Learning something new, especially something different than what society gives, is a very enthralling, but terrifying experience. It is a refreshing and intoxicating feeling, and in some cases a person feels like it must be shared with others so that they too can experience the same feelings. But sometimes, different is not always better, and trying to teach people differently than from what they have been brought up with can be met with hostility. In the movie "Fist of Legend," Chen Zhen, a Chinese martial artist returns to China after studying in Japan. While overseas, he has learned more about the Japanese than many of his own countrymen, who have lived with a strong hatred toward them. Although Chen Zhen too has animosities toward the Japanese, he knows several good people in Japan, and tries to show the good things about them and how it can make his own people stronger. This is similar to the situation posed by Plato in his work, Republic, where a man leaves the cave, becomes enlightened, and returns with new knowledge, only to be rebuked by his peers. Chen Zhen and other characters are like the enlightened man from Republic, people who can see beyond what they have known. The movie is a tragedy however, because even though Chen Zhen and several others have explored beyond their boundaries, seen past lies told from side about another, and have blended different values together to make something greater, they will not get the chance to prove themselves.
In order to first understand the tragedy of the story, it is important to know the action, or plot, that the tragedy represents. The film is set in China during the First World War, in which the Empire of Japan begins to further encroach into Chinese lands. This setting also establishes the conflict that Chen Zhen finds himself in. Now, historically the Chinese and the Japanese have been rivals for centuries, and as a result both sides have some opinion of one another. In Plato's "Republic," he gives his famous allegory of the cave, which describes how a group of prisoners live in a cave, and have,
"…been there since childhood, with their legs and necks tied up in a way which keeps them in one place and allows them to look only straight ahead, but not to turn their heads…[T]hey're no different from us…in the first place, do you think they'd see anything of themselves and one another except the shadows cast by the fire on the cave wall directly opposite to them," (Plato 60-61).
The movie primarily shows the Chinese view of the Japanese, and the situation that Plato portrays in his allegory is precisely how the Chinese in the movie look at the Japanese. What the Chinese know about them is what ever they themselves have only seen in China, which is the Japanese military. The Military and the treatment that they impose on the Chinese is the shadow of representation that Plato spoke of. The Chinese people, like the prisoners in the cave, have only seen only one perspective, but one of their people has been freed from this unilateral view. In Plato's scenario, he also presents the idea of a person, "suddenly made to stand up, to turn his head and walk, and to look towards the firelight…[A]nd suppose someone tells him that what he's been seeing all this time has no substance…" (Plato 61). Plato argues that all people, specifically the masses, ever see in the world are merely copies, or false images made by men meant to indoctrinate others. If a person was able to see beyond the images, and seek the truth out for himself, then he would see the true reality.
Chen Zhen, unlike his fellow countrymen, who have an already established view of the Japanese, has actually been to Japan, and has seen and met it's people. Plato's allegory would argue that, "he's now closer to reality and is seeing more accurately, because of the greater reality of the things in front of his eyes…" (Plato 61). When a man who has been trapped in a cave his whole life sees a world beyond what he was accustomed to, he will eventually discover truth and achieve enlightenment. Being away from the Chinese view of the Japanese, Chen Zhen begins to formulate his own view of the Japanese people as he is in their country. He finds them to be very different from what he has known all his life, and now, he is forced to change his views as he develops an even closer understanding of them. Similar to Plato's idea of going outside the cave to find truth, Oscar Wilde, a nineteenth century British playwright, also acknowledges that the truth is not always in plain view to see. In his essay, "The Decay of Lying," Wilde goes into a discussion about the people portrayed in art, and how they are very different from people as they are in reality. Among the people mentioned in the essay are the Japanese, and he explains, "No great artist ever sees things as they really are…[N]ow do you really imagine that the Japanese people, as they are presented to us in art, have any real existence?...[T]he Japanese people are the deliberate self-conscious creation of certain individual artists," (Wilde 792). Like Plato's argument, Oscar Wilde explains that the people and things portrayed by others for the masses are far from the truth. Although they are not necessarily artworks, to the Chinese the Japanese military presence in their country is, to them, a representation for what they believe to be the true face of the Japanese people as a whole. Wilde argues that this is not the way to know another person, or group of people. The only way to do that is to meet them personally, and form your own views. Chen Zhen follows this method when he went to school in Japan, and the views of his so called enemy began to change. In the opening of the movie, not only did he have a Japanese girlfriend, but his Japanese professor and classmates began to object to the thugs' demands that he leave the school. These images go against every opinion that Chen Zhen was probably brought up on, and they help him tear down the boundaries that separate an understanding and future between the two peoples.
In the film, Chen Zhen is not the only person who has left the cave. Two other characters, Mitsuko and Funakoshi, are Japanese, and face the same predicament as Chen Zhen does when he returns to China. Gloria Anzaldua's "Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza," illustrates the conflict very well in her ideas of the mestiza identity. She writes that, "…la mestiza is a product of the transfer of the cultural and spiritual values of one group to another," (Anzaldua 2099). Now, in Gloria's argument, she is referring to people of mixed heritage who grew up in culturally conflicting circumstances, but the principle does not always have to conform to people of mixed heritage. In the case of Chen Zhen, and the two Japanese characters, it can be a case of implementing differing values together to create a new set of values. In Mitsuko's case as Chen Zhen's lover, she believes that there is a future for both of them in their lives. In fact, she lies for him in court when she knows that her own people are framing him for a crime. She sees the injustice imposed on Chen Zhen, and stands against her people for his sake; she has transferred Chen Zhen's view into her own views and makes a decision to stand with him, despite the consequences that it will have in her relationship with her own people. Funakoshi and Chen Zhen also fit in with Anzaldua's view because of their backgrounds as marital artists. Throughout the film, Chen Zhen fights with a style of martial arts that combines the principles of both Chinese and Japanese disciplines. Funakoshi, in his duel with Chen Zhen, adopts his opponent's style when he notices the advantages that it gives Chen Zhen. Both of them,
"…shift out of habitual formations: from convergent thinking, analytical reasoning that tends to use rationality to move toward a single goal…to divergent thinking, characterized by movement away from set patterns and goals and toward a more whole perspective, one that includes rather than excludes," (Anzaldua 2100).
