Heroes Beyond Good And Evil

Theorising Transgressivity In Japanese And Western Fiction

Igor Prusa, Charles University of Prague, The University of Tokyo [About | Email]

Volume 16, Issue 1 (Discussion paper 1 in 2016). First published in ejcjs on 30 April 2016.


This treatise deals with popular heroic archetypes, and it argues that essential parallels exist in transgressive heroic myths in Japan and the West by exploring narrative structures of (anti)heroic myths and popular fiction (predominantly film) as social history with a sociopolitical background. We offer two layers of theoretical framework. Firstly we examine various hermeneutic aspects of “transgressive heroes” (those characters that are honourable and “culturally permitted” despite their moral ambiguity, extralegal violence, or personal vendetta). Secondly, we conflate methods of Japanese philology, media- and film studies, and observe the production/consumption patterns of culture-specific heroic archetypes (cowboy, samurai, yakuza, gangster, social bandit, military hero, and so forth). Here, we depart from the perspective of Friedrich Nietzsche (i.e., the dichotomy of Dionysian versus Apollonian ideals of conduct) in order to illuminate the aspect of fascination by heroes being morally located beyond the conventional categories of good and evil. The originality of this study lies in delineating how elements of transgression and disorder are inculcated into popular narratives in a hegemonic manner, i.e., via a hero-icon that leaps beyond conventions that bind people in society.

Keywords: hero, antihero, transgressive fiction, Japanese heroes, Western heroes.


In American cinematography we encounter many film heroes who break free from the queue, refuse to accept the mindless conformity of the masses, or indict consumerist madness. Kevin Spacey stated in 2015 that his character in House of Cards symbolises the end of likeable, upstanding characters, while “the anti-hero is here to stay.”1 Similarly in post-war Japan, the outlaw masters of the cinema were always interested in villainous roles, deliberately rendering their morally-ambivalent characters “cool by being uncool.” The prominent directors Fukasaku Kenji or Chiba Shin’ichi were examining corrupt and violent outlaws as somewhat humane and aesthetically uplifting despite their lack of morality (Schilling 2003; Desjardins 2005). In the same spirit, the popular Japanese director Kitano Takeshi recently encouraged young Japanese film makers by stating, “you can be delinquent, you don’t have to be a goodie goodie.”2 Interestingly enough, the tendency to abandon the humanistic tradition of “moral perfectionism” does not apply only to the screen. The internationally acclaimed contemporary Japanese artists Murakami Takashi, Aida Makoto, and Ikeda Manabu accentuate in their works anti-kawaii sentiments, or they try to express the strangeness of Japan’s “twisted” parts (one of their joint exhibitions in 2012 was aptly titled Bye Bye Kitty!!!) Especially, the summer of 2015 in Japan seems to venerate transgressivity: Disney Japan kicked off their commercial PR campaign, based on their villain-characters, using the slogan “Welcome to the world of delightful villains” (yōkoso, tanoshikiaku no sekai he); a new car by Suzuki was announced in Japan, promoted under the name “Bandit;” and finally the notorious Japanese serial killer Sakakibara published his memoir and set up a Website where he posted updates about his life.

The concept of heroes and villains pervades every culture and we all seem to feel their magnetic pull. Being either fictional characters or real people, heroes serve to condense the heroic; they are vital to our lives, and we usually have no choice but to be exposed to them. The popular heroic archetypes are one of the institutionalised features that give solidity across time and space (Carlyle 1993; Giddens 1994), and by being re-narrated and re-enacted in human action they provide the frame and backbone of history (Giesen 2006). Interesting in this regard is the “transgressiveness” of many different kinds of archetypal heroes in Japan, as in the West. Especially since the end of previous millennium, the humanistic tradition of “moral perfectionism” (using Stanley Cavell’s term) and conventional heroism seem to be fading out. In this “modern twist” we notice heroic narratives that are typical in overlapping transgression with the norm, while the embodiment of a guilt-free/shame-free antihero, being external to the community he is saving, becomes an increasingly cited icon of postmodern heroic narratives (see Jenks 2003).

Heroic images belong to what we call popular culture, which, generally speaking, represents an extended symbolic network of various shared “myths.” The cultural heroes and celebrity-idols function as an important ‘protective shield’: they are important compensatory means of absorbing negative effects of everydayness and releasing the consumers’ anxieties and stresses (e.g. Lebra 1976; Takahashi 2010; Galbraith and Karlin 2012; Teixeira 2014). More importantly for this study, the popular culture of high capitalism is not only profit-oriented and “programmatic” (Adorno 2005), but it is also political and ‘propagandistic’: heroes and idols relate to the social system and to its power structure since they create socially understood meanings of identity. The moral agenda of mainstream popular culture is that the status quo is good, and that the function of popular culture is to maintain public morale in a non-coercive manner (Warshow 1948; Gramsci 1971; Fiske 1989). Nonetheless, mass culture is always inherently contradictory since it contains both integrative and disintegrative elements that do not necessarily exclude each other. For instance it makes us feel unique, while simultaneously granting us the perception of togetherness, and connecting us with a wider mass of people who enjoy the same mediated phenomenon. This dual desire to stand out and blend in is also reflected in the psychosocial drama of many cultural heroic images. Further, popular culture in capitalism is contradictory because it uses the resources provided by the dominant social system, but it uses them in ways that are not intended by the dominant social system (Fiske 1989; Adorno 2005). Finally, the contradictory aspect of popular culture lies in a “cultural permission” to engage in various forms of mediated transgressivity. In other words, through the works of fiction we are being culturally allowed and encouraged to enjoy the “good-bad guys” (Mast 2006, 124), “bad heroes and good villains” (Seal 2011), “social bandits” (Hobsbawm 1969), “tarnished heroes and charismatic villains” (Porter 2010), and other “unruly superheroes” (Fingeroth 2004) who are angry and violent without having to be evil. Moreover, within the shift from traditional, clearly defined characterisations, the duality of the hero and the villain become extended beyond the obvious opposition of good and evil. Besides, many postmodern cultural texts enable us to read villain as hero (and vice versa), deliberately withholding any consistent answer as to whether the main protagonist is one or the other.

Media have developed since orality played a significant role in disseminating and maintaining various objectifications of transgressive culture, and they have become ever more complex and persuasive since the arrival of media modernity (e.g. Thompson 1995). Apart from being commercial organisations within the major sector of national economies, the mainstream media also stand for socialising agents that produce popular content in order to fulfill their roles as “socially-responsible” institutions. Further, in order to lend their support to traditional mainstream values and the societal status-quo, they often make use of, and articulate, those symbolic cultural sources where morally ambiguous and ambivalent heroic narratives are located. As a matter of fact, not only the evil, villainous characters, but also the good, “official heroes,” can be emblematic of some form of transgressivity, corruption and “antisociality.”3 If closely inspected, many media representations actually transcend mainstream values, challenge dominant conventions, and thus seem to undermine the symbolic processes of social integration. They include heroic images that operate on the ambivalent border of basic binary oppositions (i.e., peaceful, orderly, brave, civilised versus violent, anarchic, cowardly, savage). Especially in popular urban crime stories, the heroes are external/marginal to the law; they behave in a certain insubordinately individualistic manner; or they actively oppose some form of corruption from the inside (e.g. Sparks 1996).4

We further argue that these transgressive hero-icons are “socially-functional” in their own right: they condense a desire to advocate authoritarian repression and contribute to the maintenance of the social system. Moreover, while being often tied to certain socio-historical contexts, these representations facilitate the maintenance of dominant values, and they can work as safety valves for the troublesome structure/agency relationship. Our main media-related hypotheses are as follows:

  1. The mainstream media accommodate their production to audiences’ demands and their pleasure from viewing transgressivity (including pleasure stemming from decoding violence, which is essential in heroic narratives)
  2. By mediating transgressive, resistant, and morally ambivalent heroic narratives (and rendering them within the framework of popular culture), the mass media help to alleviate psychosocial pressures in a “therapeutic” manner
  3. The mainstream media produce and distribute pre-digested pleasures in order to maximise profit while incorporating previously adopted signs of opposition and resistance through seemingly antisocial, counter-hegemonic narratives.5

Our philological observations depart from Friedrich Nietzsche (1966; 1999) and his main assumption that human beings are inherently inclined to the Apollonian ideal of conduct (drawing and respecting boundaries and limits, worshipping the ethics of moderation and self-control), as we are attracted by the Dionysian ideal (driven towards dissolution of boundaries, transgression of limits, worshipping excess and ecstasy). We argue that this sociocultural binarism—importantly including the transgressive zones “beyond good and evil”—are reflected in heroic fiction of both Japan and the West.

