The film in question is a Japanese period film released in 1990. The main theme of the film is war and its impact on warriors and common people. For a student of history, the film presents a fairly accurate presentation of costumes, art and architecture of 16th century Japan. Watching the film was like going to a museum of history with an impressive assembly of artifact and costume in display.
The film is useful for the student of political science as well. The bloody conflict between the warlords Takeda and Kagetora is typical of the fractious political atmosphere in medieval Japan. Kagetora, though not a pacifist, is powerfully drawn to that idea. He is shown in the film as someone with a compassionate heart and someone who cared for his people deeply. He doesn’t want his subjects to suffer and is thus thinks thoroughly before going to war. But circumstances, especially the claim to leadership of a unified Japan, greatly inspire him. It is probably for such reasons of pride than for conquest of material wealth that he engages in war with Takeda. Hence the movie offers enough detail and perspective for the discerning audience to study and learn. In the case of the portrayal of Kagetora, we learn that not all feudal lords are greedy for expanding their territory. He is not much interested in increasing his political power. In this sense, Kagetora is atypical, for he is philosophical and compassionate and is reluctant to go to war. He engages with Takeda only because he thinks the ‘ends justifying the means’. Hence the film is an informative record of the variety of provincial leadership styles witnessed in feudal Japan. This is useful for a student of history, for textbooks often paint a generic picture of political leadership. Ten To Chi To, on the other hand, presents feudal leadership in a nuanced and complex manner, informed as it is by the historical, philosophical and social undercurrents shaping major events in medieval Japan.
Takeda is the aggressive feudal warlord who is quick to use force and intimidation to achieve his goals. He is someone who doesn’t care about cruelty to people. He represents a broader conflict that has been a theme in Japanese history for more than millennia. For example, on the on hand we have the fundamental conflict between the tradition and honor of the influential Samurai community. On the other hand is the Buddhist philosophical doctrine which disapproves of violence and killing. Hence a Samurai is a conflicted personality. But Takeda is ruthless when it comes to war and doesn’t heed to Buddhist philosophy at all. To this extent, one can say that the film is an exposition on the problems confronting religious philosophy in Japan’s feudal past. It is a reflection of religion’s inability to control aggressive human impulses that Japan was one of the main participants during World War II – a bitter and tragic episode that ended with the dropping of nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
A facet of the Samurai tradition is its upholding of honor about all else. For members of this warrior caste, valor and fulfillment of duty are of utmost importance. They would rather die than be dishonored and disgraced. One of their important duties is to protect and obey their feudal masters during their military expeditions. The honor of the Samurai depends on the upholding of duties. In the film we see numerous illustrations of courage and sacrifice on part of the Samurai as they attempt to keep their honor. It is ironic that the two opposing camps in warfare (both composed of Samurais) are united by this common virtue. In this respect, it is fair to claim that irrespective of who wins and loses the war, it is the Samurai and his set of values that come out victorious. Though the director Haruki Kadokawa does not focus much on this aspect of feudal Japan’s culture, it is available to the careful viewer of the film. Thus, alongside insights into politics and social structures of late medieval Japan, the audience is also exposed to the virtuous aspects of Japanese culture as exemplified by the Samurai code of honor.
Coming back to Kagetora, he is the hero in the film for several reasons. He has an understated dignity about him that comes through in his behavior, thoughts and words. He is quite contemplative for a feudal warlord – an exception to the rule. There are many shots in the film which show him gazing at landscapes in a state of meditation. Perhaps, this confusion is a reflection of broader social changes sweeping Japan of the 16th century. It was a period when feudalism’s divisive politics is being challenged by the unifying spirit of Japanese nationalism. Kagetora can be seen as a champion of this transformation. In him we have a heroic figure who practices the Buddhist principle of compassion toward fellow human beings. In this regard, showcasing of Buddhist philosophy is a recurrent theme in the film, although it is not emphasized cinematically. Rather the Buddhist theme is like a silent and subtle undercurrent that yet informs the narrative. The film is worth watching for value-additions such as these.
Though the film is rich in historical and cultural detail, it is poorly made. For example, the plot is quite weak; the drama is contrived and drawn out. The only well made sequences are those of the fights, which are, again, a little too long at places. For the student of history and political science this need not be a deterrent, as what is important is the substance and not the style of the film. The film has plenty of allusions to Japanese history, culture and philosophy. The illustration of these themes through the format of cinema makes for an interesting experience. Hence, despite obvious drawbacks in terms of the product being a commercial cinema, it is worth watching merely as an educational material.
As a concluding thought, I would like to add that, of all the information gathered in the film, it is its portrayal of Buddhist thought that I find most impressive. The way in which the message of peace (in the form of Buddhism) is contrasted against the theatre of warfare is interesting and thought-provoking. The film is relevant to contemporary audiences too because war is not a feature confined to medieval Japan but is a recurrent event even today. It is a malaise afflicting all subsequent generations all across the world. In this backdrop, it is a meaningful exercise for the audience to think about the film’s underplayed message of peace as against its more dramatic enactment of war and bloodshed. Today, with more than ten powerful nations equipped with nuclear warhead capability, we need a culture of peace more than ever. This is not only urgent in the realm of geopolitics, but also in interpersonal and social relations.
Haruki Kadokawa, Heaven and Earth (Ten To Chi To), released in 1990 in Japan, produced by Yukata Okada.