They both adopt differing viewpoints not just to make themselves more powerful in their fighting styles against one another, but also to better themselves as human beings. This way of thinking ties in with Plato's allegory of the cave due to the principle of looking beyond what is the norm in society. The two men see past the petty differences between their martial codes, and find ways to blend them together. In doing so, they both discover a new way of approaching their respective disciplines, and making themselves stronger as a result of it. It is the combination of two supposedly opposite styles that gives way to Chen Zhen's victory in the end.
When a person learns something new, there may be problems in dealing with the newfound knowledge, and also a conflict with those who disagree with it, especially if they live with a different kind of knowledge. Plato writes that, "the process of adjustment would be quite a long time, and suppose that…he had once again to compete against those same old prisoners…[W]ouldn't he make a fool of himself?" (Plato 63). The movie shows an immediate blow to Chen Zhen's reputation when it is revealed that he is in love with Mitsuko, and defends her position when she saves him in court. This turn of events results into immediate distrust, and division among Chen Zhen's friends at his old school, making this overall story a tragedy. According to Aristotle, "Tragedy is a representation of an action, and for the sake of the action above all [a representation] of the people who are acting," (Aristotle 93). The action, which is the also the plot, is the struggle for common ground between two opposing entities: China and Japan. The characters that best represent that are Chen Zhen, Mitsuko, and Funakoshi, all of whom are connected in their desire for there to be a future between the two, but are largely ignored because the masses, the people still in their caves, only want to see the shadows on the wall instead of the truth beyond the cave's boundaries. All three risk everything for an ideal peace that may or may not occur for years, adding to the intensity of the plot.
In addition to plot, another aspect of the film that makes it a tragedy is the characters, and they all add different elements in to the plot. Chen Zhen, Mitsuko, and Funakoshi are the characters that truly bring this tragedy to life. They are portrayed as moderates trapped between two opposing factions. In tragedy, the characters must be, "First and foremost … good … appropriate … life-]like … consistent," (Aristotle 100). All three of these characters are good because they are resolute in their decision to defy the hatred between the two factions. Chen Zhen leaves his old school to defend Mitsuko, Mitsuko is willing to sacrifice her loyalty to her people and her love to support Chen Zhen's cause, and Funakoshi is risking his life and position to protect the old ideals of his group, which is to earn the respect of the Chinese by respecting their traditions. They are appropriate because they live up to the expectations of each of their respective cultures; Chen Zhen is strong and honorable, Mitsuko is supportive of her lover's cause, and Funakoshi acts in a manner appropriate for a samurai warrior, even if it defies the military's view. They are life-like in that they are conflicted people with their own problems, and they are consistent in their personalities and actions toward others. It is the combination of character and plot that makes the concept of tragedy work, especially when it comes to the reversal at the end. Looking at the movie, it has a complex plot meaning, "an action as a result of which the transformation is accompanied by a recognition, a reversal or both…[T]hese, then…are two parts of the plot. A third is suffering…a destructive or painful action," (Aristotle 96-97). There is a lot of recognition in the story, but it takes on numerous forms depending on the character in question, like for instance the minor character of the Japanese ambassador. He realizes the corruption that exists in the government and military at the end of the movie, and works to stop it. The sufferings in the tragedy are the fight scenes, naturally, but the reversal at the end is what pulls it all together. Chen Zhen accepts being a scapegoat to be executed in order to prevent a war between the two countries, but in reality his death his staged. So, how can this be tragic, if Chen Zhen does not die? Though he does not die, he loses the right to legitimately live in his own country. In a sense, he is like the man who was freed from the cave and tries to return. Although he was once one of the other prisoners, his outlook has changed so much that the ways of both sides are completely foreign to one another, and if he tried to bridge that gap, all he would meet is hostile resistance. So for the good of both sides, or in the case of the movie, the three parties [Japan, China, and those in the neutral party], the neutral must be removed in order to prevent more disorder and casualties between the other two.
The tragedy of the film is that no side wants to have a neutral ground, and patch things up between them when there are people who are capable of making that happen. These people have torn down the boundaries that divide the two groups, seen past the lies that each side tells about the other, and they have incorporated principles of the opposite side into their own lives to help them become stronger. This knowledge, and new strength, however, is not welcome because the masses are too divided by what they have only seen from war and violence, much like the prisoners in the cave seeing things based only on the representations of the shadows on a wall. But perhaps the real tragedy is that all the effort that the ambassador put into preventing a war is doing, is to stall an inevitably violent conflict between China and Japan.
Plato. "Republic." The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2nd Edition. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2010. pgs. 45-77. Print.
Aristotle. "Poetics." The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2nd Edition. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2010. pgs. 88-115. Print.
Wilde, Oscar. "The Decay of Lying: An Observation." The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2nd Edition. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2010. pgs. 790-794. Print.
Anzaldua, Gloria. "Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza." The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2nd Edition. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2010. pgs. 2098-2109. Print.