Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Zack Snyder's Justice League: A Modern Take on Le Morte D'Arthur

Left: a still from Excalibur (1981) with Nigel Terry as King Arthur on his wedding day. Right: from Man of Steel (2013) with Henry Cavill as Superman/Kal-El, sitting in a church. Neither are particularly subtle about Christological references.

This month marked the 40th anniversary of a film adaptation of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur: John Boorman's Excalibur, released on April 10, 1981. It was an R-rated, dark-and-edgy take on an already-dark spin by a hardened War of the Roses veteran on the superheroes of Malory's day: Arthur, Lancelot, Gawain, and Guinevere. The 1981 film befuddled critics as overly long, unfocused, pretentious and self-serious... but utterly beautiful to look at. Roger Ebert began his review this way: "What a wondrous vision 'Excalibur' is! And what a mess. This wildly ambitious retelling of the legend of King Arthur is a haunting and violent version of the Dark Ages and the heroic figures who (we dream) populated them." Play the trailer below for a glimpse of what he meant.


Excalibur is now a cult classic which I'd honestly have a hard time recommending to casual audiences, but it did kickstart the careers of several household-name actors today, including Patrick Stewart (as Leodegrance), Liam Neeson (as Gawain), and even Helen Mirren (as Morgana le Fay). The movie also left quite an impression on a then-14 year old Zack Snyder. Snyder has made a name for himself in directing spectacular film adaptations of comic books such as 300 and Watchmen, but of all the movies that must've influenced him over the years, Snyder rates Excalibur as his #1 favorite; in his words, "the perfect meeting of movies and mythology". Excalibur's influence is felt throughout his latest release: Zack Snyder's Justice League, which debuted last month on the HBO Max streaming service.

"Now, wait a minute", you say. "Last month? Didn't I already see that flop back in 2017, or on cable sometime since then?" No, my friends. I'm being stone cold serious when I say that Zack Snyder's Justice League, aka the Snyder Cut--despite having the same cast and overall plot as that 2017 abomination--is fundamentally a different movie. This is not a director's cut in the usual sense of the word, even considering ones that have more-or-less replaced the original theatrical releases such as Ridley Scott's Blade Runner: The Final Cut or Zack Snyder's own Batman v Superman: Ultimate Edition. The 2017 release has as much right to be called "Zack Snyder's Justice League" as the zombified corpse of a long-dead loved one has the right to be called grandma. 

Before we continue, a brief recap for the uninitiated: the short version of this drama is that Justice League was the third installment of a planned 5-film arc to jumpstart a series of interconnected movies for Detective Comics characters, to compete with Disney's incredibly lucrative Marvel Cinematic Universe. The first two, Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), were darker and more serious takes on superhero cinema than the Marvel films. During the filming, the studio executives of Warner Bros. were alarmed by the under-performance of Zack Snyder's previous films at the box office and demanded extreme rewrites for a lighter, more family-friendly tone. A tragedy occurred when Autumn, one of Snyder's eight children, committed suicide. Snyder stepped down as director to take care of his family and the studio hired Joss Whedon (director of the first two Marvel Avengers films) to replace him, overseeing post-production and 2 months of extensive reshoots, with a studio mandate to cut the final runtime down to 2 hours. The final result was a mess that decimated entire character backstories, filled the gaps with bad jokes and visual gags, and made no one but the studio bosses happy. (They needed to get the movie released before WB's impending merger with AT&T in order to get their bonuses.) Ever since then, all attempts to sustain a shared film universe for DC Comics characters have stalled. Every DC movie since 2017 has been a solo adventure that essentially ignores Snyder's work.

The villain Steppenwolf, completely redone in postproduction for a much more fearsome look in the Snyder Cut (right). Steppenwolf is played by Ciaran Hinds, the only actor to appear (in some form) in both Excalibur and Justice League.

And then... Covid-19 happened. The film industry ground to a halt and most movie theaters suspended operations entirely, but massive numbers of people were stuck at home with a lot more time to watch TV. To be clear, Covid-19 and its aftereffects have wrecked serious, long-term damage to our social fabric. But... if there's just one thing I can be thankful for over this past year, it would be that Covid gave us the necessary conditions for Warner Bros. to roll the dice and indulge the fans. Snyder was granted $70 million to finish the cut of the movie he had on his laptop all these years and make it fit for home release in order to shore up subscribers for HBO Max (owned by WarnerMedia). This included bringing Ben Affleck back in costume to shoot a new Batman scene during Covid-tide. At last, Zack Snyder's Justice League premiered at a whopping 4 hours 2 minutes: exactly the same as Kenneth Branagh's 1996 adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet, the longest major studio theatrical release in history! It took me a little while, but after first rewatching Man of Steel and Batman v Superman with some friends at my house (which they had never seen), we watched the Snyder Cut over two sittings. They had never seen the "Whedon cut" for Justice League either, so their viewing here was unsullied by past experiences.

So, how was it? My impression is best summed up by quoting something said to Superman by his natural father, Jor-El (played by Russell Crowe) first in Man of Steel and replayed in the Snyder Cut: "in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders." In context, Jor-El is reassuring his son that the people of Earth will eventually accept him as a hero, even if they're afraid of him at first. As a viewer, I mean to say that if the Snyder Cut was actually the original 2017 release all along, I don't think I would've appreciated it as much back then as I do now. I left the theater in 2013 after seeing Man of Steel with a vague sense of disappointment. In 2016, Batman v Superman just felt a little too left-field. But now, revisiting them all as a (slightly!) older man, I have a better understanding of where Zack Snyder was coming from with these takes, and I'm here to say that I am now all in for it.... even the not-so-subtle Christological references with Superman. 4 hour runtime? I hope the next one is 6 or 7! 

"In time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders."

A (mostly) spoiler-free review

Understanding that most of my readers tend to stop by here more for my thoughts on history and religion rather than because they share my love of comic book cinema, it seems like a good idea to include a spoiler-free synopsis based on the assumption that you haven't seen any of these movies before:

Zack Snyder's Justice League continues the story right where Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) left off, which in turn continued the story of Man of Steel (2013). Man of Steel is a complete origin story for Superman, as played by Henry Cavill, which is less interested in "truth, justice, and the American way" as it is a first-contact story, answering "what if an invincible alien actually crash-landed into the world as we know it and was raised by humans?" Batman v Superman continues to grapple with that idea, with special focus on the trauma caused by the destruction of large parts of the city of Metropolis during the final fight between Superman and his adversary, General Zod, which led to upwards of 5,000 in civilian casualties. Batman, as played by Ben Affleck, is introduced in this world as an older vigilante who's grown weary after 20 years stalking the night with seemingly little progress to show for his efforts. Wonder Woman, as played by Gal Gadot, appears for the first time ever in a major motion picture as a demigoddess who has been hiding among the world of mortal men for a hundred years. Both films are necessary viewing to appreciate Justice League. There is also a standalone origin story for Wonder Woman (2017) which is widely regarded as one of the best movies in the entire comic book film genre. It's not necessary, but it certainly helps, and was designed to integrate into Snyder's series. Finally, while the Dark Knight trilogy of Batman films portrayed by Christian Bale are not part of the Justice League continuity, their director--Christopher Nolan--was the man who handpicked and anointed Zack Snyder to succeed him for future DC films. Nolan was a producer for all of the Snyder DC films, and his influence is still present throughout these pictures to varying degrees.


