Samurai X and St. Bonaventure

This is interesting.  I got the option to combine Anime and Philosophy on a paper a while back.  Despite a certain stuffiness of style inherent in all such work, some of my dear readers might appreciate it.  Especially how it remarks on the Christian themes found in Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal.  You might want to read St. Bonaventure’s Journey of the Mind to God before reading it, and I congratulate beforehand anyone with the stamina to go through it all.  : ) Let me just remark that much of St. Bonaventure’s work relies on the idea of steps leading the mind up to God as symbolized by a six-winged Seraph bearing a crucifix.  Each of the wings is a different step with the Cross, or the Mercy-Seat, being the highest step.

Here’s to a long academic article with pictures!

Turning one’s countenance to the Mercy-Seat: A Bonaventurian Reading of Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal

This essay will concern the Bonaventurian theme of the importance of the Mercy-Seat between the two Cherubim and meditation on the Passion and Death of Christ in healing the wounds in our nature as found in the movie Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal. Set in the last days of the Tokugawa Shogunate just before the onset of the Meiji Era (circa 1864), the film begins by presenting the problem of evil and questioning how to cure it. The two divergent paths offered by the characters for curing the ills afflicting society are justice and mercy. Overall, the film offers mercy and forgiveness as the best ways to overcome the wounds caused by evil. Specifically, it points to the reconciliation brought about by Our Lord’s sacrifice on the cross as the best and only way in which this is effected. The main problem with justice is that it relies on human beings who have flawed notions about how to distribute justice. Ofttimes, murder passes for justice in certain cases, particularly in our hero’s mode of being an assassin. Instead, mercy is more effective and more divine, the last attribute being made most apparent by the film beginning with a cross and ending with a cross.

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The very first words of the film, spoken by Kenshin’s master shortly before they meet, are “They are sick, the times and men’s hearts.” He goes on to lament that not even a man of colossal power could fix it, which I believe begins to point to the fact that only God can bring salvation. While Bonaventure does not delve much into the fallen state of the world, he does note the personal sins and vice affecting men’s souls and how it is necessary to polish them in order to enter contemplation: “Wherefore, it is through groans of prayer through Christ Crucified, in whose blood we are cleansed from the filth of the vices, that I first of all invite the reader.”1 The film powerfully shows the corruption afflicting mankind at the same time as Kenshin’s master laments it. Bandits slaughter the caravan in which Kenshin travels during this monologue, and Kenshin’s master only arrives in time enough to save Kenshin himself.

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The wounds on the people seem to reflect the wounded nature of men’s souls and the ugliness of the wounds clash with the beauty and goodness with which nature was created. To highlight this, this animation contains many views of beautiful scenery, which the characters often praise and which are sometimes juxtaposed to the murders which happen against this background. For example, when Kenshin joins the revolution as an assassin, he cuts down his first mark amidst a beautiful forest on a sunny day. This seems to deliberately attempt to show that men’s sinfulness goes against the goodness of creation. To highlight the discordant nature of the act, this scene is accompanied by some rather mellow music. (This is the case in the original soundtrack: the American release often dubs in music which are more in accord with the darkness of the action than the nature of the scene.) This ties into Bonaventure’s theory on the musical nature of the universe—drawn from St. Augustine’s work, which is found in chapter two of Journey of the Mind to God. God creates the world as a beautiful symphony, and men are supposed to align themselves within this symphony.

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In the case mentioned above, to a comrade’s praise for for not cracking during his first kill. Kenshin responds by saying that he does not feel anything. Rather than allowing the beauty of nature around him to understand the ugliness of his action, he hardens his heart against this inclination, which shows how contemplation does not suffice for bringing people to conversion.

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To return to Kenshin meeting his future master of swordsmanship, the wandering master leaves Kenshin to find a family to adopt him—a rather callous thing to do to a young boy. Yet, the master returns one week later to this same area in order to bury the bodies of the slain to find a field of crosses at that place. Kenshin decided on his own to bury all the slain, peasants and bandits, without exception. Not only did he owe nothing to the bandits, but he was actually a slave to those in the caravan. The sword master is so impressed by this act that he decides to adopt him as his pupil. This scene is the first time we see the cross, the Mercy-Seat, and it is accompanied by an act of mercy. This kind of mercy and forgiveness can heal whatever rancor Kenshin felt against both parties. His master will often remark on how pure Kenshin is during their years training.