Theorising Transgressive Boundaries

The essential element of conventional narratives is the opposition and confrontation of “goodness” and “badness” as the basic distinguishing marks of moral differences (see below). Besides, the moral narrative always consists of a “dramatic structure” where heroes and villains perform actions and undergo effects, and an “emotional structure,” which links the dramatic structure to positive and negative emotions (Lakoff 2009). The success of any popular narrative requires a skillful orchestration where narrative elements of agents acting morally/immorally are bound to textual elements (Applebaum 2013).

Conventional narratives allow us to present the invisible and implicit structure of a social community through the symbol of the hero and the villain as related to good and evil (the sacred and demonic, the pure and dangerous). Moreover, while departing from a structuralist notion, where a certain tendency to universalism underlies any society’s cultural output, we can state that there is one basic monomyth which underlines heroic myths in one particular culture (Turner 1974; Lawrence and Jewett 2002), or in the human race as such (Campbell 2004; Lakoff 2009). The root paradigm of any hero adventure is separation and departure, trial and victory of initiation, and finally a return (Campbell 2004). The state of tranquil equilibrium is usually the starting point in conventional narratives, but as a matter of fact many heroic representations are already set in a broader historical context of disorder, instability, and crisis. Even the oldest heroic narratives in the East, as in the West, are played out on a background of culture at the edge of utter corruption and destruction (Campbell 2004). Similarly, the hero-banditry becomes epidemic in times of big social upheavals (Hobsbawm 1969); cowboy narratives usually take place at a point of history where order and anarchy are in tension; and most samurai legends are historically located at times of no central government and warlords in military conflict.6

There exist examples, found in both the Japanese and western cultural context, that support the Jungian psychology-based theory of a universal hero, where two opposing archetypes are just two antithetical aspects of the same universal archetype. As early as in ancient mythologies, the gods were presented as uniting the good (benign, creative) and the bad (terrible, destructive) while exhibiting both of those moral poles simultaneously (see below). Similarly, conventional heroes and villains often have aspects of the same character, which encounters a crisis of some sort and chooses to respond to it in a particular way. They are located at opposite ends of the very same spectrum, and the only thing that sets a villain against the hero is the fact that the villain has taken an “alternate path” (Burke 2008, 20). If we take a closer look at various archetypal heroic narratives across action genres, we find that the universe of ethical values, skills, and habits is indeed shared to a significant extent by both the heroes and villains:

  • they both are aware of themselves as being “heroic” (i.e., even ultimately evil characters have no doubt that they are “good”)
  • at the bottom they both defend their honour, and they have a certain system of values, with a deep determination to protect them
  • they are often self-defined in response to certain “boundary experiences” (term by Karl Jaspers), and their personal life usually suffers
  • they share heroic skills (easy aptitude with weapons), traits (rough physicality and aggressiveness), and abilities (strong will to face and overcome fear)
  • they defy sociability, domesticity, and long-term economic success (except for those heroes motivated exclusively by profit in order to fulfill their personal dream/mission)
  • they hold back their private emotions (except for grief for slain partners), reject social values of love and emotional involvement, and they are often asexual7
  • they are often powered by rage or vendetta; they both share a sense of anger beyond cancellation; and they both are often forced to kill
  • they originate and/or operate in liminal social spaces (they come from the periphery, live on frontiers/fringes of civilisation).

We argue that this similarity between adversaries significantly contributes to the exciting, tension-building dynamic within morally ambiguous narratives. It is also one of the reasons why the audiences experience feelings of affinity towards villains in the West (e.g. Wright 1975; Jewkes 2011), same as in Japan (e.g. Barrett 1989; Davis 1996).

Heroes and Sociocultural Idiosyncracies

Heroic characters are more than often neither absolutely good, nor absolutely evil. Virtue is just a “pedagogical prelude to the culminating insight” (Campbell 2004, 41), and in myth, same as in popular fiction, the heroic does not overlap with “virtuous.” Similarly, the heroes’ stance towards various forms of collectivity (village, society, civilisation) renders itself as highly problematic (see below). While operating on various critical boundaries of social acceptance, some venerated Japanese heroes are introverted, nihilist, disintegrated loners, firmly set in the fatalist myth of failure. According to some scholars, Japan’s veneration of failed/tragic heroes is the supreme virtue for which many transgressive/villainous historical subjects are admired (Morris 1975; Hears III 1990). As similarly ambivalent, tragic, and “schizoid” can be approached the heroes of the West, who also understand “how the sickening and insane tragedies of this vast and ruthless cosmos are completely validated in the majesty of Being,” while realising that the “grace that pours into the universe is the same as the energy that annihilates” (Campbell 2004, 134-5). In following pages we show 1) how the transgressive heroes of Japan and the West deconstruct the moral binary of good and evil, 2) how is their relationship to other actors, and 3) what are their intrapersonal struggles and psychosocial pressures.

1.1 Good versus Evil

Good and evil are basic value concepts that permeated human thought since the dawn of civilisation. Various morality tales (both factual and fictional) are always displayed on the backdrop of a wider conflict between good and evil, heroism and villainy, pure and polluted, and so forth. These binary oppositions are exclusively man-made, ideal types built upon the system of opposed categories. Indeed, the structural binaries reveal some general moral grounds, but it is not always the matter of acting in a good/moral or evil/immoral way. A “classical” example of this in literature is Dostoevsky’s “amoral hero,” who is often simultaneously good and bad, whereas denying the very basis of “morality” in a similar way as the Nietzscheian “übermensch.” More importantly, when conforming to criteria of justice, truth, beauty, or efficiency, the transgressing hero is rather judged as behaving consistently/inconsistently with a community’s values, and in accord/discord with a certain “pure” ideal (see below). Consequently, the culture-specific heroes both reflect, and are reflected by the world that produces them, inviting admiration, loyalty and adoration however immoral or perverted it may be (Carlyle 1993, 19).

The age of (post)modernity further asserts that there are no “moral phenomena,” but always only moral interpretations of phenomena that are judged as “good” if conforming to the relevant criteria (Nietzsche 1966; Lyotard 1984).8 Intellectuals claimed that the beautiful in art is what interests without interest (Kant), while the “morality” of the novel lies in suspending moral judgement (Kundera). In addition, the greatness of western art lies in perpetual tension between Beauty and Pain (Camus), while Japanese culture is constituted by the contradictory notions of Elegance and Brutality (Mishima). Thus, there can be no “moral or “immoral” art since there is only “good art” and “bad art” (Wilde). Finally, the function of “real art” should be to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable (Banksy), while showing “beautifully” the ugliness of Ugliness (Eco). The Japanese directors of transgression only confirm that the idea of a good director and a bad one is in principle grounded on how one interprets certain social phenomenon (see Schilling 2003; Desjardins 2005).

The good becomes a question not only of practical morality, but equally importantly of myth, religion and folklore. Let us consider the transgressivity and moral ambiguity of gods and mythological heroes. At first glance, the Japanese mythology and folklore does not contain any resemblance of the Judeo-Christian construct of sin, adultery, or devil. In Shinto-influenced Japan there is no absolute distinction between the divine, the human, and the natural, while the deeds of the Japanese gods (kami) are actually often depicted as all-too human: the gods have negative human traits such as arrogance and destructivity. For instance the Japanese Shinto god of the sea and storms, Susano-ō is in the old chronicles depicted as a destructive, ruthless, individualistic character, eventually punished by his banishment from the Shinto heaven. Nonetheless, precisely this human-like weakness triggers Susano-ō’s potential as a Japanese cultural hero. In addition, some “antisocial” deeds are a result of the conflict between gods themselves. For instance the venerated Shinto goddess Izanami imposed under the influence of unleashed emotions a deadly curse on innocent mortals, while her daughter, the Sun goddess Amaterasu temporarily took away the life-giving light from the people as a result of power-play between her and the intractableSusano-ō. Also here we find a similar trace in western divinity, whose moral ambiguity results in mankind’s terror: the prominent Greek god Zeus sent Pandora’s Box full of miseries down to humanity based on his conflict with Prometheus, who had stolen fire from the gods in order to benefit mankind. Furthermore, the Norse god Loki both assisted the gods and caused problems for them, while the disastrous consequences in Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey were also randomly understood to be a product of the arbitrary will of the gods. Besides, the classical ancient heroes such as Odysseus, Brutus or David repeatedly used guile or feigned insanity in order to achieve their ends (Hankoff 1975). Even the Christian God in the Old Testament was willing randomly to murder both sinners and devout worshippers, which makes him “the most unpleasant character in all fiction” (Dawkins 2006, 31). Another famous biblical persona, King David, was in the scripture described as a murderer, thief and adulterer, but at the same time “beloved by God,” while on the contrary the pious Job from the Book of Job was actually cursed by God as a result of his dispute with Satan.