The very first scene in the Snyder Cut takes us back to the climax of the second film, whereby the last anguished cry of the slain Superman (I'll explain later why that's not a spoiler) echoes across the entire world, awakening one out of three ancient artifacts called Motherboxes. Like Sauron's One Ring of Power, the Motherboxes call out to their creator, a galactic conqueror of worlds known as Darkseid. Each one has been in the care of the races of Earth for millennia: humans, Atlanteans, and Amazons. Together, they have the power to reshape worlds, and so put Earth on the crosshairs of one of Darkseid's chief minions: his uncle Steppenwolf (played by Ciaran Hinds), who has been disgraced by past failures and is desperate for a major victory to regain his master's good graces. Against impossible odds and wracked with guilt over his role in bringing about Superman's death, Bruce Wayne, aka the Batman, travels across the globe to honor Superman's sacrifice and assemble a team of superpowered individuals to save Earth from the brink of total annihilation.

Unlike Marvel's first Avengers film, which built upon five standalone movies before trying to mash their heroes together on a single set, DC seems to have taken the opposite approach by introducing a bunch of characters at once and hoping for successful solo movies later. The single biggest cause for the 4-hour runtime is in adding the necessary exposition for us to sufficiently care about three new heroes: Aquaman, the Flash, and Cyborg. The first two need little introduction, but the last is less familiar. Brought on the page in 1980, Cyborg is the "newest" of the Justice League characters, but proves to be the lynchpin of the ensemble in this telling. Victor Stone (played by Ray Fisher) is a college football player who loses his mother and very nearly dies himself after an auto accident, until his absentee father--a lead scientist at STAR Labs--uses a Motherbox to rebuild Victor's body in a last-ditch attempt to save his life. Now more machine than man, Cyborg resents his new form and his father's efforts to repair their relationship. Every member of the League has problems, but Cyborg carries the biggest burden in this film; its greatest story arcs revolve around his path toward reconciling with his father and his fate.

Ray Fisher's performance as Cyborg, almost completely gutted in the 2017 release, is now restored to the point of being almost the main character.

If I continue to dwell on the tragic backstories, the relative lack of jokes and witty banter compared to the Marvel films, the distinct Snyder-isms like constant slow motion shots and moody chiaroscuro lighting that probably doesn't translate well on lesser-grade TV screens, and that 4-hour runtime, I run the risk of sending most of you running as far from this movie as possible. But I'm here to tell you that these are all features, not bugs! A month ago, if you had asked me whether I preferred Marvel or DC movies, I would have picked Marvel (with an exception for DC's Batman, of course). But after Zack Snyder's Justice League, I see the entirety of Snyder's vision for the DC franchise with new eyes. A convert's zeal. Now, at last, I see where he was going with those crazy Superman stories, and it's honestly more brilliant than I ever expected. The entire premise of the "Snyderverse", as his movies are collectively called, hinges on the viewer buying into one idea: that comic books are myths for the modern age. If you can think of Superman and Wonder Woman on the same terms as Hercules or Beowulf, you just might suspend your disbelief enough to be taken in for one heck of a ride. On this basis, I rate Zack Snyder's Justice League a 9 out of 10 on my scale of comic book movies. That places it on the same rating I would give The Dark Knight, the first Wonder Woman, and Avengers: Infinity War/Endgame. My only 10/10 on this scale is (for my own highly subjective reasons) The Dark Knight Rises.

Comic book characters as mythic heroes: a legitimate take?

Am I really saying that DC Comics are worth teaching in school or held on par as classical literature? No, of course not. But it's perfectly legitimate to accept that stories grow up with their tellers. They evolve over the generations until they become something else entirely. Even retelling the same story over and over again with slight variations--such as, for example, the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents (1989 in Batman, 1995 in Batman Forever, 2005 in Batman Begins, 2016 in Batman v Superman, 2019 in Joker)--isn't necessarily a bad thing as long as each version speaks effectively to another audience. I've said before on this blog that medieval storytellers would have been confused by modern critics' preoccupation with "original stories". For them, "original" (if they ever really used that word at all, as we think of it) was more literal: getting back to the origin--that is, the heart--of an idea. It's why they enjoyed telling the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table over and over again, changing things here or there, adding a twist or two, and openly ripping other storytellers' ideas without attribution. Each telling brought a few more "fans" into the mythos until Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, which told of Britain's founding by the Trojans and King Lear dividing the realm among his three daughters as matters of real history, exported the legend of Arthur everywhere across the European continent. Chrétien de Troyes added Lancelot to appeal to French audiences, but now we can hardly imagine the Round Table without him. 

The most definitive of all Arthurian works was a compilation by Sir Thomas Malory: Le Morte d'Arthur, one of the first books ever printed by Caxton's press in England. It was the first major work of fictional prose in the English language. I introduced this book at the beginning of this article as a darker take--at least in some ways--on familiar stories. In Malory's world, even the noblest knights are not spared from ambition, treachery, and doom. After all, Arthur's fate is spoiled in the very title... and why I thought, from a medieval point of view, mentioning the fact that Superman dies at the end of Batman v Superman isn't much of a spoiler. (Indeed, that plot point was based the comic book arc "The Death of Superman" from 1993. The ending was given in the title specifically to stir up comics sales.) This bleaker outlook isn't too surprising when considering the author. Sir Thomas Malory was a warrior and parliamentarian who fought on both sides of the tumultuous Wars of the Roses. He played the game of thrones, switching his allegiance from York to a pact with Warwick the Kingmaker to oust Edward IV. Aside from conspiracy to treason, Malory's extensive rap sheet included highway robbery, breaking and entering, and even "rape" (which at the time may have been consensual adultery). It was during his time in prison that he wrote Le Morte d'Arthur. It was not printed until 1485, about 14 years after Malory's death. The book enjoyed several reprints until Cromwell and the Puritans held England hostage to a decade of dourness. From there, Le Morte d'Arthur languished in obscurity until the Romantic and Medievalist revivals of the 19th century. We have Malory to thank as the primary inspiration for Tennyson's Idylls of the King and, into the 20th century, T.H. White's The Once and Future King.

