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Thursday, January 18, 2007


The Sanjuro effect

Here's a story:

When Akira Kurosawa directed the film Yojimbo (on which A Fistful of Dollars was based, but Yojimbo is better), he had a point he wanted to make. The point was this: he'd had it up to here with yakuza. They were proliferating in Japan, and he hated them; they were ruining the country. To express this hatred, Yojimbo shows a lone hero fighting yakuza-like gamblers. The story follows a ronin going by the name of Sanjuro, who goes into a town being destroyed by two rival gangs, decides it would be better for everyone if all the gangsters were dead, and sets about achieving this with a combination of skilled swordplay and Machiavellian politics. Sanjuro (read: Kurosawa's dislike of yakuza) is a really hard bastard, as played by Toshiro Mifune, an actor who ranks with John Wayne and Clint Eastwood in his ability to play, not just a man, but an entire archetype of masculinity: weighty, cynical, tough, shrewd, wry, indestructible. The gangsters (read: yakuza) are ridiculous and horrible grotesques: stupid, cowardly, blustering, petty and vicious. They get their asses kicked seven ways from Sunday, and the world is left a better place without yakuza.

Unfortunately, yakuza loved this film. You see, they thought they were Sanjuro.

This is why I'm calling it the Sanjuro effect, but it can be defined more generally thus:

Audience misidentification with a character or characters, to the point where it entirely contradicts the message of the story.

There are lots of examples, and different manifestations:

Sanjuro himself is a case of people failing to recognise the actual portraits of themselves in a story, and instead identifying with someone who's set up as their opposite, which is to say, thinking you're the hero when you're actually the villain. This is a particular danger with violent films, as violent people don't usually imagine themselves as the losers. Sanjuro might not have been a yakuza, but hey, he won, right? He was cool, right? That's like us, then. (This is why the myth of redemptive violence is a sword with two points and no handle. Everyone thinks they're the redeemer.)

Another example of that style that comes to mind is the Trainspotting fashion. When I was an undergraduate, that was the fashionable poster to have on your wall if you were a boy - despite the fact that this was at Cambridge, where there was often a CD player right under the poster taking the piss out of people who owned them, and good health, cars and fixed interest mortgage repayments were exactly what these student lads were about to spend three years getting a degree in order to afford. Exactly who the boys thought this poster was having a go at if not them (or possibly the parents who were supporting them) was always unclear to me.

Some people, on the other hand, agree with characters who are supposed to be villains. I hear some Wall Street bankers thought that Gordon Gekko's 'Greed is good' speech was absolutely right; the fact that the film ended with his downfall, presenting his way of living as both morally corrupt and unsustainable, passed them by. I remember an argument in college with some guy who was convinced that Jack Nicholson's Colonel Jessep was the hero of A Few Good Men: 'He goes out in a blaze of glory, and he's right,' he said. (The guy was best known in college for getting his willy out and mooning people; he wasn't popular among women.) Now, I thought Jessep went out screaming insanely, having been proved to be an accessory to murder, a bad officer who let his men take the blame for his mistakes, and generally speaking a disgrace to his country. Maybe we were watching different movies. On at least one occasion, Caryl Churchill's Serious Money, a play written in the eighties that best translates as 'Please for the love of all things sacred don't vote for Thatcher again or these fucking psychopaths in the City will keep plundering the country', found itself with Thatcherite City traders, dressed up for the Opera, sitting in boxes at the theatre and cheering every time someone got screwed over. Sometimes people get the moral backwards. The Serious Money one may have been ironic, but my bare-buttocked friend at college was deadly serious. He said A Few Good Men was his favourite film, and he got quite angry when I suggested that Jessep wasn't supposed to be the hero.

Other people go for romanticising a character who vaguely reminds them of themselves, usually because they have the same failings you do, and then Mary Suing them up. I was going to use some examples of Harry Potter characters based on some inaccurately beautiful fan art portraits I stumbled on a while ago, but I decided against it because a) I can't find them and b) this is mostly done by children, and it would be mean of me. However, I'm sure many of you can think of examples.

That one, I think, is often done with villains: viewing them as misunderstood and wronged, and hence justifiably pissed off and entitled to assert themselves by means of villainy. Of course, sometimes a story will support that, especially if the writing hasn't done a good enough job of making the hero likeable and the villain detestable - but sometimes it only works if you ignore a fair proportion of the villain's actions. Which sometimes people do.

There's also the case of believing what a character says about themselves, and missing the point that they're kind of deluded. The phrase Are you talkin to me? comes to mind. Um, guys, this is a lonely, paranoid, traumatised war veteran having a psychological breakdown, not a cool hero strutting his stuff...

Have you run into this? I'd love to hear examples.

Re: The Scottish Film:

"Exactly who the boys thought this poster was having a go at if not them (or possibly the parents who were supporting them) was always unclear to me."

I don't think that little closing speech was necessarily directed at CD player-owning undergraduates, or their parents.