Gods and heroes of both western and Japanese religions and mythologies are largely amoral. They contain both the good (positive, Apollonian, “heroic”), and the evil (demonic, Dionysian, “villainous”). They are subjected to passions and rivalries, are revengeful and compassionate, and they live through stories that can be narrated (Giesen 2006, 333-4). They operate in a liminal space of the sacred forces and profane proceedings, and function as trickster-like characters and culture-heroes who actually make human society possible by mediating between good and evil. Besides, by maintaining order with morality “beyond good and evil,” these legendary metaphors and immortal personifications of the laws govern the flow of power from the source while enabling the never-ending dialogue between gods and humans (Campbell 2004).

The monomyth of divine/heroic transgressivity is deeply rooted in archaic cultures since ancient times (see Nietzsche 1966), and this tendency is still present within contemporary archetypal heroes, (post)modern antiheroes. While being informed by the modern notion of antihero, which challenges the conventional plot, the villainous heroes are at times rendered as sympathetic, sophisticated and otherwise “cool.” Apart from their narratological function of disrupting the equilibrium, many misanthropic, cynical and angry heroes (same as the “good enemies,” and charming criminals) have undoubtedly an appealing character. Similarly the Western genre gets more impressive if the villain is given certain psychological taint to shade the colors of his villainy (Warshow 1962). Contrarily to charismatic villains, the good hero can on the other hand become gradually perceived as dull, unattractive, not troubled enough, or simply cliché. Besides, many good heroes seem to be obsessed with finding the “evil” in anything imaginable while attempting to save civilisation without actually sharing its mainstream values.

1.2 Hero versus others

One crucial fact about any hero is his/her moral positioning when confronting civilised others. Apart from the aforementioned basic bipolarity of good and evil, the deep structure of binary concepts underlying heroic narratives is equally reflected in protagonists’ attitude towards their surroundings. In this section we examine this relationship with commoners, local communities, and society as a whole.

The agents of civilisation are in both cultural variations often represented by ordinary townsmen, farmers, peasants, villagers and other smaller communities. They represent a vulnerable social body when facing danger coming from the outside (landlords, conquerors, bandits and other criminals). Peasant societies in particular do not fail to make a distinction between the “good” robber and the “bad one” (Hobsbawm 1969); however, they are at times depicted as corrupt and suffering from “symbolical deficiency” (Campbell 2004, 35), while often functioning only as a background for low comedy scenes (Schrader 1974). When confronting the antagonist/protagonist, they are reluctant to risk anything over the outlaw (Pye 2003, 216), while they are primarily not capable readily to recognise/accept the hero, who might even end up being hated and feared by a world he is sworn to protect (Fingeroth 2004, 135). This is all despite the fact that many hero-legends actually do not have heroism on their agenda, and their action will only eventually become the gain of a community. On the contrary, heroes fight in the name of the law, freedom, social justice, or other “noble” values, but they usually do not stand for the commoners unless they are somehow personally motivated.

Although the folklorist Yanagita Kunio saw in “everyman” (jōmin) the indigenous spiritual backbone of Japan, the commoners usually do not wield any significantly positive aura in Japanese heroic fiction. One explanation lies in the fact that throughout the long history of feudal/Confucian authoritarianism of the Tokugawa police/spy state, the common people were subjugated through complex external and internal mechanisms of social control. The Chinese notion of the Mandate of Heaven, which gave the subordinate the right to rebel against an unfit ruler, was rejected (Wargo 1990, 500), and any form of rebellious sentiment was to be suppressed from within. Nonetheless, some Japanese historical films depict mutual solidarity in the relations between the military and the village as a result of the deep penetration of war ethos into a local community. This was underpinned by the Japanese official military ideology which valued the land and supported traditional peasantry (Davis 1996). Similarly in the West, many villages of New England were generating material well-being and thus became linked in the Puritan mind with certain “moral worth” (Mitchell 2003, 221). Nonetheless, the representation of villagers and farmers was determined by the fact that the narratives were centered on the ownership and use of land, which did not allow for any bigger respect for men without property (Izod 2006, 191).

In both cultural variants the moral polarisation of villains and heroes can be articulated through their engagement towards the agents of civilisation. The villains (or “bad robbers”) attack and exploit the community (they create a lack), while the heroes protect and liberate them (they make up for a lack). As a matter of fact, in many historical and fictional narratives, including the Bible, we encounter the “social bandit” archetype as a force that helps the weak and passive communities before being eventually caught and becoming folk martyrs (Hobsbawm 1969). The romantic notion of fighting for a persecuted community (or for local/national liberation) rationalises antisocial behaviour and is found in both cultural zones. Consider the legendary western outlaws who robbed the nobles and gave the loot to the poor (i.e. the “Robin Hood” archetype), same as the popular thieves and robbers of the Japanese folklore (e.g. Nezumi Kozō or Ishikawa Goemon), or the members of yakuza who were originally protecting the poor of the towns and countryside from bands of looting noblemen. Besides, throughout Japanese history (and especially during the Tokugawa period) many folk heroes and half-myths were represented by peasant fighters who led various uprisings against the corrupt local authority (e.g. Kusunoki Masashige, Sakura Sōgorō, Mito Kōmon, or the aforementioned forty-seven rōnin). Despite committing extra-legal violence, these idealised bandit-archetypes who correct the wrongs done by the unjust social system still have the same romantic appeal in the West as in the East.

1.3 The Hero Psyche

The conventional heroes in the West same in Japan are emblematic of a certain “spiritual” inclination: possessions are irrelevant for them (Warshow 1948), while they become the exponents of the victory of spirit over material things (e.g. Buruma 2001). The selfish, possessive antagonist keeps things (villains keeping loot, hostages, and their “pride”) while the selfless, reactive hero releases things: the “good hero” frees captives, releases a martial energy in order to overthrow a tyrant, and finally he emanates “spiritual energy” once his journey is concluded. The sum of the energy released amounts to what Thomas Carlyle venerated as “clear determinate man’s-energy” (Carlyle 1993, 249). However, in a (post)modern context the renewable source of this hero-energy stems more often from the Sisyphus-like perpetual conflict in our everydayness (e.g. Burke 2008). Apart from the overarching conflict between good and evil, another vital conflict occurs within the hero himself: in both Japanese and Western popular narratives we frequently register a certain psychosocial struggle within the main hero’s psyche. The transgressive heroes were since antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages not fixed entities, but often elusive and labile (Hahn 2000, 10), and many (anti)heroes of today are in the long run often isolated, alienated and struggling characters without any future prospects. They might be tempered by the “tragedy of being super” (Shimpach 2010, 47), but most are left with neither utopianism nor nihilism, but rather loneliness (Jenks 2003).

The western individualistic, nomadic hero, who escapes the boundaries of regions and states, is typically ambivalent in his attitude towards both the society, and himself, while the samurai/yakuza myth encapsulates perpetual conflict and often hopeless struggle for independence and inner serenity. True heroes become perfect only through suffering (Carlyle 1993), are consumed by personal feelings of retribution and other forms of “private neurosis” (term by Fingeroth).

On the one hand, the underworld can be approached as a form of “bent” anti-society, which exists by reversing the values of the “straight” world while being parasitic on it (Hobsbawm 1969). On the other hand, a parallel can be drawn between the yakuza and the Japanese communitarian society, both representing a form of “sociocult” (Lebra 1976), or between the sunao yakuza and the Japanese politicians, who may be serious in their humanity but they cannot fit themselves within the social system (Leblanc 2010, 105). For some, the Japanese underworld represents a stylized microcosm of Japanese society as such (e.g. Buruma 1984; Eisenstadt 1995), but the yakuza members make an understanding of their identity as that of a “victim” or “sacrifice” (e.g. Lebra 1976; Messersmith 2003).