This brings us back full circle to the most faithful adaptation of Le Morte d'Arthur on film, as proclaimed on the movie posters themselves: John Boorman's Excalibur. It opens with the retelling of Book I--how Arthur was conceived--in graphic detail. King Uther Pendragon lusts after the Duke of Cornwall's wife, Igrayne, and begs for a sorceror's aid. Merlin casts a spell to allow Uther to enter Igrayne's bedchamber in the likeness of her husband, but in return, Uther must give up the child that results from this unnatural union. So begins an attempt to capture the epic scope of Malory's book, the  entire life of King Arthur, over a paltry 2 hours and 20 minutes. Nigel Terry plays as Arthur in all stages of his adult life, from when he first draws the sword from the stone to when he sails away for Avalon, weathered by age and the trauma of having to kill his own son born from incest. Throw in a bunch of gritty battles with awkward grunting and other sound effects, Guinevere's adultery with Lancelot, a crow gouging an eye out from a corpse, a final battle against Mordred with Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" roaring in the background, and this overarching theme of how the arrival of Christianity and Camelot gradually sever man's connection to nature and magic, and you have Excalibur. Whatever John Boorman was trying to do with this movie, it certainly wasn't for parents to keep their kids entertained for a couple hours so they could do some shopping in peace. 

I honestly don't count Excalibur among my own all-time favorites, but I appreciate what it tried to do: re-adapt and elevate the Arthurian mythos into an epic for modern times. It kicked off an entire decade of sword-and-sorcery movies ranging from Conan the Barbarian to Legend, Ladyhawke, and The Princess Bride... but none of these stand out as bold and weird as Merlin, with a chrome plate for hair, saying with utmost seriousness for the camera, "The days of our kind are numberèd. The one God comes to drive out the many gods. The spirits of wood and stream grow silent. It's the way of things. Yes... it's a time for men, and their ways."

Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren as Merlin and Morgana. They disliked each other in real life, which director John Boorman felt made their performances more convincing.

The Round Table, reborn

Have you ever wondered why the stories of King Arthur's court emphasized the shape of his furniture? According to the Norman author Wace, Arthur ordered a round table so that his knights would no longer quarrel amongst themselves at their seating order in the court. In a world defined entirely by hierarchies, the Round Table captured the medieval imagination by letting people imagine a place where great men held each other as equals. Among them sat Kay, Arthur's own foster brother. Perceval, the first quester for the Holy Grail. Lancelot, whose forbidden love divides the court against each other. His son Galahad, purest of all knights. Each knight was worthy of his own series of solo stories, but together, the Knights of the Round Table stood larger than life, more like gods than men. Their stories so enchanted the people of medieval Europe that they had "Renaissance fairs" even before the Renaissance. They were feasts in honor of Arthur and his companions called "Round Tables", which typically involved jousting and other forms of mock combat, and cosplaying as famous members of Arthur's court around an actual round table. The most famous specimen to survive is the round table commissioned (probably) by King Edward I in the 1270's, which was later repainted by order of Henry VIII and now hangs on the wall of Winchester Castle. Round Table tournaments were the inspiration for Edward III to found the Order of the Garter. The meeting place for this association of the 24 most esteemed and elite members of English society came into focus once again last weekend, when the funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh at St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle was broadcast around the world.

In today's culture, the closest phenomenon we have to a Round Table is DC's Justice League. Its most famous members have transcended all boundaries of geekdom to become true household names. People who have absolutely zero interest in comic books or their film adaptations will still know what the red-and-yellow S symbol represents, or that Batman's real name is Bruce Wayne. For Zack Snyder, being given the keys to the DC empire back in 2010 must have seemed like a chance to tell a story with the same sense of grandeur as his all-time favorite film. 

Snyder's first entry, Man of Steel, opens with the alien world of Krypton: a civilization in terminal decline. Its members are dressed in a style I could only describe as "what if the Byzantine Empire had gone on for another 40,000 years". Jor-El solemnly predicts that his infant son will be like a god to the people of Earth, then sends him away like baby Moses in the basket. Later in the film, General Zod solemnly orders "release the world engine!", which leads to Superman hurtling into a fight of titanic proportions with a kraken-like machine. The final fight with Zod spreads across Metropolis, but unlike  the same scenario in 1980's Superman II (or, more recently, the alien invasion of New York in 2012's The Avengers), Snyder doesn't shy from the idea that an all-out fight between two aliens with godlike powers in a major city would probably cause the deaths of thousands. Like Sir Thomas Malory, who is only ever interested in telling us about quests and high deeds to the exclusion of anything mundane, Snyder keeps us a thousand feet in the air at all times.

The Wayne family walks out from a screening of The Mask of Zorro in the very first scene of Batman v Superman. The year is 1981, as the marquee signals the impending premiere of Excalibur. A formative moment for director Zack Snyder, hinted at during a formative moment for Bruce Wayne.

If Man of Steel's theme was "gods among men", Batman v Superman's would be "gods versus men". A title card near the beginning takes us back to the previous movie's final fight with the ominous words: "METROPOLIS: MANKIND IS INTRODUCED TO THE SUPERMAN". Amidst the rubble, Bruce Wayne stares up into the sky, wondering if all his wealth and natural abilities could possibly be enough to protect humanity from a force like Superman. Later on, Lex Luthor tells an audience at a house party the story of how Prometheus, a hero among men, dared to steal fire from the gods (while Wonder Woman, literally a daughter of Zeus, listens anonymously in the crowd and rolls her eyes as if to suggest that's not what really happened). A theft does occur soon after... but from one mortal man to another. Bruce steals kryptonite, the one and only thing that can harm a Kryptonian, from Lex. But for all his inventiveness, Batman shapes the kryptonite into the most primitive form possible: a spear. Like, perhaps, the Spear of Destiny? Snyder's movie is fixated with the question of what it would take for Superman to become the villain, and whether a Prometheus could rise up to stop him.

Finally, in Zack Snyder's Justice League, the theme becomes "gods led by men". Batman is changed by the events of the last film. He no longer fears godlike beings; now, moved by the example of Superman's last sacrifice, he seeks to lead them in battle against other gods who threaten Earth with oblivion. Or, to put it another way, men in this story finally take their place among the ranks of gods. And if it wasn't obvious, at the end of the movie, Bruce begins plans to rebuild his ancestral home with a round table at the center, with six chairs and room for more.

In the Snyder Cut, during a premonition of a dark future with an evil Superman, the Kryptonian AI in Superman's ship says "the future has taken root in the present". This is a direct quote from the movie Excalibur. Merlin says "the future has taken root in the present" during the conception of Arthur. For just as Arthur is both the salvation and the doom of Camelot, so too is Superman the salvation and the doom of Earth.

After having seen the Snyder Cut, the bitter taste of the original 2017 theatrical release in my recollection has been totally washed away, and I'm left wondering if Warner Bros. will ever allow Zack Snyder to continue his vision by making more DC movies. Will we ever see a Man of Steel 2? How about standalone movie starring Ben Affleck as the best Batman ever? Is the Snyder Cut doomed to forever be a storytelling cul-de-sac, a cruel tease of a future that might have been? If so, perhaps that will free Zack for something even better: time to work on a King Arthur movie of his own.

Below, an excellent trailer for all three of Zack Snyder's DC films, now dubbed as a "trilogy":

The movie Excalibur is referenced even in the 2019 film Joker, which isn't actually set in the same continuity as the Snyder films. Nevertheless, the movie poster is seen on the right of the above frame on the night of the Waynes' murder.

