You say Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno; I say criminality and lawlessness in transitioning societies

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By Mags Z. Maglana

The Point Being

Friday, August 29, 2014

IT COULD very well just be part of the post-final exam syndrome, but watching the first installment of Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno got me thinking about criminality and lawlessness in societies transitioning from say, colonialism to post-colonialism, or from armed conflicts to stability.

The story of the Japanese manga character Himura Kenshin, the lead star in the film and also known as Hitokiri Battosai, is set against the early days of the Meiji period that signaled the transition of Japanese society from its feudal past in the days of the Shogunate to its modern form.

Kenshin, who had sworn off killing, found himself being asked to confront the assassin who had succeeded him, Shishio Makoto who planned to avenge himself by attacking and destabilizing the Meiji Government. Shishio, his elite assassins called the Juppongatana or Ten Swords, and the rest of his army planned to set fire to Kyoto and take over Japan.


Shishio’s violent ways reminded me of the findings of the 2011 World Development Report (WDR) that noted the rise of criminal violence in Central America despite political peace. Other reports have also noted that societies where political processes such as peace talks had been successfully concluded could find themselves mired in criminal activities.

Criminality and lawlessness victimize the very same communities that endured armed conflicts and their effects. Cited as explanations were the high incidence of loose or unregulated firearms, the lack of viable economic opportunities for former combatants, and the inability of governments and other authorities to enforce order.

John L. Comaroff and Jean Comaroff in Law and Disorder in the Postcolony asserted that criminality in postcolonial societies was a) not just a reaction to economic lack; b) not only about unchecked power, whether of the State or other elements; and c) not a matter of slippage from norms that can be expected during shifts and transitions.

For Comaroff and Comaroff it is simplistic to say that criminality is the opposite of the rule of law and the formal workings of markets. Instead, criminal violence in post-colonies mimics and takes on the vestiges, trappings and substance of law and markets, and creates a sense of social order. Criminal activity can take on the functions often associated with law and markets—facilitating access, making decisions, and creating arrangements. We have seen examples of these in situations where legitimate interests such as businesses and even service providers approach and transact with holders of firepower in contested areas such as warlords.

In the movie, Shishio had managed to control several villages across Japan and it could be imagined that his word held sway as law in those areas. Back again to Comaroff and Comaroff, in these settings criminality would not just be at the fringes of social life. Rather criminals and lawless elements get to redefine and reconfigure “norm and transgression, regulation and exception” perhaps even more effectively than the law, markets and culture-bearing and norm-setting institutions like schools and religions.

Crime and lawlessness are “product(s) of a complex play of forces”. Criminal actors in transitioning societies are not necessarily passive end results but are invariably active players amid the different forces at play. They are able to gain power and venom by exploiting the formal, informal and in-between spaces of societies in transition, often in cooperation—whether explicit or implicit—with legitimate bodies whose agenda intersect with theirs. As a case in point Shishio, the nemesis of Kenshin, was initially used by the Meiji government as an assassin but was subsequently abandoned and harmed.

Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno also gave a nod to the Western forces and interests that added pressures to Japan’s transition during the Meiji period. Viewers can even surmise that these Western forces themselves likely trafficked with Shishio. How else could Shishio’s band -- primarily armed with the traditional Japanese sword, the katana -- have gained access to machine guns and the ironclad ship that they used to head to Tokyo?

More than entertainment, Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno gives us another cause to reflect on the transition in the Bangsamoro areas, assuming it happens soon. Addressing criminality and lawlessness in the form of private armed groups are part of the Bangsamoro transition processes.

In the world of author and illustrator Nobuhiro Watsuki it took a Himura Kenshin, his reverse-blade sword, and allies to take on Shishio’s army. Although transitions create conditions that could allow leaders to rise, and also fall, I prefer to comment on the Oniwabanshu or the Watchers, a group of ninjas who formerly worked for the Shogun.

After the fall of the Shogunate, the Watchers split into those who opted to live peaceably under the Meiji government, and those who were not able to transition successfully and thus continued to challenge the new order with their acts of violence. Aoshi Shinomori, former leader of the Watchers and who had fixated on destroying Kenshin, was among the latter.

Societies in transition are going to face innumerable choices, both as individuals and collectivities. Hopefully, those who are working on the Bangsamoro transition processes are able to see to it that the combatants of today -- whether individually or in groups -- would realize for themselves the rationale of disarmament and demobilization, and benefit from the shifts in their roles and approaches -- that they would choose to transition to more peaceful but no less effective roles in living out the right to self-determination.

Although the actual quote from the movie escapes me now, there was a line about one not being able to escape from one’s past. My belief is that mindful choices enable us to not only avoid blindly recycling the past, but also head off any coming conflagrations.

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Published in the Sun.Star Davao newspaper on August 30, 2014.


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