To me, it always seemed like a more general swipe at the rhetoric of Choice (pervasive in the late 80's, and still wheeled out whenever something's about to privatised), and how that rhetoric can seem to be in conflict with reality, in a society where the range of viable (permissible, socially-acceptable) choices is arguably rather narrower than commonly acknowledged.

Veering perilously close to politics there, though.
Not specifically directed at undergraduates, no; fair point. But still, the kids who had it up were planning on a lifestyle extremely close to the kind described so scornfully in the poster. It was kind of ironic.
Surely Harry Potter provides the supreme example. Throughout the books, Muggles are derided. And who are Muggles? Why, the readers!

Yet, they don't seem to notice.
What about those stories and films where the villains are supposed to be cool? Where the audience is supposed to identify with what we normally consider the "bad guys"? Sometimes, even, it's a choice between the bad guys, and the bad bad guys. It's cool to be a villain, nowadays, because it means you get to get away with whatever you want and look good doing it (so long as you don't get caught). Throw in a few conflicted emotions, that whole "misunderstood" pathos, maybe some revenge motivation for some slain girlfriend, and you've got the perfect anti-hero who everybody roots for as he goes around basically committing murder, theft and so on. Sure, there's black and there's white and there's a rainbow of shades of gray...but at some point I do believe a person goes from being a conflicted hero to just another villain that we are made to like a little more than the other villains. One might argue that everyone has a little of a villain inside them..even the purest of heroes. If everyone was pure and holy-minded, that'd be a boring stereotype. I at least like to see the person struggling for a higher end, a higher purpose, even if they are mucking through the mud to get there. Confusing? Uh, yup. It always seems hard to talk about this kind of topic because the ethical high and low roads all of a sudden become some swampy mire, and you've got to find the few stones to stand on, otherwise you get bogged down in every hypothetical, tortoure-condoning, ends-justify-the-means situation out there.

Make sense? -sighs- Me neither..

I don't think the cool villain is a modern phenomenon, but perhaps 'heroes' who are effectively indistinguishable from villains are. Personally, I'm tired of the violence-solves-everything approach. I suspect however that attitude isn't going away in a hurry.
I can't think of a specific misidentification example off the top of my head, but I do remember being flummoxed by a professor friend's statement that the film Saving Private Ryan glorified war. Well, maybe it did for some people; it sure didn't look like glorification to me, and judging from the weepiness of the people leaving the theatre, not to them either.
Kit, Great post!

In one sense I wonder how important it is that the audience misidentify with characters. After all for most of them it is escapism anyway and they do not relate what they see on screen or read in books to real life.

On the other hand I guess it really matters because the misidentification is based on their perception of reality.

One other possibility is that the filmmakers/writers are living in their own bubbles and by creating baddies in their works that are such one sided caricatures they almost guarantee this misidentifcation.

The Yakuza might be worthy of hatred but regardless of that they are clearly not the buffoonish idiots of Yojimbo! Nor are all capitalists the rule breaking, amoral renegades that Gordon Gekko was!

Equally not all Heroes are as uncompicatedly brilliant as Sanjuro!

I recall turning on the TV which was showing a Freddy Kruger? horror film. I only watched 20 min and can't remember the title. A mother and her daughter were trying to kill Freddy. They were burning him and hitting him with a fireplace poker. At this point, if you hadn't watched the beginning of the film it appeared as if they were murderous abusive people. This experience made me aware that justified murder depends on who is labelled "the good guys."
There's actually a page dedicated to this kind of misidentification at tvtropes.com. Title: Draco in Leather Pants.

They don't mean the Spartan Draco, obviously.
How about Scarface? The Pacino version managed to become the fantasy role model for all sorts of folks despite the fact that he's a drugged-out psychopath who ruins his sister's life because he harbors a disturbing Oedipal lust for her and then dies.

As to filmmakers living in their own bubbles...well, to some extent, it may not be possible to create fiction otherwise. By definition, a fictional world is one the author controls absolutely, after all. The failure of readers or an audience to manage the transport between that other world and the real one probably can't be blamed on either party in a meaningful way, but in some cases it does require the reader to suspend all meaning just to avoid the cognitive dissonance.

Not all traders are as amoral as Gordon Gekko, no...but the misidentification is in thinking Gekko is right and cool while pretending he's NOT openly amoral and wicked. You actually have to pretend entire parts of the story aren't there to like his "greed is good speech." Likewise, a film with a heroic warrior destroyign gansters, who are all buffoons, can only be idolized by gangsters if they not only say "I'm not a buffoon" but somehow manage to forget that ALL the gangsters in the film are brutish buffoons, that Sanjuro is a fictional world in which being a gangster is neither impressive nor clever.

When you're part of the group being satirized, it takes aspecial kind of cognitive dissonance to think the target is cool because they're in your group, or, as in the Sanjuro case, to pretend the hero is in your group despite direct and even blindingly obvious evidence to the contrary.

captcha word is micepirt: Mika's ostensible title for possible "guest expert" slots on cable news shows.
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