Yes, the Samurai Can Laugh

I’m cleaning my desk and ran into an alumni magazine with the provocative headline Did the Samurai Have a Sense of Humor? Gee – I wonder if the answer is “Yes!”. Oh look the subtitle is The Phenomenon of 18th-Century Japanese Comic Books – and we all know how silly they are. Hey if you don’t believe me, ask Harvard 18th century Japanese expert Adam Kern

The article goes on at great length to explain that not only was there 18th century satirical manga in Japan, but that it was a criticism of modern political and social events. But let’s just cut to some compelling dialogue from 1785’s Playboy, Roasted à la Edo

Plot: The semi-attractive mercantile son Enjiro asks friends and geisha for advice on obtaining the love of many women proclaiming: “For a lifetime of memories, I’d kill myself.”

Best Advice: When placing tattoos representing fake women on your arm, don’t forget to remove some later to show that you have “discarded” them.

Kinosuke: (experienced playboy) It’ll look suspicious if some tattoos aren’t erased, so we’ll burn them off later with moxa

Enjiro: (aspiring playboy) Who’d’ve thought becoming a playboy would hurt so much?

Now that you’re done giggling, I do have a point which is that it’s still a shock when we discover that an ancient/foreign culture is capable of “sophisticated” humor or irony. Somehow we expect people far outside our culture to either be so serious or so “different” that they could not really understand Western humor or “abstract” concepts like social satire.

For instance, Vikings, Celts and Saxons are portrayed as fierce warriors whose idea of a good idea was binge drinking in the mead hall and that their comedic range was restricted to maybe bad Three Stooges pratfalls with helmets. Yet one of the best “parodies” of the fantasy quest is from the Middle Welsh Mabinogi. When the hero Pwyll, who spends a year chasing the beautiful Rhiannon on horseback, finally catches up with her, she asks him why he didn’t just yell out to her to stop in the first place. And you thought Princess Leia’s spunk was a modern invention.

So watch the Discovery Channel carefully the next time a Caucasian adventurer wants to experience a more primitive life and see if you don’t spot an “indigenous” citizen barely containing snickers at the complete idiocy that only a city slicker can display.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *