As a history student, I have never considered myself to be interested in the history of war. However, as my studies have progressed I have come to realize that the specific thing I don’t like about war is guns. If we go back to before the invention of guns, I am actually just as enthusiastic about martial history as I am about history in general. The reason is that I find guns to be despicable and immoral tools of power and domination. Any petty coward or bigot can impose his will on other people by the use of guns. This was not so in pre-powder days, where people had to get up close and personal in order to fight each other, and this was usually only done when a great deal was at stake; when something was worth risking one’s life for. From this perspective, then, it is no wonder that war and the warrior’s life were idolized in the extreme in the ancient world, because the very survival of entire cultures depended on their abilities to wage war successfully.
This all comes across with admirable clarity in Yamada: Way of the Samurai (a.k.a. Samurai Ayothaya), where a masterless Japanese soldier – Yamada – comes to adopt the Ayothaya culture of late 16th century Thailand as his own, and achieves the position of one of the king’s personal bodyguards. He must then fight both a savage neighboring culture (Burmese, I think) and a contingent of ninjas led by a corrupt Japanese warlord in order to protect and vindicate not only the Ayothayan king and culture, but also its peaceful alliance with Japan (which the ninja warlord is violating). To do this, he must merge his samurai skills with the ancient tradition of Thai boxing (they fight with “eight limbs”: hands, feet, knees and elbows), and the only way he can properly do this is to immerse himself in Ayothayan culture, philosophy and patriotism.
Historically the movie may not be very accurate; I doubt that Japanese warlords ever imported demon-masked ninjas into Thailand. But more than the martial arts and the obvious Thai pride in the country’s long martial arts tradition, the movie also focuses on the intense feelings of honor and loyalty that are necessary parts of the mix in this process. In the modern world (at least in the West) we no longer think much about honor. We don’t feel it, we don’t understand it, and we tend to think it is something very outdated and obsolete. But in a world where the survival of one’s culture is at stake, it makes a lot of sense. Before there were guns and imperial nations whose leaders ruled through superior firepower, a leader could only be accepted by his subjects if he was honorable. If he embodied the high moral values required for the social order to serve the survival of the entire culture, especially when such survival depended on the ability to compete martially with the neighboring cultures. Hence, in the ancient world, it actually made sense that the greatest warriors also became the most powerful leaders. Remarkably, it made sense, in those days, that might made right – not because the victors write the history books, but because every culture naturally and understandably considers itself worthy of survival and therefore vigorously defends its right to exist, and the values of war and honor that make it successful in this regard.
Yamada: Way of the Samurai is not by any means a particularly seminal movie, but it does manage to make several of these ideas and concepts quite clear, and it made me see the notion of honor in a new light. I usually find conventional ideas of honor to be silly and counter-productive, but this movie made me see that it was an absolutely essential requirement for the perpetuation of social order and balance in the era of history where war was about nothing less than the very survival of a given culture. It clarified in my mind how weapons and bloodshed absolutely had to be not only focused on but idolized in order to ensure survival. And this is why medieval cultures of all kinds have had systems of martials arts and been supremely serious about warrior codes of honor, whether one is talking about European knights, Viking warriors, Japanese samurai, Native American warriors, Greek hoplites, Roman legionnaires or any other kind of ancient warrior.
The movie is fairly violent and bloody, although not disturbingly so. If all you want from it is fighting, it has enough to satisfy you. It may sometimes seem a bit unnecessary and gratuitous, but seeing as it is making a point about ancient cultures (which are probably a lot more recent in the minds of the Thai than in our Western minds), it is actually illustrating something important and even admirable by ancient standards. It sometimes seems crazy to us today, especially to those of us who abhor violence, but in the old days violence and berserker savagery used to be noble and deeply justified. And understanding this helps us appreciate a lot of the bloodshed and killing in movies like this one.
The visual dimension of the story, as in the Ong Bak movies, is kept in bronze and golden nuances (reflecting the tanned skin color of the rural Thai people) and a torchlit atmosphere is maintained through most of it, especially the plentiful night scenes. At one point early in the movie there’s a village concert performance with a song that sounds decidedly like a modern pop tune with ancient lyrics (I bet the band is a popular Thai music group). It’s pretty fun.
The DVD has very nice extras. There are deleted scenes and, more interestingly, there is a feature on the martial arts, focusing on a British Thai boxing school, and a trailer show for twelve other martial arts movies. A good package.
Yamada: Way of the Samurai is out on DVD 30th January 2012.
Director: Nopporn Watin
Cast: Seigi Ozeki, Winai Kraibutr, Thanawut Ketsaro and others
Runtime: 90 min.