Japanese government in the mid-1800s against the many rebels and revolutionaries of the day.

In this episode, the band's scholar asks the group's mousey accountant for a loan of 50 ryo (a pretty hefty sum of gold) so he can buy a book he's found on Western military tactics (books like this were banned and incredibly expensive). The accountant is nervous about it and refuses. The scholar says the book contains vital information, and he has sent off to his family for the money, but the book dealer has another buyer who wants it. The scholar has to get it now! The reluctant accountant caves in - it will only be for a few days, until the money arrives, right?

The next day the accountant is faced with a surprise audit by his superior. He admits loaning the money and promises it will be repaid soon, but refuses to say to whom he loaned it. His superior tells him if the money is not returned within three days, he will be ordered to commit seppuku. The accountant, visibly shaken, is then imprisoned.

The scholar, hearing about this, immediately tries to return the book to the seller, only to find out he can only get half the money back, and not only that, the other buyer who wants it is from a dangerous rival organization. He argues with the man, but the smuggler is tough and won't back down. The scholar leaves, a deep scowl darkening his face.

Three of the accountant's friends in the ronin group pool their own money and go gambling to try to raise the money. As they sit down at the bar, the owner hands one of them the dice. The next scene shows the three of them sitting around in their undergarments and swords, one banging his head on his palm moaning "Stupid, stupid, stupid ..."

A friend visits the accountant in jail to keep him company for a bit. At one point, the accountant stops mid-sentence and straightens, listening intently. "Is that a messenger?" he asks. His friend listens for a moment. He shakes his head. "No," he replies, frowning.

The third day is bright and sunny. The accountant prepares to kill himself. Dressed in a white kimono and hakama, he swears another samurai to secrecy and tells him the whole story "so my father will know the truth." He then slowly walks to the garden where his superior, several other officers and a number of witnesses are seated in formal kimono, hakama, and swords. The scholar is one of the witnesses, as are the friends who lost their savings.

The slightly curved, single-edged short sword the accountant is to use rests on a small wooden stand in front of him. All but the last six inches of the blade is wrapped in thick white paper so it can be held properly. The handguard and hilt have been removed. Another samurai is ready behind the accountant, katana raised. (Seppuku requires a second who, at a prearranged signal, will cut the man's head off with a single, quick sword stroke to end his suffering.)

The accountant looks scared, his mind unfocused. He asks, in a slightly quivering voice, "What is required?"

"Just the form," his superior answers grimly. The second will take care of the rest.

The accountant looks down, then jerks his head to one side, listening, hope in his wide brown eyes. "Is that a messenger?"

The solemn men around him listen for a moment in silence. "No," one replies. The accountant's face slowly turns toward the stoney ground. He swallows, then straightens. He holds his head up and his face shows clear determination and strength. He pulls his kimono open to expose his pale belly, then takes the short sword in both hands. His narrow face turns to a harsh grimace and he plunges the steel into his belly.

The camera cuts to a close-up of the second, who strikes. There is a soft thump and moan and the second recoils in horror.

The camera zooms back. The accountant is face down on the ground squirming, head still attached. The second botched it! Another samurai leaps up, rips out his sword and stabs the accountant to end his suffering. The scene ends.

There follow several scenes of the accountant's friends, each one alone, tears rolling down his face. The superior, by himself in his quarters, snarls and viciously kicks the empty air.

In the last scene, as the evening shadows just begin to enter the town, a messenger runs up the sunlit lane, the sound of jingling gold ringing out.

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