Postscript: "Wait... weren't you going to compare the Whedon and Snyder Cuts?"

As much as I enjoy nerdy dissections of the two cuts, I realized a lengthy discourse on the differences is well beyond the scope of my headline, would require a lot of audio-visual references, and have already been covered in far greater detail by other people. Instead, I'll forward to you links to three videos that cover the basics:

"Justice League vs. The Snyder Cut - Filmmaking Comparison" by Thomas Flight HERE (26 minutes). A breakdown for people interested in cinematography and visual artistry, without going into deep inside-baseball discussions on lore or Easter eggs for longtime comics fans. The video focuses on tone, coloring, storyboarding and the like. I highly recommend it. Some of you may recognize the film poster in the host's background.

"Justice League: How Score Can Change a Film" by samsonspin HERE (23 minutes). As strange as it feels to compare the great Danny Elfman unfavorably against a guy who calls himself Junkie XL, only one of these conveys the appropriate tone for this particular movie. The Junkie XL score wins by a mile.

And finally, only for people who've already seen the Snyder Cut: "Final Battle Against Steppenwolf Comparison" by Nerdy Sage HERE (3 minutes). Steppenwolf's final fate is dramatically different. Only the Snyder Cut treats us to the most epic end for a villain ever seen in superhero cinema, in the form of what amounts to a 3-way Mortal Kombat fatality. If this scene had been the only difference between the two cuts, it still would've been enough to improve the Whedon Cut's rating by a whole point.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Is Bushido to Blame for the Bomb? On the anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Left: Emperor Taisho in the regalia of the Order of the Garter.  Right: mushroom cloud over Nagasaki.

Today marks 75 years when the United States dropped an atomic bomb over Nagasaki, instantly wiping at least 40,000 people off the face of the earth. Together with the destruction of Hiroshima three days prior, the Showa Emperor was shocked into announcing Japan's total surrender over the radio. The vast majority of Japanese citizens had never before heard his voice.

Debate over whether the bomb was necessary to defeat Japan raged almost immediately after the smoke cleared, becoming an American tradition in itself. Today, a "pro" argument on social media usually takes a form like this:

"My grandfather was on a boat heading for Japan. You have to understand, back in those days, the Japanese considered it cowardly to surrender, so they threw themselves in countless suicide attacks against the boys in Okinawa, shouting 'Banzai!' Even the kids were sharpening bamboo sticks at home, ready to fight to the death in the Emperor's name. A land invasion would have cost a million or more American lives. Without the bomb, I wouldn't even be around to tell you this story."

Without a doubt, the Japanese soldier's fanatical devotion captivated the American public as much as it terrified them. If an American knows any words from the Japanese language at all, they're usually in relation to their fearsome warrior ethics: Banzai. Kamikaze. Seppuku. And the catch-all word for this ethos was Bushido: the way of the warrior, as handed down from the samurai ruling class of Japan's Middle Ages. 

And yet, this wasn't the west's sole impression of Japan at war. In the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, the Japanese were acclaimed worldwide by the Red Cross for their humane treatment of Russian prisoners of war. And again, during the First World War, the greatest act of chivalry aside from the Christmas Truce of 1914 was when German POW's at Bando camp performed Beethoven's Ninth Symphony for the first time ever in Japan. Many Germans were so impressed by the Japanese way of life that they stayed behind at the war's end.

So, what went wrong? How much of the Japanese army's suicidal zeal from World War II was truly inherited from the samurai tradition, and how much was a product of modern nationalism? Would the samurai of old have committed such mindless rape and pillage of the kind seen in Nanking, or was this a freak occurrence of a 20th century fascist state?

Samurai through the western lens

In 1951, just a decade after Pearl Harbor and the Japanese internment camps in the United States, the samurai film Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa was released in America. It even received an Academy Award, and thanks to the samurai fever of the 1950's, Kurosawa grew to be the inspiration for the next generation of directors. Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Martin Scorcese all can be quoted as mentioning Kurosawa as one of their greatest influences. Seven Samurai (1954) is still hailed by critics as one of the greatest movies of all time.

For my own generation, our understanding of Japan's mythical warriors is informed largely by The Last Samurai (2003). I saw it in theaters with my father as a teenager, and it helped stir me on a path of lifelong interest in history. The movie spins a tale of an American Army officer (played by Tom Cruise) who's captured by rebel samurai during the Meiji Restoration in 1876 and taught bushido, eventually allying himself with them against the forces of modernization--as represented by the plutocratic advisors manipulating the Emperor, and a conscript army with modern weapons. We must admit that the character of Captain Algren definitely plays the "white saviour" trope to the hilt, and it has additional value today for Americans who feel alienated by their own culture; Algren sympathizes with the rebel samurai, largely in thanks to his own PTSD from having joined in exterminations of Indian tribes back home. (As an aside, the parallels that can be drawn from The Last Samurai to the crisis of the Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council are endless, especially in relation to "loyal opposition" groups like the Society of Saint Pius X under Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.)

Interest in samurai culture has further enjoyed a boost just this past month with the release of the video game Ghost of Tsushima, where the player takes the role of a samurai during the Mongol invasion of 1274: the last time the samurai truly defended Japan from foreign invaders in history. I've been playing it myself, and can already tell it'll be acclaimed Game of the Year. It masterfully captures the beauty of the islands, and all the mystique of feudal Japan as though you were directing your own Kurosawa movie. (There is even a "Kurosawa mode" which renders the game in the same kind of grainy black-and-white tones as Kurosawa's older films, with vintage film sound effects to boot.) The game does have a Japanese audio track, feels authentic, and is a solid hit in Japan, but it's actually made by an American studio. I believe as westerners, we're naturally drawn to the nobility of a ruling warrior class like the samurai, in whom we can see reflections of our own ideals of knighthood inherited from the Middle Ages in Europe.

But for the discerning history enthusiast, none of these samurai portrayals have a solid basis in reality. In the cases of Kurosawa films or video games like Ghost of Tsushima, this isn't much of a problem because they're set in the distant past, have a legendary quality to the storytelling, and don't take themselves too seriously. The Last Samurai is a bit more troublesome since it takes place much closer to our own time and lends itself more to an impression of being "inspired by true events". And as much as I like the film as a story, it's a poor representation of what really happened in Japan during the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877.

Far from being the singular revolt of one charismatic traditionalist's tribe, the Rebellion was more akin to a civil war between a majority of samurai who accepted (even welcomed) the Meiji Restoration and assimilated themselves into its leadership, and a minority of samurai who were disgruntled by the loss of their social privileges and government stipends under the shogunate government. The province of Satsuma effectively seceded from the imperial state that year, and when they rebels went toe-to-toe against the Imperial army, the imperials were hardly a horde of peasant conscripts. Many of them were samurai themselves, fighting side-by-side with professional soldiers drawn from the common classes. As history, The Last Samurai would have done better to draw an analogy to the Confederate States during the American Civil War instead of native American tribes. As it is, some people in Japan regard The Last Samurai as a kind of "Lost Cause" mythologizing which papers over the less savory aspects of the rebels' motives. 

