It’s a long while since I was allowed the pleasure of annoying students with lessons they didn’t desire to learn. I thought part of a teacher’s obligation was to get them beyond their present into a place with a little more challenge and hopefully some increased learning potential. Is it wrong to think you learn more from discomfort than from ease? Being teenagers, they were clan-bound to resisting that which didn’t “fit.” Teens are wonderful conformists, especially in the way they so uniformly and in synch go about the illusion of rebellion in lockstep orthodoxy. It is most cute to observe them so seriously bent to their play. My teaching subject was English, but why not throw the little tykes a curve with some “visual language” learning? It was so much fun to make them writhe and complain, “Why do we have to do this? This isn’t ENGLISH!” “Exactly,” my little victims, “exactly.”

One of the not-English things they railed against most was Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai. If it were ever to come up in casual conversation, you could tell anyone that film is near the very top of cinematic excellence. It’s a great movie. My students fussed about the subtitles and said they weren’t learning anything, but they were nonetheless drawn into understanding a story set in a very different cultural tradition. This fits another of the truths I observed. You don’t have to know you’re learning in order to learn. Anyway, despite their reluctance and more than occasional snotty attitude, the ones who stayed awake were generally able to grasp the story. An ordinary peasant village threatened by bandits takes the unusual tack of hiring out-of-work Samurai to defend it

Samurai were born into an upper class. Not all were favored with wealth, and for support they’d serve their clan or a particular master we’d call a warlord. In a conflict between clans, it was Samurai who did most of the fighting and dying. There could on occasion be some blurring of the class lines, but not very much because a peasant farmer wouldn’t have much time or opportunity to pick up skills in swordsmanship. Likewise, the skilled artisans who made the weapons and armor weren’t necessarily adept at their use or with battle strategy. The different parts of society followed separate paths. Shut out of the Samurai upper class, not part of a village or skilled in a particular craft, “strays” and the very poor might turn to banditry to survive. If your society is fairly tight and you’re outside the normal bounds, your options are few. If it is starve or steal, you become a thief or bandit. In Kurosawa’s version, the bandits are fairly well organized and act much like unattached Samurai, but with no clan or social goal other than their own survival. When the bandits in The Seven Samurai learn the village has hired warriors to protect it, they of course don’t approve, so ultimately there is a small-scale war.

As stories go, it is tidy enough. The poor peasant who is usually at the mercy of all and every turns the tables by hiring one “enemy” to destroy another. Samurai who will work for the village are a lesser evil than the bandits, but there is no mistaking that the villagers clearly don’t like or trust these sword-wielding fighters who could as easily turn on them as on the bandits. Using the film for years, I got very familiar with it and thought I had a firm grip of its basics. But it took a different Samurai move with a more conventional clan war theme to show me what I hadn’t seen as clearly before.

In the battles there’d be hordes of Samurai contingents taking the field for various purposes: archers, heavy infantry, cavalry, etc. They moved in formations identified by color and by each individual wearing a clan and contingent flag strapped to his back. Clearly identifiable groups would rush forward to take or bolster a position. Watching these detachments of heroic Samurai march as ordered, I began to see and wonder other things. How many farmers living in near poverty at subsistence level did it take to keep these fighters well fed and fit? The farmers were not on the field of battle, but they were on the field. Without them, the noble Samurai warrior would be a skinny, underfed guy wearing rags and carrying a wood club. There’d be no pretty flags and impressive katana or supple bows without an unseen army laboring in fields and workplaces to produce the goods and support the waste that would take place on the military field. Whether or not the war being fought was necessary or just, the amount of effort and commitment going into it was something far beyond the battle groups of finely dressed Samurai warriors with their finely crafted weapons.

We can and often do idealize or lionize a warrior’s nobility. Of late it’s trendy for these icons to be female and not exclusively male as before. I understand that, but it changes the underpinning of social connection not at all. You’d have as many farmers and craftsmen slaving to keep an Amazon warrior as you would a Theban. If that support team were not present and up to stride, the warrior would be in poor shape physically or ill-equipped to do his or her task.

It was probably wrong of me to inflict contrary visions on my former students. I doubt any of them grew inspired enough to visit Japan or think so much as a single thought about their teenage clan taking the field of social action as did the characters they saw on film. No, I don’t suppose it did much good or amounted to much, but I don’t repent it. I’m content thinking I wasted their valuable young time with something of little practical use and got paid for doing it. No sense thinking too deeply about it, is there?