On the subject of what’s right and what’s wrong or what’s good and what’s evil, everybody has a very different opinion which they take directly to heart. If a poor man steals a loaf of bread from a merchant to feed his family, then both parties will have completely different views on the whole situation. The merchant may see this as a criminal act since he’s being cheated out of his rightfully-earned profit while the poor man may see it as being just because he needs to do whatever he can in order to help his starving family survive. Some of the best fiction had provided us with stories, settings, and characters that find creative ways to depict how one man’s good is another man’s evil. In many of the films we’ve watched in our Japanese Films course, the filmmakers examine this theme in full detail and show that in many cases, their characters are neither good nor evil, but are just doing what they feel is best for themselves. Going in chronological order, I’m going to examine several of the films from the course curriculum and describe how, and to which degree they relay this theme of good and evil being lost among personal beliefs.
One of the films we’ve watched that gets this point across very well is the original Godzilla, from 1954. What could have easily been just an entertaining giant monster movie (which was what the series quickly turned into after this first entry in the world-renowned franchise) actually turned out to be an interesting look into how people view any of their actions when faced with imminent danger is being okay. During the film, when people discovered that Godzilla, a sleeping dinosaur which was mutated and woken up by nuclear testing, was what had been attacking shipping boats, several world powers donate their help, in the form of military action, in order to vanquish the monster. Although most of these people had not realized it at the time, the film made it pretty clear that Godzilla was not trying to kill all of them off, but rather just trying to survive by finding anything that he could consider edible that was floating near his home. I believe this was made most apparent when he makes his first appearance in front of everybody on Odo Island. Despite looking like a horrifying beast to all those who got a good look at him on the island, he didn’t harm anybody nor show any signs that he intended to. The only instance in which he actually started attacking people was after the American naval forces in Japan dropped depth charges onto his home, so his actions were being represented as self-defense in the film. It was clear that we were interpreting our own actions as being just when attacking Godzilla for his “evil” deeds, while the big lug obviously thought we were the bad guys and that he was right in demolishing Tokyo. Seeing as how there are so many parallels to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in this film, these events could also be meant to serve as a symbol of how both the Japanese and American armies during World War II assumed that they were the ones who were the good guys, while the other power was the true face of evil.
Another Japanese film that shows just how much good and evil can be blurred is Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, which tells a tale of how a village full of farmers must learn how to live and work together with a small group of samurai in order to help save their crops from a bandit gang. The two groups had some tension growing between them initially when the samurai first arrived at the village, but it was when the samurai discovered that one of the farmers, Manzo, had samurai armor and weapons stored away in his basement, that they really started to see each other in a negative light. Several of the samurai immediately realize that the only way the farmers could have gotten hold of this equipment was if they killed other wounded samurai and stole it from them. One of the samurai, Kyuzo, started talking about how he felt like killing every last one of the farmers, because he now feels like they are the evil ones for killing the already beaten-down samurai in order to steal from them. Another one of the samurai, named Kikuchiyo, got riled up from this comment and started telling them that even though every farmer in Japan is likely a coward or a crook, they aren’t the ones at fault for their actions. Rather, according to Kikuchiyo, it is the samurai who are to blame, because they are the ones who originally committed such horrible atrocities to the farmers, forcing them to act as such just so they could have a chance at surviving. He was telling them that it was the farmers who thought they were the good guys and that the samurai were evil, so they felt that their acts were acceptable. Although there were several other instances like this where one side felt like it was being wronged by the other, the two of them were eventually able to overcome their differences and conquer the bandits, thus realizing that they both had reasons for everything they did.
Nagisa Oshima was able to address this theme in a different social context in his 1968 feature film, Death by Hanging. In this movie, a Korean man, named R, who’s been living in Japan his entire life and has constantly been hostility from the native people is getting ready to meet his fate. He was convicted of raping and murdering a young Japanese girl by way of the Japanese court system, and so he was sentenced to be hung. R survives being hung only to lose his memory, at which point all the officials involved realize that they can’t execute him because he won’t be able to recognize it as a punishment if he doesn’t remember committing any crime. The officers spend the entire movie trying desperately to make R remember that he committed a crime and must be punished for it, treating him as the villain of this story. R, on the other hand, seems to think no differently of the officers and other officials during the entire time this is playing out. He doesn’t see them as being good or evil, even when he’s finally recovered his memory in spite of the way they humiliated his family and looked down on him simply because of his race, because they haven’t hung him yet. He tells them that if they do decide to hang him, then they will be the murderers. They still execute him without feeling any remorse, and R still doesn’t feel guilty about committing his crime even though he acknowledges doing it. What this said to me was that the director felt that whether or not someone feels like their actions were justified, as long as they don’t feel guilty then they are not the villains of their own story.
There are many who can rightfully claim that there is very little good that can be found in the dark, crime-ridden streets of Neo-Tokyo in the anime action-thriller, Akira. Although there are many instances of a good vs. evil theme throughout this film, I’m only going to stick to the one which I feel is the most important. After Tetsuo had contact with one of the childlike Espers and begins to develop his powers, he starts lashing out at the world and all those who he felt had wronged him during his lifetime, which were his idea of all things “evil”. Among them was his best friend, Kaneda, whom Tetsuo felt had treated him like a defenseless little kid his whole life, and was always coming to the rescue for. Over time, this had built up a very powerful inferiority complex in Tetsuo, which apparently made him feel like was weak, or he couldn’t handle himself. When he got this new power, he realized that he could take on the world that was so cruel and vicious to him, which includes his childhood friend, whom he now sees as evil. Kaneda, now on a mission to kill Tetsuo before his power trip drives to do some serious damage, sees him as being the evil one because he’s completely lost his sense of reason thanks to his newly-developed powers. I’ve always thought that the lesson taken away from this movie was that having ultimate power can corrupt an individual to the point where he becomes paranoid enough that he eventually sees everyone and everything as his enemy, regardless of whether he is a good person or not.
The final movie that I wanted to examine from our class curriculum is a much more recent release, titled Hana-Bi (Fireworks). The plot of this film is that two cops have recently retired from the force; one, Hirobe, being forced to by way of a serious injury, and the other is his partner, Nishi, who retires willfully after Hirobe’s accident. While Hirobe is trying to pass the time anyway he can while slowly drifting off into a manic depression because his family left him after his accident, Nishi is trying to show his slowly dying wife a good time while either avoiding or fighting Yakuza loan sharks. Nishi definitely has the more prominent role than his partner, but what I feel I need to question is whether or not a character like Nishi can really be considered a “good guy”. Granted, he is trying his best to help his wife have fun before she dies and help Hirobe cope with his losses and current state of mind, but when he is dealing with the Yakuza members constantly showing up at his doorstep, he doesn’t pull any punches. He kills and injures these guys in some pretty gruesome, yet pretty cool ways, but it makes him seem like a pretty scary guy whenever he does. I can understand why he’d do all of those things to the gangsters, though, because otherwise they would just keep coming back to get him every time they get the opportunity. Again, this shows that which actions are “good” and which are “evil” are left entirely up to personal interpretation.
The theme of what is truly good and evil has been interpreted pretty widely across the big spectrum of films that have come out in Japan over the last century. Whether the characters are what many people would consider “pure” good and “pure” evil, or whether the line between both seems to be more blurry, filmmakers have managed to make their views on this subject work well in the contexts that they designed. Hopefully, we will see more creative interpretations coming to theaters near us for a long time to come.