Woodblock of the Satsuma Rebellion by Toshinobu

The rebellion's leader in real life, Saigo Takamori (the basis for the character of Katsumoto in the movie), was mortally woudned in battle. His supporters claimed he committed seppuku, although no accounts actually describe any abdomen wounds to his body. Full acts of traditional seppuku (with a self-delivered act of disembowelment) were rare by this time. Nonetheless, many Japanese people accepted the legend at face value and felt that Saigo was "the last true samurai", having died as a martyr to his own code of conduct. The Emperor found it more expedient to pardon Saigo's family and declare Saigo a hero, even though the Imperial Army suffered about 15,000 casualties. There are statues and other monuments to Saigo around the country, as there are in the United States to Robert E. Lee. Saigo Takamori's posthumous reputation as a martyr for the "old ways" would have serious repercussions as the Japanese government faced destabilization in the 1930's.

Statue of Saigo Takamori and his loyal dog in Ueno Park, Japan. It was unveiled in 1898.


The real history of the samurai

You'll notice that up to now, I've hardly said a word about Bushido. In truth, the word Bushido hardly appears at all in Japanese literature until the turn of the 20th century, decades after the samurai class was formally abolished. Reaching back into the 1300's for a standardized code of conduct among feudal Japan's warrior class would be futile, since it didn't exist. One of the few surviving texts from this era is the Twenty-One Articles (read here) written by Hojo Soun, a former general and daimyo (lord) who became a monk in retirement. House rules like this were practical in nature, as can be seen from the excerpts below:

Precept 1: "Above all, believe in the gods and Buddhas."

Precept 10: "When one has been addressed by the master, even though he is seated at a distance he should quickly answer, 'Yes!' draw forward immediately approaching on his knees, and make his response with full respect. He should thereupon quickly withdraw, prepare his answer, and relate the facts as they are. One should not make a display of one's own wisdom. Moreover, according to the circumstances, when one is considering how best to give an answer, he should consult with a man who is adroit at speech. It is a matter of not pushing through one's own personal opinion."

Precept 13: "When one is going by the place where the elders are in attendance to the master, he should stoop a bit and place his hands to the ground as he passes. To be without deference and simply stamp through the area would be outrageously rude. To be a samurai is to be polite at all times."

And finally, Precept 21: "It is hardly necessary to record that both Learning and the military arts are the Way of the Warrior, for it is an ancient law that one should have Learning on the left and the martial arts on the right. But this is something that will not be obtainable if one has not prepared for it beforehand."

Nevertheless, the history of war in Japan through the 16th century is riddled with examples of samurai engaging in cunning, deceit, and even betrayal in the form of armies switching sides in the midst of battle. To be fair, this isn't any different than what England's knights did during the Wars of the Roses. (The Tudor dynasty would never have happened if Lord Stanley's army didn't abandon Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field.) But the famed virtue of loyalty was more an aspiration than a rigidly lived reality.

Likewise, we who grew up with samurai cinema think of the katana as the extension of a warrior's soul. But before the 16th century, the samurai's preferred weapon was actually the bow, with the sword as a backup in case the enemy got too close. The preeminence of the sword came with the Sengoku Jidai: the Era of Warring States. Warfare escalated to the point of introducing peasant conscripts for the first time. Where the samurai were once the only warriors, now they had to reform their manners to become officers over common men. Now, the samurai's sword--an expensive weapon requiring years to master--became the badge of distinction between a true warrior and a peasant armed with a stick (or, briefly through western trade, a gun).

Samurai of the Sengoku Jidai: the Era of Warring States

Tokugawa Ieyasu
These constant wars finally came to their end in 1600 under the firm rule of the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. The Tokugawa shogunate inaugurated Japan's longest ever period of peace--200 years--at a steep price. Ieyasu reined in the daimyo of the rival clans through a system not too dissimilar from Louis XIV of France's Versailles. The daimyo were required to spend alternate years attending the shogun's court in Edo. The rest of the time, they could attend to their lands, but they were required to leave their family members behind as (lavishly treated) hostages. Their retainers, the samurai, became a legally protected, hereditary class. The Tokugawa banned commoners from carrying swords, so they became exclusively a status symbol for the samurai. For two centuries, the samurai had no one to fight, but were also legally forbidden from engaging in common jobs like farming or trade. They lived on state pensions... which eventually was recognized by the common people as a drain on their economy, and a reason why the abolition of the samurai class under the Meiji Restoration was popular, even among the more ambitious of the samurai themselves.

Even as the shoguns kept foreign "barbarians" out of Japan, they maintained a strict adherence to shushigaku (neo-Confucian social doctrine), which is, of course, an import from China. Neo-Confucianism was the humanist philosophy which the shoguns used to tame the samurai into a scholarly class, like the mandarins of China. Where the teachings of Zen Buddhism emphasized unreality and the impermanence of life, neo-Confucianism stressed reality and reason. The samurai were to dedicate themselves to letters, poetry, and refinement. The Japanese tea ceremony crystallized to its present form during these long years of peace. Notably, the shogunate outlawed the ancient practice of junshi ("following the lord in death"): that is, the custom of samurai committing suicide after the death of their lords.

"Night Attack of the 47 Ronin" by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

The 47 Ronin

The struggle to adhere to neo-Confucianism led to one of the most widely retold stories in Japanese theatre and cinema: the Ako vendetta, or the revenge of the 47 ronin. The short version of this story is that in 1701, a high-ranking court official by the name of Kira was assigned by the shogun to instruct Asano, the lord of Ako, in court etiquette for an upcoming reception for envoys of the Emperor. For reasons lost to history, Kira caused some offense to Asano which prompted Asano to assault him... but to have even gone so far as to draw swords in the shogun's palace was enough to merit the death penalty. Because he had struck the shogun's official within his own palace, Asano was ordered to commit suicide and his family was removed from power. His 300 samurai weren't assigned a new master, so they became ronin: leaderless.

Photo of a samurai taken in the 1860's.
To be ronin was to stand completely outside of Japan's class system. It was, in some ways, worse than being a peasant. And so, 47 of the 300 ronin vowed to take revenge. For two years, under a careful ruse of appearing to be drunkards and layabouts to the outside world, they plotted to infiltrate Kira's heavily fortified residence and assassinate him. After carrying out their plot and beheading Kira (with strict orders not to harm any civilians and put out any fires), they left Kira's head on their master's tomb and dutifully surrendered themselves to the authorities. The shogun was at a loss for how to punish them, since they had indeed, according to the old ways, properly avenged their lord and offered themselves to his justice. Rather than executing them like common criminals, he allowed the 47 ronin to commit seppuku and to be buried with their master, always serving him in death as they had in life. Perhaps more importantly, their example moved the shogun to restore Lord Asano's heirs to their castle and titles, and allow the other 253 ronin to return to their positions as samurai. The story of the 47 was acted out time and again in kabuki theater (with names and dates changed to circumvent the Tokugawa laws against dramatizing current events). It became almost a tradition for the Japanese to debate the motives and morality of the 47 ronin's actions, but for the most part, they were regarded as heroes whose act of self-sacrifice restored balance to the world order.

One notable critic was a samurai clerk who lived during the Ako event, Yamamoto Tsunetomo. Some years after the 47 ronin committed seppuku, Yamamoto wrote Hagakure ("Hidden Leaves"): a series of maxims and informal conversations on how to bravely accept death, as well as a lament on the weakening of the samurai with lingering nostalgia for a time before the author was born, when the samurai's purpose was clear. Many passages within could easily be adapted for a modern self-help book. For example: "In offering one’s opinion, one must first ascertain whether or not the recipient is in the right frame of mind to receive counsel."

But other passages reveal the anxiety of a samurai who questions his own purpose. Yamamoto's master was opposed to the practice of junshi and made it clear to his retainers that they were not to commit suicide after he died. Yamamoto was forbidden from junshi, forbidden from fighting duels, kept from glory on the battlefield by the long peace. He perhaps regretted not being able to live out a true warrior's career like his distant ancestors had. Of the 47 ronin, he criticized them not because they took revenge and assassinated the man who caused their master's death... but because they spent a year meticulously planning it. He asks, "What if, nine months after Asano's death, Kira had died of an illness?" The more honorable thing in Yamamoto's eyes would have been for the 47 to have immediately avenged their lord's death on the spot with a last stand, even if they were sure to fail. Success, to Yamamoto, is completely beside the point. The honor is in having made a stance and choosing to accept death with indifference.

To be clear, this was a minority view. One could argue a certain parallel between Yamamoto's sentiments and those of alt-rightists today who are frustrated by their lack of acting out masculinity in an increasingly soft, decadent world. But in any case, Hagakure was not widely read in Yamamoto's own lifetime. Rather, it was rediscovered in the 20th century and incorporated into military indoctrination of the 1930's. Eventually, fighter pilots wore headbands inscribed with passages from Hagakure, inspiring them to perform kamikaze attacks on American ships.

Defining bushido for western eyes

As you may know, the long Edo period of peace ended abruptly when Commodore Perry's gunboat diplomacy forced Japan to open its harbors to western trade in 1854. The event exposed the shogunate as not only weak, but complicit in holding back Japan's technological development by 200 years. It was the impetus for an alliance of forward-thinking samurai, together with wealthy commoners, to form an alliance to overthrow the shogunate by appealing to the concept of restoring the Emperor to true sovereignty: the Meiji Restoration. Western experts (like those represented by Captain Algren in The Last Samurai) were paid handsomely to teach Japan western industry, science, and military arts. By 1900, the Japanese military had joined western colonial powers as an ally of the Eight-Nation Alliance to suppress the Boxer Rebellion in China. But Japan's traditional warrior culture remained a mystery to their new western friends.

In 1900, a Japanese expatriate in America, Inazo Nitobe, wrote the book Bushido: The Soul of Japan for the express purpose of explaining his homeland's elusive culture to western readers. Nitobe was perfectly poised for the task: his father was a samurai, but Nitobe himself was a Christian convert, studied at Johns Hopkins in Maryland and Wittenberg in Germany, published books in both English and German, and even married an Anglo-American woman. Bushido was originally written in English in Malvern, Pennsylvania (not far from where I live). Nitobe strove to compare the Japanese spirit favorably in terms readily understandable to his audience:

"The Japanese word which I have roughly rendered Chivalry, is, in the original, more expressive than Horsemanship. Bu-shi-do means literally Military-Knight-Ways—the ways which fighting nobles should observe in their daily life as well as in their vocation; in a word, the 'Precepts of Knighthood,' the noblesse oblige of the warrior class."


"Bushido, then, is the code of moral principles which the knights were required or instructed to observe. It is not a written code; at best it consists of a few maxims handed down from mouth to mouth or coming from the pen of some well-known warrior or savant. More frequently it is a code unuttered and unwritten, possessing all the more the powerful sanction of veritable deed, and of a law written on the fleshly tablets of the heart. It was founded not on the creation of one brain, however able, or on the life of a single personage, however renowned. It was an organic growth of decades and centuries of military career. It, perhaps, fills the same position in the history of ethics that the English Constitution does in political history; yet it has had nothing to compare with the Magna Charta or the Habeas Corpus Act. True, early in the seventeenth century Military Statutes (Buké Hatto) were promulgated; but their thirteen short articles were taken up mostly with marriages, castles, leagues, etc., and didactic regulations were but meagerly touched upon. We cannot, therefore, point out any definite time and place and say, 'Here is its fountain head.' Only as it attains consciousness in the feudal age, its origin, in respect to time, may be identified with feudalism. But feudalism itself is woven of many threads, and Bushido shares its intricate nature. As in England the political institutions of feudalism may be said to date from the Norman Conquest, so we may say that in Japan its rise was simultaneous with the ascendency of Yoritomo, late in the twelfth century."


Bushido is a fantastic, and short, read. The whole text is available here. President Theodore Roosevelt distributed 60 copies of the book to his friends. He wrote, "Japan has much to teach the nations of the Occident, just as she has something to learn from them. I have long felt that Japan's entrance into the circle of the great civilized powers was of good omen for all the world."

Ironically for such an admirer of the samurai code, Nitobe had converted from Methodism to the strictly pacifist Quakerism while he lived in Pennsylvania. He eventually served as an under-secretary general for the newly formed League of Nations. Later in life, Nitobe took a seat in the House of Peers (the upper house of imperial Japan's Parliament), where he repeatedly condemned the nation's turn toward militarism and aggressive expansion. We can only speculate how he would reacted to the atrocities of World War II. He died in 1933.

Prince Arthur (the third son of Queen Victoria) investing Emperor Meiji with the Order of the Garter in 1906

Nonetheless, Nitobe was responsible for jumpstarting a whole series of works on bushido in the west, which in turn were adopted by Japanese themselves and incorporated into their growing sense of nationalist spirit. This body of literature proved quite useful in Japan's efforts to be accepted as the first non-European great power of the modern world. In 1902, Great Britain established a military alliance with Japan: their first since the Napoleonic Wars. Emperor Meiji was given the Order of the Garter, and the chrysanthemum banner was hung in St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle. 

The chrysanthemum banner of the Emperor of Japan on the right, third from the back, in the above photo of St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, together the banners of the other Knights of the Garter.


A Japanese Red Cross mission caring for Russian prisoners-of-war

Japan as a world power

In 1905, Japan shocked the world by soundly defeating Russia in open warfare, to the point of sinking two out of three of Russia's fleets. The Russo-Japanese War marked the first time a western power was ever defeated by a non-western military in modern history. The conduct of the Japanese army here bore little resemblance to what would later take place on the Railway of Death in Burma (retold in sanitized form by movies like "Bridge on the River Kwai"). Russians at the prisoner-of-war camp at Matsuyama were treated quite well. Official Japanese policy was to insist upon treating POW's with honor. Medical care was equal to that given to Japanese themselves. They were offered beef to accommodate their accustomed diet (even though beef was rare in Japan then). Russian officers were allowed to keep their sidearms and occasionally offered vodka. Japan was commended by the Red Cross for their humanity shown to over 80,000 Russian POW's. Some Russians even stayed behind at the war's end to start families with the nurses who cared for them in captivity.