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Unfortunately, Kenshin forgets the superiority of mercy and walks down the road of justice—or, more properly speaking, human justice (jinchuu in Japanese). At this point, Kenshin is a capable swordsman of about fourteen. (Very young, but it must be remembered that in American colonial times fifteen was the age one entered the militia.) In a scene reminiscent of the story of the prodigal son, he urges his master to let him participate in the conflict against the oppressive Tokugawa Shogunate. His master tries to dissuade him, noting that he shall become a pawn for one of the factions in this battle and that they shall use him for murder. Kenshin still insists upon how joining such a faction would help the suffering, and so his master lets him go.

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It is interesting to note that this training took place on a mountain top, and that Bonaventure’s contemplation of St. Francis’s vision of the six-winged Seraph took place on a mountain, and he often refers to mountains as a place for contemplation: “the mountain height where the God of gods is seen in Zion.2 Kenshin goes wrong when he decides to leave from the mountain, and it is not until later, when he has stained his hands with the blood of so many of his political opponents, that he again ascends a mountain and arrives at a level of peace in his soul and the realization that he had been doing wrong. Both the film and Bonaventure place a high regard on contemplation and removing oneself from the press of daily life. But, the methods of contemplation employed by Kenshin never goes beyond the second wing of the Seraph, which points to its insufficiency in completely healing his soul as I shall speak of later. Rather, he must perceive his wounded nature and bring it to the cross.

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After a while at this work, Kenshin runs into a target with a couple of body guards during the midst of night. The last one of them alive, a young bodyguard who is betrothed to a girl in his hometown of Otsu, wounds Kenshin on the cheek before succumbing to Kenshin’s prowess. Two remarks from the film are notable concerning this wound, both of which are delivered by the person in charged of cleaning up the scene of the crime. In the first, he remarks that he had never thought to see a wound on him. This wound symbolizes the interior wounds he has and will lead him out of the self-assurance he has that he kills justly. This is not the kind of attitude one must bring to meditating on God’s goodness, which must be sought by “the humble and pious, the contrite and devout.”3 Kenshin severely lacks any of these qualities in his current state, two years into Lord Katsura’s service.

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The first motion we have of Kenshin’s interior change comes when his associate says his second remark. When Kenshin’s wound randomly reopens, he tells him that superstitious people would say that the spirit of the bodyguard is seeking revenge. Kenshin’s eyes widen, and for the first time we see that he is capable of fear—fear that he might have done something worthy of punishment. This salutary fear may be compared to fear of God, which is the beginning of wisdom. If the seven chapters of Bonaventure relate to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the first of which being the fear or awe of God, then Kenshin has finally reached the first step in the ladder of divine ascent.

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He reaches the second when he meets the heroine, Tomoe, for the first time. They meet right as Kenshin kills an assassin who had been sent after him, causing blood to fall on her apparel. In a state of intoxication, she tells him that he made the rain bleed. This seem to be an reference to how the fall caused nature itself to be corrupted, and Kenshin, by sinning in Adam, has further added to the fallen nature of the world. At any rate, Tomoe passes out and Kenshin charitably decides to bring her to the inn where he states, where she soon finds work and they develop a rather stiff relationship—Kenshin is not the most approachable individual.

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After his faction loses power in Kyoto and all the member must go into hiding, Kenshin and Tomoe are asked by Lord Katsura to escape the city and reside far in the country pretending to be husband and wife. Tomoe, who had left her family in Otsu, agrees. Through living in the country upon his mountain home and performing an honest living, Kenshin gradually begins to hate the life he had led, and promises to quit the life of an assassin. At the same time, the pseudo-couple falls completely in love. While love is not expressly named as a step of contemplation, it is surely the fastest way to having a fuller understanding of God, who is Love and who’s very Love led him to die for us on a cross.

