Multicultural vs. Fantasy–Some Observations (and a Review of 13 Assassins)

I watched 13 Assassins on my day off the other day, and can I just say, “Whoa!” (in my best Neo voice.) The movie is a samurai flick, all about a group of fighters who are tasked with killing an evil ruler who’s on his way toward positions of greater power. It’s a brutal movie, and I absolutely loved it. (Not for everyone by any stretch, though. Very violent. You’ve been warned.) But I’m a sucker for Samurai movies to begin with–this one was right up my alley.

Which got me thinking . . .

Why is it that I like multicultural movies so much? I mean, I just reviewed White Wedding, which appealed to me at first just for the insights it gave me to a different culture. Contrast that with 13 Assassins, which I really enjoyed, and the main similarity is just the multicultural aspect.

In some ways, I think really well done fantasy and really well done multicultural literature ends up accomplishing many of the same things: they present an alternate world view so well-conceived, so well-executed, so complete, that they let readers (or viewers, in the case of movies) see the world from a different angle. In 13 Assassins, for example, one of the driving motivations behind much of the action is honor. These men are honor-bound to do what they have said they would do, and they’re willing to do anything to keep that obligation. The film starts with a man committing Seppuku (ritual disembowelment). Very long scene, quite detailed. Gives you a very good idea of just how horrible an experience that would be. Why did he do it? It turns out his honor had been wronged and he wanted to publicly protest.

That’s quite a protest.

The honor motivations continue throughout the film. The evil ruler has a Samurai in charge of his security: Hanbei. He’s a man of honor, and he knows full well that the things his lord do are horrific, terrible actions. And yet he does nothing to stop the man, other than (now and then) trying to suggest the lord do something else, instead. Why? Because he’s honor-bound to protect the man. It isn’t his place to stop him. It’s his responsibility to make sure his lord lives a long life.

If the movie were poorly executed, this wouldn’t make any sense whatsoever to American audiences, because our sense of honor is wildly different than the Japanese ideals. In American cinema, a man who sat by and did nothing to stop a murderer would be branded a coward and despised. Likewise in White Wedding, some of the actions of the characters don’t make any sense from an American viewpoint.

So why, as an American, do I like these movies?

Because they’re internally consistent. Because they’re done well enough–with good enough characters and plotting and story-telling, that even as a non-member of the culture involved, I can see and understand why the characters are doing what they’re doing. I can see how important honor is to the Japanese, even if my own idea of the matter is different. (NOTE: I’m not by any means an expert in Japanese culture. It’s certainly possible that the film depicts some aspects incorrectly. That would be really disappointing, but hopefully it wouldn’t invalidate the point I’m trying to make.)

Fantasy does the same thing. Or at least it can, if it’s done correctly. One of the things I enjoyed most about writing Vodnik was that the Slovak fairy tale creatures are quite different from the fairy tale creatures most of us have already encountered. In the book, the main character (Tomas) has a conversation with his cousin (Katka) about this:

Katka sighed. “You and your movies. This is real life. Our folk tales are much less violent than your American action films—at least as far as vodníks are concerned. In the tales, they are basically friendly and mischievous.”
“Sure,” I said. “Right until they drown you.”
“But even then, vodníks are just doing what they do. In our stories, the make-believe creatures are the way they are. They do what they are made to do. It is the people—the humans—who are good or bad.

Slovaks don’t have fairy tale creatures that are evil just to be evil. They do what they do, but that doesn’t necessarily make them evil. Vodniks are water spirits that drown people (typically children) and steal their souls. But they’re often depicted as being friendly and funny in Slovak pop culture. They’re not bad. They just drown people.

To an American, that sentence makes no sense, but I’ve had many conversations with my wife about the subject, and it makes perfect sense to her.

In both fantasy and multicultural art, one of the goals is often to recreate a different world in a way that even outsiders can understand it. Yes, there’s some fantasy that’s nothing more than bulging biceps and shooting fireballs. But in Tolkien or Jordan or Martin, you’ve got entire worlds created, where people behave in ways that might not make sense to us, but make perfect sense to them. The authors took the time and energy to think out how cultures would behave, and to depict them accurately.

Am I saying there’s no difference between an elf and a Slovak? Obviously not. But in the effort it takes to create a realistic fantasy setting and a realistic multicultural setting? Those seem to be closer to being the same thing than you’d think at first–or than I’d think, at least.

Anyway. I’m out of lunch break now, so I guess I’ll have to leave it there for now. Hopefully that made sense. Anyone have anything to add?

2 thoughts on “Multicultural vs. Fantasy–Some Observations (and a Review of 13 Assassins)”

  1. Slovaks don’t have fairy tale creatures that are evil just to be evil. They do what they do, but that doesn’t necessarily make them evil.

    This was one of the things that fascinated me about the film Spirited Away—no one in the film was really entirely good or bad. The main character had antagonists, to be sure, but they were presented as having understandable motivations and agendas.

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