German POW's at the Kurume camp, 1915. The camp officer, Yamamoto Shigeru, who was fluent in German, joins in celebrating the Kaiser's birthday.

The Japanese again showed humanity during the First World War in their treatment of a thousand German POW's at Bando camp. Drawn into the conflict by their alliance with Britain, Japan largely contented itself to seizing Germany's colony in China and sitting out for the rest. Mindful to keep their reputation from the Russo-Japanese War intact, the POW's at Bando were kept as comfortable as possible. The commander, Toyohisa Matsue, was a descendant of a samurai family that joined in the failed rebellion against Meiji. He allowed the POW's to run their own bakery and newspaper, send mail back to Germany with free postage, and even permitted them outside the camp to interact with local townspeople of Tokushima. Most notably, many of the Germans were musically gifted. The Japanese allowed them to flourish by forming three orchestras and several other smaller bands. One June 1, 1918, the POW's performed the first-ever rendition of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony anywhere in Japan. With the end of the war, 63 Germans decided to stay behind. And even some who returned to Germany kept up correspondence with their former guards.

German POW officers together with their Japanese captors at Marugame camp

A Punch cartoon illustrating the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. The quote from Rudyard Kipling is cited positively here. Only a few years before, he had written the poem "The White Man's Burden" as a call to civilize the Philippines.


From bushido to brutality

At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, Japan proposed an amendment to the Treaty of Versailles--the document formally ending World War I--called the "Racial Equality Proposal". The draft text would have amended Article 21 to say:

"The equality of nations being a basic principle of the League of Nations, the High Contracting Parties agree to accord as soon as possible to all alien nationals of states, members of the League, equal and just treatment in every respect making no distinction, either in law or in fact, on account of their race or nationality."

The Proposal was part of a larger campaign by Japan to achieve fairer treatment by Japanese emigrants to other countries. In 1907, for instance, Japan used its status as a favored nation to broker the "gentleman's agreement" with Teddy Roosevelt, ending segregation of Japanese children in Californian public schools. Many of the League of Nations members were actually in support of Japan's proposal. But Australia's prime minister, Billy Hughes, was committed to maintaining the "White Australia" policy and threatened to walk out of the conference if the proposal was adopted. Woodrow Wilson, despite being the architect of the League of Nations, was afraid of losing the support of the Democrats in the solid South if the proposal was passed. (The US was, during the Red Summer of 1919, going through some of the worst race riots in its history.) And so, although 11 of the 17 delegates voted "yes" and no one actually voted "no", Wilson used his position as president of the Conference to require a unanimous vote for approval. It proved to be for nought, as Congress still refused to ratify the treaty.

Hara Takashi, the first Christian Prime Minister of Japan
The quashed proposal was widely reported in Japanese media, stirring resentment and a sense of betrayal. Many Japanese felt that their nation had done everything right in war and peace to be accepted as a premier world power, but still couldn't shake off the "yellow peril" prejudice. Two years later, the British and Japanese allowed their alliance to expire, leading Japan to drift further away from the west. In 1924, the US banned all immigration from Asia, including from Japan. This racial resentment, combined with economic and labor problems suffered throughout the world during the 1920's, proved a volatile mix for the rise of the military junta that would seize control and lead Japan into World War II. In these intervening years, the office of Prime Minister became the most dangerous job on earth. Hara Takashi (the first Christian Prime Minister of Japan--a Catholic convert at age 17) was assassinated in 1921. Two more PM's and numerous other high officials were assassinated over the next decade, with only the mildest punishments given to the killers. Assassins and coup leaders sometimes justified themselves by appealing to the example of Saigo Takamori, the leader of the Satsuma Rebellion, thus winning the support of the public and flooding the government with petitions for clemency. Hirohito had found that his grandfather, Meiji, had set a dangerous precedent in posthumously declaring Saigo a hero. Far from adhering to a strict hierarchy, the parliamentary government lost all control of the military to renegade officers in Manchuria by 1932.

Coinciding with the rise in nationalism was the state's adoption of Shinto as a government-sponsored national philosophy which supplanted neo-Confucianism (now frowned upon as foreign) and which transcended mere religion (including Buddhism). One of the central tenets of state Shinto was, of course, worship of the Emperor as a descendant of the gods. In truth, the phrase "Meiji Restoration" is misleading since that movement didn't just restore the Emperor's political power that had been lost in past centuries to the shogun; it gave the Emperor a power in both the spiritual and secular planes which he had never had before. It was necessary for the modernizers of Japan to overthrow the shogun by appealing to the Emperor's ultimate authority. Two generations later, the cult of the Emperor grew well out of proportion, becoming a frequent excuse for every kind of extra-judicial act imaginable. What had been a gift in the hands of a visionary leader like Meiji devolved into a curse under his weaker successors.

In the 1930's, with the Kwantung Army in Manchuria a law unto itself and the junta leaders conspiring to seize power in Tokyo, literature on bushido was divorced from its original context and reinterpreted to serve the cause of the militarists. Where Japan had previously been renowned for its honorable conduct in war, now a twisted version of "imperial bushido" was the order of the day: one marked by its focus on dying like a shattered jewel (gyokusai) in the Emperor's service, without reference to counter-balancing virtues like benevolence or rectitude. Part of this indoctrination was, of course, the reprinting of Hagakure as a model for common soldiers to aspire to. A passage in Nitobe's Bushido came true:

"Discipline in self-control can easily go too far. It can well repress the genial current of the soul. It can force pliant natures into distortions and monstrosities. It can beget bigotry, breed hypocrisy, or habituate affections."


Is bushido, then, to blame for Japanese brutality in World War II? Yes... and no. Our survey of Japanese history above has shown that the history of the samurai was complex, with many twists and turns over the centuries. The Sengoku Jidai (era of warring states) gave way to the Edo period (200 years of peace under the Tokugawa shoguns). Then, with the Meiji Restoration, the samurai class was abolished but the nationalist movement sought to adapt "bushido" as a code of conduct for all classes in Japanese society, not just the top. During Japan's first wars against western powers, in 1905 and 1914-1918, the Japanese military successfully showed the world that they could both defeat major western powers in combat, as well as show humanity and gentlemanly conduct to the vanquished.

But these were not enough to turn the tide of racist sentiment at the Paris Peace Conference and other trends of the 1920's. Resentment at being treated like a second-class power soured relations with Great Britain and the United States, and caused turmoil at home that led to a series of assassinations and coups. A faction of militarists took control of the state in the 1930's and made common cause with Nazi Germany. Just as Hitler appropriated "Volksgeist" to pervert certain aspects of traditional German culture for the sake of national socialism, the militarists of Japan promoted a selective view of traditional Japanese culture, under imperial "bushido", to expand the empire. But in reality, the war crimes of Japan during World War II have as much to do with the samurai as the Holocaust had to do with the Holy Roman Empire: nothing at all.