In early yakuza films, their violent acts were culturally decoded as a sacrifice of their individual desires (ninjō) for the sake of the group (giri), which, according to Buruma (1984), resembled the modern Japanese (lonely) crowd sacrificing life to companies. Moreover, the veneration of a hero stems from either achieving, or on the contrary losing control (gaman) over himself. This Zen Buddhism-influenced popular obsession with gaman does not limit itself to the samurai/yakuza discourse, but can be spotted even in Japanese superheroes (Gill 1998).

Within the (anti)heroic genre, we can find characters that are emblematic of preferring individual desires at the expense of subordination: they either have no person with a status of the “parent/teacher” (oyabun), or they refuse the authority of the elder (sempai). Such defiant and active “lone wolves” (ippiki ōkami) are reluctant to conform either to the crowd, or to a higher authority (see below), and they have a particular appeal precisely because docility and subordination is highly regarded in conformist Japanese society (Nakane 1970; Morris 1975).

Similarly, the western solitary hero is opposed to the sheep-like crowd when facing up to the anguish of the human condition. Especially the American hero-monomyth often emphasises loneliness and independence in tension with the claims of the collective, which according to Izod (2006) symbolises the struggle for the collective soul and national identity of white North America. Besides, charismatic religious heroes also break up the social order, and are exempted from ordinary social life and become strangers without ties to the community. The identity of this solitary white hero-archetype is however ambivalent: on one hand they seek connection to a social terminal, and on the other hand they wish to stay apart from it.9 These heroes suffer from a twofold desire to blend in and to stand out. In the midst of their own estrangement, these totemic characters, who range between savage violators and cultivated gentlemen, mediate between raw nature and civilised society, thereby maintaining their heroic aura. This double consciousness can be found in traditional heroic icons of the East, as in the West, and their images place some of their characteristics of both societies in high relief. The Western nomadic hero strives (at least secretly) for the approval of others, including the wish to be “normal.” This direction from self to society can be perceived as “extrospective”: it is a transition from estrangement to communion, from non-availability of the self to at least partial availability (Maynard 1997, 10; Alsford 2006, 47). On the contrary, the Japanese roving hero may have been a member of certain community, but he is often gradually and readily transforming into a true solitaire. Thus, we can perceive him as being rather “instrospective”: inner-directed and departing from the society either for the sake of himself, or as a result of exclusion. This quality can relate to the wandering poet archetype reflected in contemporary Japanese cinema (Iles 2007), while it can be seen in yakuza outlaws and other “tragic gangsters” who draw themselves out of the crowd, eventually fight a losing battle, and die in the process (Warshow 1948; Desjardins 2005). Besides, contrarily to western (anti)heroic narratives, the frequent occurrence in Japanese tales has been the tragic fate of the hero who sacrifices himself while knowing that his sacrifice is meaningless (see Morris 1975). While being tragic and fascinating at the same time, these Japanese heroes are honoured and given as paragons of loyalty (in case of an individual hero, consider the historical person of Saigō Takamori, and in case of a mass hero consider the 47 masterless samurai from Kanadehon Chūshingura).10

Mainstream members of Japanese society will in principle avoid being excluded as a result of behaving/acting in certain unprescribed way. In Japanese (anti)heroic fiction, however, the image of an introspective, (self)excluded persona is considered archetypal. Among many traditional Japanese characters that represent this archetype, worth mentioning is Monjirō (the homeless gambler-rambler-swordsman of the Edo period), who leads a solitary life at the fringe of society, denying any personal attachment to others, thereby turning his back on society. Other antiheroes that behave in a particularly asocial/antisocial manner are Tange Sazen (the nihilistic, mutilated rōnin), Ryūnosuke Tsukue (another prototype of Japanese nihilistic hero), Zattōichi (the blind masseur, wandering gambler hero, and a hired sword), or Musashi Miyamoto (the legendary rover from the 17th century). The character Musashi is emblematic of yet another heroic dilemma: he is caught between the desire to become a warrior, and that of a contemplative Zen monk (Davis 1996, 82). We can register same tension in western characters too: consider, for example, Stendhal’s classical literary hero, Julien Sorel from The Red and the Black, who is emblematic of a tension between the military and clerical interest. The hero psyche is divided between an active self (oriented towards the external world), and the reflective self which passes through the different stages of a sensitive heart (Boltanski 2004, 89). While being torn by two forces pulling in opposite directions, the hero becomes prey to fascination (Gerard 1965, 160).

2. Narrative Modes of Idealising Transgressivity

Within a plethora of Japanese popular texts we deal on a frequent basis with heroes representing powerful military class in feudal Japan (samurai), masterless or unemployed samurai (rōnin), loners and drifters, modern militarists, the kamikaze pilots from the time period of Pacific war, the Japanese underworld (yakuza) and other “secret societies” with a more or less criminal character. These heroes became popular not only in Japan, either owing to their universal applicability (i.e. the “odourless nature” of mukokuseki-eiga), or on the contrary due to their exotic, “orientalizing” elements. At any rate, the displays of their heroism are often in tension with general commonsensical morality. Although these heroes represent the unshakeable authority of a community (family, clan, military unit, etc.) in respective historical contexts, their violent and rebellious behaviour signifies resistance, opposition to the system of morals, the state, or humanity as such. We argue that rendering certain antisocial, transgressive, extra-legal behaviour justifiable and enjoyable is supported by:

  1. positioning of character and a perspective from which a narrative is developed
  2. the main character’s motive (i.e. set of adequate reasons he behaves as he does)
  3. the charisma, appearance, and personality of the heroic character (and the actor)

2.1 Positioning

The Positioning of the character in a network of relationships, and perspective from which a narrative is developed, are arguably some of the main strategies for bending our moral values when decoding certain antisocial behaviour/action. For instance, the organisation of Japanese yakuza is rooted in the concept of an effectively functioning social unit with the paternal head of the clan (oyabun) and his loyal followers (kobun) related to each other in terms of “brotherhood” (aniki). Contrarily to representations of workfellows, colleagues, or sidekicks, this conception of gangster-brotherhood draws from pseudo-mysterious elements that bind the members whose shielding organ is family/household (ie as the basic unit of social structure in Japan). Besides, generally the true protagonist of many stories is often of the ie itself, with the ordinary Japanese being in their everyday interactions constantly involved in oyabun-kobun relationships (Nakane 1970; Yamazaki 1994). Consequently, the moral impact of the actors’ criminal activities, thus positioned in the narrative, becomes overshadowed at the expense of vertical relationships of loyalty across the venerated social body. Besides, the antihero can be rendered sympathetic based on the greater evil of criminals he hunts down. Needless to say, these narratological devices are not unique to Japanese heroes. Among countless western mafia films, Coppola’s Godfather (1972) which became enormously successful and influential in Japan, is often regarded as the best example of this pop-cultural attitude, where the seductive power of transgressive ideas and pure violence for the sake of one’s loyalty are mediated in a highly attractive way. Among the contemporary wave of extreme anti-heroism, consider the main characters of the TV-series The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, who claim that everything they do, they do for their family. The mafia/crime films are, however, not the only genre where positioning and perspective largely determine with whom the viewer will side. Consider Petersen’s classic Das Boot (1981) where the audience perspective is positioned within German submarine crew (itself both villainous, heroic, and tragic), or McTiernen’s Hunt for Red October (1990) where the perspective is fixed within a Russian submarine crew, commanded by the charismatic Sean Connery. The issue of cultural/moral relativity is most obvious in us-versus-them narratives that display certain historical events/chains of events from certain geopolitically-biased perspectives (e.g. the Pacific War as heroic struggle for survival against Anglo-Saxon hegemony, versus its interpretation offered by Hollywood; the Cold War examined from the (stereo)typical perspective of the conspicuous CIA hero, versus the non-conventional perspective of the charismatic-but-faceless “villains” of the KGB). Moreover, the moral image itself can shift alongside of the geopolitical course of history: e.g., the Indians were depicted as villains in The Searchers (1956) but as heroes in Dances with Wolves (1990), while the Japanese were depicted as villains in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) but as victims in Come See the Paradise (1990).

Another important case, where positioning and perspective effectively challenges our moral perception, is the allegorical use of prison. Since prison represents one of the least visible parts of the penal system within social control, the dialectics of incarceration and prison break gain high attractiveness in any culture. Moreover, the prison space represents a highly ordered, repetitive and restrictive institution, and it gives action/crime films specific structure and rhythm (Jewkes 2011). In Japanese cinema, many yakuza plots open with the release of the (anti)hero from prison, or they conflate prison break with revenge (e.g. Ishii Teruo’s Abashiri Prison from 1965, or The Big Escape from 1975).11 Seen from the audience perspective, the pleasure stems from reading narratives of transgression, incarceration, and prison break of the main protagonist, and this makes the transgressive prison film one of the most enduring of all cinematic genres.

