When you take up a sword, you must feel intent on cutting the enemy.
– Miyamoto Musashi, Go Rin No Sho
The Associated Press have reported a dramatic tale of self-defense with a katana:
A Johns Hopkins University student armed with a samurai sword killed a suspected burglar in a garage behind his off-campus home early Tuesday, hours after someone broke in and stole electronics.
According to police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi:
Around 1:20 a.m., the student heard noises behind the home and noticed a door to the garage was open. He grabbed the sword and confronted the intruder – identified by police as Donald D. Rice, 49, a habitual offender who had just been released from jail.
Tellingly, the article notes, “Guglielmi did not know why the student kept a sword. He said he may have had some martial arts training, but was not an expert.”
I think we know why the student had a Japanese sword. This is a 21 year old chemistry student; it is not a stretch to suggest he is an otaku. Interestingly, the media have not suggested that anime, manga, or video games are responsible for his violent act. While at first this appears to be a rare act of restraint by Fred Thompson’s ilk, consider that violence was an appropriate response here – possibly not the best, but certainly understandable. Wouldn’t admitting that being influenced towards violence may actually be beneficial in some circumstances undermine the efforts of those who scream for censorship?
To be honest, there is a notable heroic streak in anime fandom. Whether this is the result of anime molding impressionable young minds or the result of those who yearn for a finer world turning to escapism is a chicken-and-egg problem. The important part is that some part of the otaku mind sees itself as the stern avenger, the ally of justice, the magical girl punishing evil.
What did this otaku, who might as well have been you or I, feel as he ended a life? Was the sword heavy in his hands? Did he note with perfect clarity the sweat beading on his own forehead and stare into the surprised eyes of the invader as he brought the blade down? Was the shock of steel meeting flesh a feeling that would linger in his memory to the end of his days? Was he hit by the spatter of severed arteries? Did he automatically, unthinkingly cut the air with his sword after it was over, to shake the blood off?
And yet that is how we invariably envision it – guitar solo wailing, the villain creeping about with an evil smirk on his face, the clean-shaven hero deftly and cleanly putting an end to a reign of terror even at cost to himself. We see ourselves as that hero. Anime allows us that luxury.
Everything I have read leads me to believe that real-life violence performed by amateurs is swift, messy, and anticlimactic. We know from the police report that there was shouting and screaming. There may also have been stumbling around. The burglar, in his last moments, may have lost control of his bowel functions. All in all, it was almost certainly a far cry from the neat triumphs we see on-screen. Glowing, magical circles did not appear. The hero was not the bone of his sword. He did not save the kingdom and kiss the moe-moe princess. Instead he probably had to sit through a sleepless night of dealing with police and journalists, being interviewed again and again so they could ensure that they had the facts right, while the corpse cooled and the blood stained everything.
Our greater fantasies, our truer selves, remain purely in the realm of the ephemeral. Transformative violence is but a dream.