British General Claude Auchinleck holding up a katana after World War II.


Saturday, March 21, 2020

Praying the dry Mass: what to do in times of pestilence

A few nights ago, I attended a Liturgy of the Presanctified at the Ukrainian Catholic cathedral in Philadelphia: one of the last public Catholic liturgies in the entire region. After the final prayers, the Metropolitan himself gave a short homily explaining his decision to order a shutdown of all public worship in his archeparchy just two hours before. He said that the pandemic is an opportunity to enter more deeply into the Great Fast. Now, it would seem God is asking us to fast from even the liturgical life of the Church. Perhaps when public worship resumes, we'll no longer take its gifts for granted! Rather, we'll be able to unite our temporary deprivations with those Christians in China, North Korea, and other parts of the world where a lack of liturgy and sacraments is simply part of their everyday lives.

Until that day comes, what do we do? The specific act of hearing Mass on Sundays may be a precept of the Church (and, therefore, adjustable by the bishops), but the larger principle of setting aside one day of the week to rest and honor God is a divine commandment. The Bishop of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, to which I belong, has carefully chosen to "commute" the Sunday obligation to alternative acts of prayer at home, rather than dispense with it altogether. Until we return to normal, he gave his flock two options:
a. Prayerful reflection upon the Sunday Scripture readings, concluding that time by the recitation of the Prayer of Humble Access or the Anima Christi;
b. The recitation of the Rosary as a family.
Modern technology has given us an aid to option a: namely, that with rudimentary equipment, anyone can set up a broadcast of a private Mass for an entire community to watch from a distance. It's rather like a more advanced method of what St Charles Borromeo when the plague of 1576 ravaged his see of Milan. The archbishop ordered the shutdown of churches, but after the streets were cleared, he had altars set up at street intersections so that the people could hear Mass from their windows. This isn't an option today for those of us who don't live in dense European cities, a livestream is easy to set up and gives us visual evidence that the holy sacrifice still goes on behind closed doors, and is still efficacious even without our physical presence. Last week, I assisted my pastor with recording and singing for a simple sung votive Mass for the Sick in the Ordinariate Use--just the priest, with the aid of one server and one cantor--which may be seen on YouTube below. Additionally, starting this Sunday, we will provide livestreams of Sunday Masses using the same general format until it's safe to congregate again. The link to the first livestream, set for Laetare Sunday, is here.

Another method to help in fulfilling option a is more old-school: the use of the medieval "dry Mass" as a devotional tool. What's that, you ask? The term missa sicca--"dry Mass"--has several meanings. The most common today would be the act of practicing the motions of Mass by a deacon or seminarian studying to be ordained a priest. Another meaning is more of a historic usage: when a priest celebrates a liturgy that strongly resembles Mass, but without the offertory or consecration. In the medieval Church, priests sometimes used the dry Mass as a devotion because of the old prohibition against offering Mass in the afternoon (one which continued until the 1950's). Sometimes this would be abused. The missa venatoria ("hunter's Mass") was prayed for gentlemen in a hurry to go on the hunt. The missa nautica ("sailor's Mass"), on the other hand, was quite sensible. Missionary priests on ships to the Americas or Asia would go for months without celebrating a true Mass because of the risk of the Precious Blood spilling over during tosses and turns on the high seas. 

Michael Lofton, author of the Reason & Theology blog, has cleverly adapted a form of the medieval "dry Mass", inspired by a form used by the medieval Carthusian monks, for modern family use. Click on the link below to view the .pdf file he printed, which I encourage you to print out. You'll see that you can easily add in the Scripture lessons of the day.

Finally, a word on option b above: the Rosary is, of course, the most revered private devotion of the western Church. Pope Pius V led its recitation during a procession in Rome to pray for victory against the Turks prior to the 1571 Battle of Lepanto. More recently, this past Thursday, Pope Francis called for the whole Church to join in the Rosary (broadcast from Rome) to pray for a swift end to the coronavirus pandemic. It's an excellent devotion, especially for Catholic families who want nothing more than straightforwardly kneeling and making earnest supplication to the mother of God.

But for those seeking more, we can pause to reflect that the Rosary is called the "Psalter of Mary" because the full recitation is traditionally 150 Aves, in imitation of the 150 Psalms of David. It's a simpler way of praying the Psalter, which--in its fullest form--is prayed through the Divine Office, also called the Liturgy of the Hours. Where this liturgy is all too often mistakenly considered simply the obligation and domain of priests, these upcoming Sundays without access to the Mass might give the lay faithful an opportunity to consider how to make the praying of the Hours a part of their home life, at least on an occasional basis. 

As with the livestreaming of Mass, modern technology has made this aspect of liturgy more accessible than ever. Rather than buying expensive books and having to learn how to mark and turn the pages, apps like iBreviary do all the work for you. There are even choices in which form of the Office to use beyond just that of the reformed Roman Rite. For instance, Divinum Officium offers several iterations of the pre-conciliar Roman Office in Latin and various translations. Or for those who enjoy Morning and Evening Prayer in the Anglican tradition, John Covert has a website set up to easily pray that form of the Office as well. It is used by many members of the Ordinariates.

In the coming days, I believe things will get worse before they get better. I hope the above information at least serves as a useful guide for alternative methods of worship on Sunday. Until then, you can be assured that the Modern Medievalist is as busy as ever, helping set up livestreams at various churches or assisting as part of the "skeleton crew" for these liturgies in the absence of the usual ministers. Stay strong, pray for me, and look out for one another!

In this portrait of St Thomas More's family (based on studies by Hans Holbein c.1527), almost all members are holding their own books of hours to pray the Office at home.
An Act of Spiritual Communion (as given in the St Gregory's Prayer Book)
"In Union, dear Lord, with the faithful at every altar of thy Church where thy blessed Body and Blood are being offered to the Father, I desire to offer thee praise and thanksgiving. I believe thou art truly present in the Most Holy Sacrament. And since I cannot now receive thee sacramentally, I beseech thee to come spiritually into my heart. I unite myself unto thee, and embrace thee with all the affections of my soul. Let me never be separated from thee. Let me live and die in thy love. Amen."

The Prayer of Humble Access (said before Communion in the Ordinariate liturgy and BCP)
"We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen."

Anima Christi (by St Ignatius of Loyola)
"Soul of Christ, sanctify me. Body of Christ, save me. Blood of Christ, inebriate me. Water from the side of Christ, wash me. Passion of Christ, strengthen me. O good Jesus, hear me. Within Thy wounds hide me. Separated from Thee let me never be. From the malignant enemy, defend me. At the hour of death, call me. And close to Thee bid me. That with Thy saints I may be Praising Thee, forever and ever. Amen."