2.2 Motivation

Another narratological method which morally rectifies violence and renders antisociality as justifiable, is the display of a hero’s motives and his commitment to a certain cause. Emphasised is the goodness of one’s intentions, the “gentle sympathy” (aware), and sincerity of one’s cause (makoto). In the character of a Japanese outlaw it is often emphasised that his fate is one of being a victim of circumstance rather than him symbolising “pure evil” (e.g. Lebra 1976; Barrett 1989). Besides, many “evil” Japanese characters are not necessarily considered villains per se since their conduct eventually contributes to a good cause, or it reaffirms good (old) values. In western action narratives any form of violence of a cowboy/gunman towards his enemies must have a certain moral justification, which “allows” the audience to recognise between morally justified killing, and simple murder. Similarly, in the case of contemporary superheroes, it is “justifiable” to kill, as long as the hero doesn’t do it wantonly (Fingeroth 2004).

In classical Japanese narratives we encounter a certain ambivalence, a fluctuation between condemnation based upon the result of one’s actions, and admiration for the motive behind them. The essential element that facilitates to justify and aestheticize (self-)destruction is the emotional conflict between official loyalties towards one’s status/community (giri), and natural, hardly controllable personal yearnings (ninjō).12 Equally important for romanticising transgression is the larger social background: badness is accepted as part of the human condition, while the sociopolitical setting is essentially a place of corruption and impurity (Morris 1975, 22-3). Besides, some villains are not evil, but rather “misunderstood” (Burke 2008, 41), while it is not, not the character, but “attitude of mind” which is the point of villainy (Alsford 2006, 132). Besides, bad outlaws with enigmatic qualities can be rendered sympathetically as victims of circumstances that are actually more “humane” than the agents of power and social control (also this quality can be found already in Dostoevsky where corrupt people and criminals were often good-natured and sensitive while puritans and moralist were cruel and callous).

The aforementioned emotional conflict is often solved by death (or “purification” by death). Displaying suicide as a mode of self-sacrifice with pure/noble motivation stands for a frequented narrative element in Japanese culture, which was only marginally influenced by the western metaphysics of the “oppressive” life-death binary. The social stigma associated with professional failure is one justification for suicide, and in Japanese culture this is often the case of the samurai archetype whose connection with death is just another part of its image. Throughout Japan’s feudal/imperial history, the act of suicide became associated with the samurai privilege of self-disembowelment on a sword (seppuku), or a violent sacrifice for the emperor (kamikaze). On the one hand, this “gratuitous” suicide can be seen as a culturally-specific failure with nobility (Morris 1975); however, it was also perceived yet another form of “pure snobbery” that was only replaced by an aeroplane or a torpedo (Kojeve 1969, 162).

In the West, the case of romanticised self-sacrifice for the sake of a group and its higher goal can be related to Durkheim’s concept of “altruistic suicide.” Further, the failing Japanese heroes can also resemble the tragic heroic type from ancient Greek mythology, i.e., the individuals who were “simultaneously both mighty and powerless, the paragon of intelligence and wisdom but utterly benighted in the face of fate” (Yamazaki 1994, 116). Through the nobility of a hero’s failure (Moriss 1975), the tragic becomes for the audience an aesthetic form of joy (Nietzsche 1999). In a similar vein, the “evil” characters offer the possibility of aesthetic heroisation: they risk everything and their excess in evil gives them sublime beauty (Boltanski 2004, 139).

In Christian-influenced western cultures, suicide is a form of sin, and in neoliberal consumerist societies the act of suicide, as with private vendetta, is usually denounced, or displayed as “anomic.” In Japanese postwar history, where suicide rates climb especially after financial crises, feelings of shame are directly associated with this act, with many suicides being hidden by victims, or their families (Kato 1969). Nonetheless, in many popular accounts, suicide obtains “cultural permission” to be depicted as a stoic and morally laudable form of self-abandonment. Traditional Japanese heroic narratives that have suicide motive built in their structure render the act as an inevitable outcome of various consequences within interrelated social contexts. Moreover, the audiences’ gratification stems from viewing the actor’s genuine control over his fate, his desire to immortalise his image, or his devotion for the sake of the “spirit of resistance” (teikō seishin). On the contrary however, suicide can also stand for a lost fight with hero’s patience (gaman), a carefully considered proof of enduring love, eventually resulting a romantic double suicide (shinjū), and a genuine expression of loyalty to one’s lord, eventually resulting in “responsibility suicide” (inseki jissatsu). All these motives attract considerable attention in Japan, while the textual enjoyment is backed by the traditional aesthetic perception of the evanescence/pathos of things in life (mono no aware). This sadness about the transience of life is depicted as a “thing of beauty,” and it is regarded as one of the essential elements in Japanese art as such. Although Japan seems to be traditionally fascinated with tragic depictions of suicide, the contemporary popular media perception is more culturally neutral: suicide stands less as an act of sacrifice or atonement of wrongdoings, and more as a manifestation of struggle for identity, or the means of escaping a hopeless future. In contemporary Japanese cinema the Japanese fictional representations of suicide often work as reflections of identity crises, while horror is often found in the everyday and the banal (Iles 2005; Teixeira 2014). Suicide and other forms of anomic behaviour is more often attributed to disintegrative forces of capitalist and consumerist culture, or the effect of technology on the development of interpersonal connections (Teixeira 2014).

Suicide is only rarely an acceptable outcome of any inner conflict within the western mainstream hero. However, the transgressive plot of executing revenge against enemies is common to both cultural versions of (anti)heroic narratives. The underlying need of vengeance seems ingrained in all of us, and we can eventually feel retribution as “biologically necessary.” Unsurprisingly, the heroic narratives of Western/samurai/yakuza films poeticise the act of justice through revenge, no matter how morally problematic and disastrous such conduct becomes in real-life situations.13 Gregory Barrett observes that the western audience does not consider the position of the object of revenge because they naturally identify with the avenging side (Barrett 1989, 104). This is, however, not always the case in Japan where villains are sometimes depicted as victims of consequences or incarnations of suffering. The Japanese hero can be pardoned, or even admired for his retributive “honour killing” (Hendry 2008, 172). Besides, it is usually the celebrated virtue of courage (including the ability to stand up to evil and overcome fear of death) that renders the hero as a sort of Dostoevskian amoral character, or the Nietzscheian overman as “culturally allowed” to do what needs to be done, no matter how distasteful for the common good (Fingeroth 2004, 165).

2.3 Charisma

Finally, it is charisma, the appearance and personality of a hero/antihero (both factual and fictional), through which we are culturally permitted, and even encouraged, to pay tribute to transgressive heroism. Charismatic aspects, which serve as some of the most effective sites of justification, originate from our inherent desire to relate and admire. Fictional characters gain their charisma through submitting to heroism against all odds, by operating outside given conventions while being swayed by “charismatic seduction” (Dayan and Katz 1992, 37), or as a result of reaching beyond known limits through acts of “radical freedom” (Sartre). Apart from the external charismatics of kakkō-ii (cool, smart, and dashing,as opposed to kakko-warui), the audience becomes moved by the hero’s personal sentiments (shijō), moral virtues (waza), or the “elegiac” nobility of his transgressive deeds.

Especially, the aforementioned “Godfather”archetype is emblematic of masking venal acts with a patina of nobility and speeches about justice. The phenomenon of glamorising criminals, however, goes back to the beginning of the 20th century. While relating this to gangster charismatics in real-life, the popularity of the masses was won by the celebrity-turned-gangsters of the 1920s-1930s Chicago underground (represented by Al Capone, or by his “Public Enemy Era” contemporaries Bonnie and Clyde), the 1950s-1960s London’s East End (popularised by the notorious Kray twins), or various serial killers and postmodern “celebrity psychos” throughout history (e.g., Jack the Ripper or Ted Bundy). The real-life well-knownness of these subjects is based on the notoriety of their crimes, their specific aura, and their publicity being at times co-constructed by filmic adaptations and documentary accounts. Due to this well-knownness, these infamous subjects became “popular” heroic signifiers that occupy important symbolic space in our collective unconscious.