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At this point, the stage is set for the Passion. Purification cannot be complete without contrition and meditating on the Passion. One morning, Kenshin awakes to find that Tomoe has left and his comrade waiting for him at the door of their cottage. This comrade had actually turned traitor ere this point and is now working for the Shogun. He tells Kenshin that Tomoe was the fiance of the bodyguard who wounded Kenshin. Upon learning this, Kenshin’s wound opens up again—as if to say that no amount of spiritual healing is complete without the blood of Christ. And so, he sets off to find her.

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At the same time, Tomoe, who has long since forgiven Kenshin’s crime, reports to the Shogunate soldier who is responsible for Kenshin’s dispatching that Kenshin is still as formidable as ever. (They had been hoping that his skill would worsen during this time with his lack of practice and the softening of his heart.) This particular soldier refuses to believe her, and Tomoe fails in her attempt to kill him with a dagger she carries about her person.

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In a scene reminiscent of the Agony in the Garden, the Shogunate official reminds her of the justice owed her fiance and how the strict order imposed by the Shogunate, which restrains man from acting on their baser self, needs to be preserved through killing its opponents. And so, we see how the other side of the political spectrum also resorts to a flawed idea of justice. He eventually leaves her in the Shinto shrine where they had met, where she is tormented by visions of her former fiance, which seem to demand justice.

At the same time, Kenshin undergoes his own suffering as he feels betrayed by Tomoe and seems to relive the past on his march to where the Shogunate official has set his trap. This march is reminiscent of the Agony in the Garden due to his mental anguish. Also, at the end of it, he shouts, “Let’s go to Otsu!” This indicates that he does not wish to avenge himself on Tomoe, but to be reconciled not only with her but even perhaps with her family. So, we have the beginnings of the triumph of mercy over justice. This symbolizes the mercy which heals men’s souls.

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After taking wounds defeating the henchmen who ambush Kenshin on the way, he finally meets the powerful Shogunate soldier in a duel and almost loses. He puts all his strength into one final, blind, and futile strike. What saves him from certain death is that Tomoe rushed in front of the dagger heading toward Kenshin to block it and is unfortunately cut down by Kenshin simultaneously with the Shogunate soldier. We are left with two more images of the passion as Tomoe lies in Kenshin’s arms in a way recalling the Pieta and Tomoe, as her final act, makes a cross on Kenshin’s cheek by cutting perpendicularly to the cut made by her fiance. At the end of the film, Kenshin vows to live a life repenting for his misdeeds.

In conclusion, the film seems to showcase Bonaventurian ideas pertaining to the necessity of penance and meditation on the Passion before the soul stained by sin can meditate on the natural world and arrive at a true understanding at the nature of things. While justice is important in ruling individual lives, preference is given to mercy in restoring the order of creation, which had been damaged by sin. Thus, the Mercy-Seat holds the prime place in both the philosophy of St. Bonaventure and the creator of Samurai X.

1St. Bonaventure. Journey of the Mind to God, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993), 2.

2Ibid., 8.

3Ibid., 2.

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4 comments on “Samurai X and St. Bonaventure

  1. TWWK says:

    I read through the entire essay – it was a delightful read! I really, really, thoroughly enjoyed it! I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, but I believe Samurai X is as close to “perfect” as any anime I’ve seen, and so it was exciting for me to read an essay on it making such references to faith. Great work (I hope you received a good score)!

    • Thanks! Sorry for taking so long to reply! (This semester is a complete mess.) I did receive a very high mark for this essay, and I was delighted to talk about what I found so cool about this story.

      And I think of this film as just about perfect too. Some people might find it a bit slow, but that’s the only legitimate complaint I can see of it. Though, Marlin-sama disagrees–as we know.

  2. [...] Medieval Otaku posts his academic essay on how Kenshin’s journey in the first two OVA’s (Trust and Betrayal/Samurai X) parallel to St. Bonaventure’s steps leading to God in Journey of the Mind to God. [Medieval Otaku] [...]

  3. […] a professor who doesn’t mind when I mix anime and philosophy.  I wrote this prior post on Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal for his class.  This particular post relies on a Schelerian reading of Attack on Titan […]

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