Samurai and Superheroes

Now that I’m done with school, I have time to do a lot more (and a lot less). It’s kind of strange, to be honest, having nothing specific to do yet. Finding a job is doing something, but it takes time, and–well–you have a lot of time left to yourself when you don’t have something like a job or school taking up your day.

So you get to do stuff like help your family move to a new place, and go see Captain America: the Winter Solider with your dad. That movie actually sat better with me after a second viewing, though I really liked it the first time I saw it, too. It got overshadowed in my mind by The Amazing Spider-man 2, but now that I’ve seen both films two times I like Captain America 2 better. Let me explain a little bit of why.

Right before I went to see the movie with my dad, I had just finished watching Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal. My initial reaction was pretty much

Loki Screaming GIf 1


so I was in the mood for something happier. Thus I was glad I was going to the movies with my dad. But what does Samurai X have to do with Captain America?

More than you’d think, actually.

I was struck by how idealism was dealt with in both films. Both Kenshin and Cap are idealists. Hiko, Kenshin’s mentor, considers him “pure,” and that’s why his baka deshi makes the decision to join the fighting: Kenshin doesn’t yet understand all the consequences of killing to bring about peace. Interestingly enough, his idealism helps Kenshin understand this and ultimately wins over cynicism. Kenshin makes a vow that after the war is over he will never kill again. In a post-modern world that loves anti-heroes, that probably sounds extremely idealistic and unrealistic, but that’s what Kenshin takes from his experience–and he has an up-close-and-personal relationship with dark, gritty, and realistic.

SX Trust and Betrayal 1

Like Kenshin, Cap is an idealist, except he’s a bit more aware of war’s grim realities. When Cap objects to the preemptive strike plan that the Insight program implements, Fury points out that the Greatest Generation didn’t exactly have clean hands either. Cap replies, “Yeah, we did somethings that made us not always sleep so well at night. But we did it so people could be free. This isn’t freedom.”* In this instance he has the “ends justify the means” sort of idealism that Kenshin initially has. Otherwise, Cap tends to be all about doing things the right way and being upfront, honest, and straightforward–thus his anger at Fury for keeping information from him, and his constant questioning of Natasha’s lying lifestyle.

Furthermore, Cap never abandons his idealism no matter how much people tell him he needs to adapt to a new era and get up to speed with the modern world, to be “realistic.” It’s not as if life isn’t trying very hard to make him a cynic–HYDRA survived and turned his best friend into a brainwashed assassin–but Cap sticks to his idealistic guns to the end. He’s even willing to die for Bucky in the hope he comes to remember who he is. Kenshin’s idealism takes similar blows, in the sense that he realizes how awful being a murderer is, but he too never relinquishes his essentially idealistic outlook on life.

Cap. America WS 1

The thing is, the heroes aren’t the only idealistic ones here: the villains are idealists, too. Alexander Pierce, head of HYDRA, says early on in the film (and here is what particularly struck me) that to build a better world one has to tear down the old one first. Guess what? The shogunate general Tatsumi says that exact same thing in Trust and Betrayal. I hate to call anyone in the latter film a villain in the sense that Kenshin’s side was right and the other wrong because I don’t know enough about the Tokugawa shogunate or the Bakumatsu (though I have a book on the Shinsengumi literally sitting on my desk waiting to be read). However, from the film’s perspective he is a villain because he tries to kill Kenshin and because he thinks the ends justify the means.

The fact that both men envision a better world where people can be free (or in Pierce’s case, safe from freedom) and actively pursue that goal demonstrates that they are most certainly idealists. Nowadays people are under the misapprehension–or at least I used to be–that idealism was distinct from practicality, but this is not the case. Idealists can be eminently practical–and ruthless. It is these villains’ idealism that motivates them to commit atrocities.

Cap. America WS 2

Is this a vindication of what the world today considers “realism”? By no means. Because what the world considers realism the villains possess in spades, and that is cynicism. They have a fundamental despair concerning humanity’s goodness, in the basic goodness of human nature. In Samurai X, Tatsumi says, “Every man is full of sin. We live and die in sin. It is our fate.” In Winter Soldier, Pierce claims that diplomacy and negotiation are just band-aids; direct (violent) action is the only answer. These men have no hope.

And that’s what distinguishes their idealism from Kenshin and Cap’s. Our heroes choose to believe that men are basically, fundamentally good, that creating and nourishing life is always better than destroying it, and that men function best by acting virtuously. Even when faced with the realities of evil and sin, they do not forget the reality of goodness and hope. They eschew cynicism and both they (and the world) are the better for it.

What these four men demonstrate is that idealism does not mean naivete, and cynicism does not mean realism. So let’s stop equating idealism with naïveté and thinking that cynicism constitutes realism. Idealism and realism are not incompatible; neither are idealism and cynicism. Let’s escape from the world that calls despair over human nature realism and hope for mankind’s goodness naive idealism. Let’s be like Himura Kenshin and Steve Rogers, who are both idealistic and realistic enough to have hope.


*Please excuse me; my quotes are more paraphrase than I’d like, but that’s because I couldn’t find any direct quotes on the internet. I have a good memory, and even though I don’t remember exactly how the quotes go myself, I looked at other people’s renditions of the quotes (like on IMDb) and they were way off. So I went with my best remembrance.

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