In the context of postmodern moral systems, and the widening gap between appearance and form, media technology development was important when generating and maintaining the site of justification of onscreen celebrity-turned-gangsters. Among many other pictures, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde from 1967 or Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers from 1994 illustrates this phenomenon by focusing on killer-couples who become media celebrities. What matters equally in urban crime fiction is the charismatic magnetism of the main actors (e.g. Takakura Ken or Kitano Takeshi as the yakuza prototypes, Marlon Brando and Al Pacino as the Italian-American Mafia icons, or Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson as the vigilante representatives). It was the new technology that accelerated and enhanced the exploitation of the gap while discovering a new code of moral rectitude based on style and appearance. Nowadays the great media events wield a potential to make celebrities of anyone, “whether they are astronauts, journalists, or assassins” (Dayan and Katz 1992, 192). Besides, while mixing with celebrities, politicians and other societal elites prior to their eventual downfall, the transgressive heroes and charismatic villains of the past gained a charisma of (American) “legend,” which can awaken feelings of nostalgia in contemporary audiences.

Finally, closely related to a hero’s charisma is his disguise, which has a long tradition in heroic transgressive fiction with characters as morally and geographically diverse as Zorro (the first masked adventurer from 1919), the Lone Ranger (the legendary masked gunman riding the plains of 19th century America), the American superheroes (Superman, Batman, Spiderman), and their Japanese counterparts (e.g. the Ultraman, launched in 1966, or the Kamen Rider, which debuted in 1971). Within various forms of disguises, the mask is an essential component that can extend the charisma of the protagonist into the realm of vigilante heroism. This is partly based on the fact that a mask is a polysemic signifier: it can be related to the undercover heroic feature of dual identity, or it keeps one from being identified while injecting into one’s action an element of terror and crime. Thus, the mask disables the possibility of being recognised, but it can also enable the “conspicuous hero” to be identified as such, while keeping his hero-motive unspoiled by any shallow interpretation. In Japan, where the role of a mask is of paramount importance for thinking about larger issues of psychosocial identity, many Japanese superheroes are masked.

3. Aesthetic Aspects of Violence and Suffering

One of the peculiarities of modern civilised opinion lies in its refusal to acknowledge the value of violence and suffering. Committing acts of physical aggression can however be perceived as one of those everyday “mental miracles” we take for granted (Pinker 2002), while our refusal to acknowledge this quality encourages the over-moralising of violent images. Besides, the “beauty” extracted from the horrific based on sublimation of the gaze is able to transform any object into a work of art (e.g. Boltanski 2004). The greatness of such art lies in the perpetual tension between Beauty and Pain, while the work of art maintains an equilibrium between reality and man’s rejection of that reality (Camus 1955).

There exists an undisputable appeal of ideas of force and extralegal violence in popular fiction, while the seductive image of a nonconformist antihero is rather attractive to modern readers and postmodern audiences worldwide. Heroic violence is embedded in meaning structures and invested with aesthetic concerns against the backdrop of a certain morality tale within a particular zeitgeist. This section is concerned with the poetics of violence (i.e., the art of representing violence within the cultural systems that enable the art), and aesthetics of violent representations (i.e., why do people want to experience mediated violence) against the backdrop of two different cultures.

As we observed in the previous section, there are multiple factors that contribute to audiences’ preference for, and pleasure stemming from, both explicit and implicit mediation of transgressivity and criminality. Crucial is the positioning of a character in the network of relationships, the perspectivefrom which a narrative is developed, the charisma/appearance of the hero/actor, the quality/style of his acting, the amount of attention (time and space) a hero/villain gets in the narrative, or even the camera techniques that allow the viewer certain para-social intimacy with the screen actor. The experience of the gangster is an experience of art (Warshow 1948), and even unconditionally evil heroes who deviate from dominant norms of humanity can induce a pleasurable reading as long as their behaviour is represented as consistent, emotionally realistic and otherwise “aesthetically uplifting.”

In any given culture, the body of the hero represents a site of assault, injury and suffering.

Additionally, the fact of putting someone’s life at risk is precisely what separates normal obligation from heroism (Boltanski 2004, 15), while the act of killing often represents a critical act in distinguishing heroes from villains (e.g. Fiske 1990, 144). This is also the case of the noble bandits, whose violence and cruelty are among the most visibly effective private resources (Hobsbawm 1969). Especially the white action hero is sometimes primarily understood as a killer who wins at the end of the narrative, while the most significant differences between heroes and villains are that heroes are simply more attractive and more “efficient” (Warshow 1962; Gerbner 1970). Finally, seen from the “postmodern” perspective, violence, brutality and evil come to be regarded as “entertaining” due to the fact that in over-saturated, overwhelmingly visual media culture with countless images of violation, humiliation and cruelty, postmodern audiences become gradually desensitised, more cynical, and “playfully” engaging with displays of violence.

Media violence is comparatively high in Japan and we might be tempted to find something peculiarly Japanese about it. This impression is often based on the share of violence in children programming, on perceiving Japanese pornography as tending towards cruelty and violence, on displays of juxtaposition of sex and death in transgressive fiction, and so forth. However, we can find a similar transgressive essence in western literary accounts as well (consider only the work of the Marquise de Sade, Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, Oscar Wilde’s Lady Fuckingham, Anne Desclos’s The Story of O, or the works of George Bataille). The cultural products that embody certain aestheticising, carnivalesque, and violent qualities of “morbid beauty” and “nobility of failure” go back to the history of art and popular culture in both Japan, and the West. Let us consider the traditional Japanese theatre form (kabuki)that often admires—in a highly stylised fashion—various criminal acts while allocating beauty to the antagonist (iroaku). He emblematises acts of violence through a series of aesthetically uplifting postures and movements (kata). Let us also consider the artistic genre of Japanese woodblock prints where many acclaimed paintings explicitly depict acts of sadism, violence and exaggerated cruelty (see e.g., the works of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Utagawa Kuniyoshi or Ekin). Similarly the celebration of murderous antiheroes in the plays by Tsuruya Namboku, the genre of Japanese adventure novels of the Meiji period (e.g., the work of Shibue Tamotsu), or many works of the Japanese post-war literature (e.g. Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa) emphasise the aesthetic/sadist cruelty. Furthermore, the postwar Japanese transgressive cinema offers controversial examinations of extraordinary, excessive, institutionalised violence (e.g. Fukasaku’s Battle Royale and Battles Without Honour and Humanity, Suzuki’s Branded to Kill, Sono’s Suicide Circle). Japanese manga/anime production (especially the seinen manga and hentai anime in particular) is also replete with violent, sexual content, or explicit sadist depictions bordering on absurdity and the grotesque. Similarly as in case of kabuki’s iroaku, the world of anime “venerates” some characters that look amicable only to hide their real cruel, evil, and sadistic side (haraguro).

Western transgressive culture bears a legacy not inconsistent with that of Japan. The earliest accounts of western literature are actually the classics of violence and vendetta (e.g., Homer’s depiction of rage in The Illiad and retribution in The Odyssey). The ancient Greek theatre form of tragedy is based primarily on depicting explicit human suffering and isolation—although rather in the form of psychological trauma—which offers viewing pleasure owing to the catharsis effect. Many cultural forms (e.g., the Elizabethan drama, or the Restoration comedy in England) became infamous for displaying the horrible, immoral and sexually explicit. Further, in western painting, masterpieces such as Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, or Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son and The Disasters of War series make an innocent the culprit in representation of horrific violence, not inconsistent with the woodblock prints of Yoshitoshi or Kuniyoshi. The modern artistic manifestations beyond good and evil are also found in the West, where noble bandits were emblematic of genuinely unqualified cruelty (Hobsbawm 1969), while countless literary decadents were rebelling against sociocultural, political and religious conventions by going to scandalous extremes. Some claim that the Japanese had discovered the antihero archetype centuries before the West did; however, Japan actually often borrowed the tropes of emotionally tense and tragic melodrama from the West, while many acclaimed Japanese artists were informed by their transgressive European counterparts (see Yoshimoto 1991; Turim 1991; Buruma 2001; Nakanishi 2014).14 Finally the postwar film/TV production in the West came further to subvert conventional notions of the hero/villain model, offering aesthetic pleasure in viewing charismatic aggressors and serial killers exposing their violent morbidity on screen. Violence becoming its own premise was the case of western cinema aesthetics since its very beginning, culminating in ultraviolent films since the late 1960s and the “new brutality” films of 1990s.

Another element common to heroic action in both Japan and the West is the way collective violence is displayed. Since heroism is in this case connected to collective tradition and is understood as a “co-operative enterprise,” the largely impersonal violent encounters are depicted as heroic, noble, or “naturally” inevitable. The displays of group aggression are romanticised while redirecting our moral attention to strong pseudo-familial ties of samurai warriors and their leaders, American soldiers and officers, yakuza/mafia heads and clan members, etc. Subordination and attachment of the individual to a greater social body for the sake of certain common good is another means of justifying and poeticising acts of heroic transgression and extra-legal violence. Further, war battles can be appreciated as visual spectacles with their setting in the landscape, organisation of troops, free movement of men, authentic arsenals, costumes, horses etc. (archetypal for this spectacle in Japan are Kurosawa Akira’s film adaptations of selected war epics). The audience is encouraged to gaze in wonder at war spectaculars that overshadow the general moral context.

One of the basic tenets of affective disposition theory (ADT) is that the audience does not experience real emotion towards the events in the narrative, but they rather experience suspense instead. In factual news broadcasts, the “spectacle of suffering” is centred on the observation (instead of action) of the unfortunateby those who do not share (or directly experience) their suffering (Boltanski 2004). Similarly in fiction, the audiences in both cultural zones operate at a twofold aesthetic remove: it is the “remove of fiction” (i.e., we are cued with the keys of the fictional frame, so we know that the violence is not really happening), and the “remove of affect” (i.e., the violence we observe is for our sake, although it is not wanted by us) (Appelbaum 2013). In other words, in our imagination suffering is presented in an abated form since media-staged emotion loosens its relation to reality, keeping the spectator sheltered. While staying safe from harm by the observed violence, the audience is curious, excited, but also “sadistic” and “personally interested” in violent spectacles. Along with the transgressive, “Dionysian” undercurrents in our psyche, our senses will always be more or less “naturally” attracted to audiovisual orchestrations of violence, perversion, and the weird, which represent an effective source of any text’s imaginary energy.

4. Concluding Remarks: On Cultural Politics of Transgressive Heroes

Mankind lives by a series of narratives, myths, and metaphors that it tells itself over and over. These narratives simultaneously represent authoritative attempts to civilise, educate, and develop (e.g., Lyotard 1984). Likewise, every culture has its heroes that are stored in the collective imagination, and arranged as world-as-fairytale chronicles. The audiences can relate to heroes as ego-ideals, their look can be complicated by masochistic/sadistic desires, but they also stand for metaphorical upholders/opponents of social authorities (e.g. Sparks 1996). As a matter of fact, the heroic tradition has often been co-constructed by various sociopolitical and cultural hegemonic forces, while undergoing symbolic transformation throughout the course of history (see Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983; Dayan and Katz 1992). By doing so, the power holders could until certain extent manipulate the culture of a society whereby imposing certain worldview on the masses in a non-coercive manner (Gramsci 1971). Such hegemonic “mass control” (taishū sōsa) is facilitated by the popular idols and heroes with their ability to shape the zeitgeist and construct socially understood meanings of morality, adolescence and identity. Nonetheless, the media simultaneously circulate fictional contents that appear to challenge convention and authority by questioning and defying dominant social values. We argue that transgressive fiction and its antiheroes are distributed across a society in order to carry out:

  1. the economical role of providing pre-digested pleasures in order to maximise profit
  2. the uses and gratifications-based role of recreating and reanimating the masses
  3. the socially-integrative, status-quo supporting role of “social cement.”

Echoing Friedrich Nietzsche’s assertion that the real drive for our desires lies in desire to desire, Slavoj Zižek insists that the ideological perversion of film lies in arousing desire to play with desire while keeping the Freudian id at safe distance (Nietzsche 1966; Zižek 2006; 2012). This “perversion” is cast upon the mainstream audiences composed of servile, docile bodies (Foucault) who are the rule (Nietzsche). Moreover, they are being trapped in a vertigo of culture industry (Adorno) and excessive consumerism (Zižek), while enjoying the “spectator democracy” of passively witnessing their redemption by a (super)hero. Generally speaking, any ideological engineering of our desires is based on the fact that legitimacy and preservation of a social system (structure) depends upon successful transmission and implementation of ideological components into the cognitive map of its partakers (agency) (Giddens 1994; Lakoff 2009). The big media production companies facilitate such socially-integrative, legitimacy-strengthening transmissions by objectifying “deep myths of culture” (Turner 1974) through various heroic narratives. They can do so explicitly (i.e., through spiritual or ideological mobilisation at times of national/moral crisis), or implicitly (i.e., by inculcating popular fiction with propagandist elements and metaphors of social order, discipline, nation-ness, etc.).

In this critical perspective, the media representations of morally ambiguous, transgressive heroes can be also understood as a form of therapy imposed by the societal structure upon the individual agency in order to compensate for everyday frustrations and existential neuroses. Moreover, in order to maintain the desired social equilibrium it is necessary for the structure periodically to relieve the tension of the agency by confronting social actors with those images of resistance that are residing in their unconsciousness. Since ancient times there has existed a long tradition of officially approved periodical venting of psychological pressures, based on the magnetic antipathy between order and excess (see above). The excess of frustration in the real world can lead to some form of individual anomic behaviour (Campbell’s “schism in the soul”), or collective social disorder (Campbell’s “schism in the body social”). Here, various collective heroic images step in to correct the imbalance in the psychological disposition of a society as a whole (Warshow 1948; Izod 2006).

We believe that the proliferating narrativised transgressivity of anti-heroic characters in Japan and the West have multiple interlocking motives and social functions. Apart from devotedly following the concept of l’art pour l’art (artist’s perspective), or primarily generating profit (producer’s perspective), the latent function of transgressive hero-symbols also lies in maintaining the social order/status quo. Transgressivity is inherent in human beings, and the media cannot ignore this fact. Contradictory cultural narratives incorporate elements of deviance and antisociality, partly in order to appeal to audiences with their critical stance towards authorities. Nonetheless, while it is unthinkable that identification with a certain fictional hero (i.e. utilising his image as one’s ego ideal) can produce rebellious or revolutionary movements on a mass scale, it is much more apt to assume that representing defiant heroes with morally problematic behaviour actually contributes to neutralising the dangers of an impulsive antisocial behaviour. While drawing upon the critical ideology/hegemony theory we argue that there is an “invisible hand of hegemony” operating behind the morally ambiguous, transgressive heroic presentations. In this understanding, the audiences’ passive submission to images of certain “overmanly” heroic forces can be equated to submitting oneself to religion, society, state—and the hegemonic culture industry—while the audiences are steered in a non-coercive, aesthetically arresting way to support the hegemony in question. The spiritual energy emanating from (super)heroic deeds is remolded into an ideological tool, while the heroic narratives become safety valves for the stresses of failing democratic institutions (e.g., Lawrence and Jewett 2002). Besides, many heroic figures only seem to be transgressive—they actually reconcile us to the status quo and reinforce it as being the best possible way for society to exist (Harle 2013).

The hegemonic effect of heroic narratives lies equally importantly in manifestations of heroes’ hardships, struggles, confusions, and failures. The story leads the audience through a sort of healing, re-creative process. While exposing the audiences to hardships and failings of the hero/villain, they become reconciled (by means of this release) to its social dependence: our eventual rebellious impulses are placated by recognising how difficult and vain it is to change the world. Especially, Japanese heroic narratives emphasise this “elegiacmood”(Frye 1957), which becomes generated once the main character dies, becomes isolated, or he fails in certain “noble” way (Morris 1975).

Heroic and villainous images can be negotiated and multiply interpreted, including in ways that resist the preferred reading (Fiske 1989; Hall 1997). While not dismissing the liberating notion of active audiences, according to which media consumers are able to produce meanings when interpreting polysemic texts, we aimed to emphasise the role of contradictory, compensatory, and transgressive heroic narratives in a socially-integrative, hegemony-supported process. It is the case that the civic responsibility rests strongly upon the organs of mass culture, whose function is to maintain public morale, while it becomes a semi-conscious obligation of the citizenship to be “good” (Warshow 1948; Gramsci 1971). It is however not only the displays of goodness and badness, but more importantly, the heroic “beyond good and evil,” which is the invisible force that maintains socially-integrative, consumerist attitudes in a system that assimilates resistance by appropriating its symbols and mediating them back to society in the form of a commodity.


The author would like to express his deep gratitude to Sri Ayu Wulansari (University of Indonesia, University of Tokyo), Joseph Rostinsky (Harvard University, Tōkai University), Patrick Galbraith (Duke University), Lukas Kraus (University of Tokyo), Jason Karlin (University of Tokyo), Ray Asaby (Lousiana State University), and Michael Ely.


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[1] Among other critically acclaimed Hollywood anti-heroic acts, consider Brad Pitt and Ed Norton in Fight Club, Christian Bale in American Psycho, or the masked “terrorist” in V for Vendetta. They poeticise a descent into madness (e.g. Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver, Michael Douglas in Free Fall, Jack Nicholson in The Shining, or Leonardo DiCaprio in Shutter Island), they romanticise/ridicule criminality (e.g. the heroes of Bonny and Clyde, Clockwork Orange, Natural Born Killers, or Pulp Fiction), or they celebrate the weird and perverted in films by David Lynch.

[3] By antisocial we refer to any behaviour that characterises the existence of an individual being located outside society, beyond its mores, and thus deemed contrary to prevailing norms for social conduct, lacking consideration for others, and eventually committing murder, adultery, etc. The term non-social refers to being neither bad nor good, or to lack of motivation to engage in any relationship between two or more individuals. In our context amorality refers to absence of, indifference to, or disregard for morality, while immorality (evil, perversion) indicates doing/thinking something while deliberately not conforming to moral standards.

[4] Consider the hero-vigilante archetype, such as Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, who breaks rules, but knows how many can be broken and still maintain open society. Moreover, many good-hearted cops are loners who intervene in various forms of corruption which comprises human existence. While enjoying mainstream popularity, they struggle with bureaucracy, they are somewhat deviant and dysfunctional in their private life (see Lawrence and Jewett 2002; Fingeroth 2004).

[5] Within the harmonizing pluralism of industrial capitalism, the radical and contradictory voices are defused and rendered as acceptable and profitable commodities whereby transforming revolt into style (Marcuse 2002). Guy Debord (1967) argued in the same spirit that the economics of affluence applies its production methods to spectacular rebelliousness in order to transform dissatisfaction into a commodity. Similar concerns over transforming revolt into style were voiced by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter (2005), who claim that nowadays we live in a system that efficiently incorporates any form of counterculture. Rebellion became one of the most powerful sources of distinction (Bourdieu), driving consumer capitalism, and it is not surprising anymore that shocking nonconformity is a source of good business (Heath and Potter 2005; Zizek 2008).

[6] In the case of the Western genre, it is the period during the westward movement from 1600 to 1920 in America (in particular at the end of 19th century). The Japanese samurai narratives are usually set in the latter half of the Japanese Middle Ages (1185-1573), in particular during the Warring States period (sengoku jidai) between 1467 and 1573. These largely secular, constraining, and corrupt historical periods, where perception of death was particularly tangible, allow a hero to distinguish himself and realise his heroism.

[7] Nothing saps heroic solidarity as much as sexual rivalry (e.g. Hobsbawm 1969; Lawrence and Jewett 2002). Segmenting the element of sexual love out of one’s personality is also the case of contemporary superheroes (Superman becomes vulnerable once he abandons his celibate, Spiderman rescues girls but never marries them, etc.). On the contrary, villains and gangsters occasionally associate with prostitutes and “loose women” (Warshow 1948), or they supplement their sexual attractions by attempting to rape the female protagonist. The Japanese archetypal hero’s love interest is in principle fundamentally detrimental to his quest, and is thus obliterated from the narrative. Besides, the Japanese hero narratives often function as cautionary tales against the lures of romantic love and the loss of male autonomy (Karlin 2014, 84). Similarly the Japanese superheroes such as Ultraman are basically sexless, if not downright feminine (Gill 1998, 35).

[8] Nietzsche went even further and argued that what a time experiences as evil is usually an “untimely echo of what was formerly experienced as good” (Nietzsche 1966, 90). In the Japanese context consider the Japanese warriors of the 6th century Soga clan who were positively valued as “progressives” (i.e., introducing Buddhism as the official religion of the Japanese court), but eventually became rendered as archetypal villains of early Japanese history. Similarly, Ashikaga Takauji (a visionary who established a long enduring warrior polity with his shogunate since 1338) became considered one of Japan’s “three great villains” due to his lack of loyalty to the throne (e.g. Hurst 1990, 517). We can however register the opposite tendency as well: for instance the “last samurai” Saigō Takamori revolted during the late Edo period against Japanese authorities, but he eventually became one of the most popular Japanese national heroes. His heroism should be seen as a partial product of the “invention of tradition” (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983), while the heroic aura of Saigō was determined by the political use of his figure (Berlinguez-Kono 2008).

[9] One example of social terminal is the little Western town in American prairie: the roving cowboy/bandit does not aspire to spend his lifetime in this semi-civilised community; however, he uses the venue for entertainment (bars, prostitutes), for knowledge gain (news, gossip about other rovers), or for purchasing goods necessary for his mission (horses, arms).

[10] Nonetheless, the issue of Japanese loyalty is often far out of proportion to what was actually occurring in the past. First of all, loyalty was usually purchased—it was a personal and contractual arrangement between samurai and lord, fulfilling their mutual obligations. Secondly, many crucial battles in medieval Japan were actually decided by disloyalty, while it was the assassinations, political violence and terrorism that were changing the course of Japanese history as such (Hurst 1990; Eisenstadt 1995; Desjardins 2005, 47). Similarly many samurai/yakuza narratives are often built on a hero’s failure based on forsaking his duty (e.g. Schrader 1974).

[11] Among many commercially successful western films that make use of the prison imagery worth mentioning are Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956), Sturges’s The Great Escape (1963), Schaffner’s Papillon (1973), Siegel’s Escape from Alcatraz (1979), Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile (1994 and 1999, respectively).

[12] Perhaps the most famous display of this moral conflict is found in the original theatre play from 1703 about the vengeance of the 47 masterless samurai, The Treasury of Loyal Retainers (Kanadehon Chūshingura). The law has been evidently violated (Lord Asano drew his sword within the shogun’s castle and attacked the official, Lord Kira, while Asano’s loyal retainers killed Kira in revenge for Asano’s death). Although the retainers were condemned to death, the plot had awakened enough sympathy in the Japanese public to make the government postpone Asano’s sentence, and eventually to celebrate the 47 loyal retainers as national folk heroes. As for the “romantic” version of this conflict, worth mentioning is The Love Suicides at Sonezaki (Sonezaki Shinjū) by Chikamatsu Monzaemon which was first performed in 1703 and adapted for screen by Mizoguchi Kenji (1954) and Masumura Yasuzō (1978). The tragic heroes in the aforementioned narratives became immortalised also due to the fact that they were based on a true story.

[13] Being inseparable from cruelty, vengeance is a “legitimate” activity for the noblest of bandits worldwide (Hobsbawm 1969, 63). As a matter of fact, blood revenge as a form of painful apology associated with displays of courage is the foundational narrative device in canonical masterpieces in Japan, as in the West: consider, for example, the vengeful clash between Achilles and Agamemnon in Homer’s epochal work Iliad, or the Japanese national epic Kanadehon Chūshingura, where Lord Asano’s loyal retainers take revenge on Lord Kira for Asano’s death. Contemporary popular fiction (including the Japanese horror film) is abundant with near-psychotic lust for revenge.

[14] We must not forget the influence of Japanese film narratives on western masterpieces of transgression. For instance, Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange was informed by Matsumoto’s Bara no Sōretsu, Tarantino’s Kill Bill was influenced by Fujita’s Shirayuki-hime, and the classical Westerns Magnificient Seven (Sturges) and A Fistful of Dollars (Leone) are adaptations of Kurosawa’s Shichinin no Samurai and Yojimbo.

About the Author

Igor Prusa received his first Ph.D. in media studies (Charles University of Prague’s Institute of Communication Studies and Journalism) and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Tokyo (Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies). His research interests include Japanese media culture, media scandals, and antiheroes. Majoring in Japanese and German Philology, his master’s thesis dealt with textual and visual analysis of Japanese advertisements. His first doctoral thesis explored the character and transformation of media, communication and the media-political complex in Japan. In his present doctoral thesis Prusa theorises Japanese media scandals. His academic articles include Media, Scandals, and Society: a theoretical introduction (University of Tokyo, 2015), Megaspectacle and Celebrity Transgression in Japan: the 2009 Media Scandal of Sakai Noriko (Palgrave MacMillan, 2012), or Scandals and their Mediations: Theorising the Case of Japan (electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies, 2010). Apart from his academic activities Igor Prusa is an active music composer in Japanese projects sushi in da house and nantokanaru.

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