(WARNING, MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS! READ AT YOUR OWN DISCRETION)
I love Asian drama. This may come as no surprise considering that I am Asian myself, but I particularly love Asian drama that “gets” to me, so to speak.
There is a particular Korean drama that was released this year, that is known as “Gaksital” (lit. Bridal Mask), and it has become a sensation not only in Asia, but throughout the world. Gaksital is set in the 1930s during the Japanese Occupation of Korea, and is about a masked vigilante called Gaksital (Bridal Mask). His alter ego is Lee Kangto aka Superintendant Sato Hiroshi (Back then, Koreans who worked for the Japanese Imperial Army took on Japanese names), hated and reviled as a traitor by his own countrymen. But behind the mask, he is Gaksital, masked avenger who rights wrongs and protects the innocent with his martial arts skills during one of Southeast Asia’s darkest periods.
Anyway, Kangto’s best friend is ironically a young Japanese man named Kimura Shunji, a schoolmaster in a local school. When the characters are introduced in the beginning of the series, Kangto starts out as a really brash and arrogant police officer, while Shunji is a sweet, gentle young man who wants nothing more than to live a good, simple life. However, all of this changes when Gaksital (aka Kangto) kills Shunji’s brother Kenji. (Kimura Kenji is an evil sonofabitch by the way, but for some reason Shunji loves him) Not only is Shunji overcome with grief at his brother’s death; the fact that he lives in an extremely patriarchal society, and his father is an extremely cold and callous patriarch who more than strongly disapproves of Shunji’s gentle ways means that as a man, it is his obligation to avenge his brother. The final straw I suppose, is when Mokdan (the woman he loves) rejects him, despite his clearly expressed affections for her, and his father’s lack of affection towards him, coupled with his grief at losing his brother, drives him to a tremendous degree of bitterness and low self-esteem. Shunji thus develops an obsession to catch Bridal Mask, and unmask him personally, and prove his worth to his cold, overbearing father, an obsession that will drive him to the brink of madness, Inspector Javert style. In other words, kind and decent Shunji gradually turns into, for lack of a better word.. A monster. He beats up his subordinates, takes sadistic pleasure in torturing people for information (this was actually common practice by the Japanese Imperial Army in World War II), and grows into a bitter, cynical, angry man.
A fellow follower of Bridal Mask has compared Shunji with Kurtz, the antagonist in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness.
Japanese by ethnicity and under tremendous pressure from his samurai father Kimura Taro, Shunji abandons a “benevolent colonizer” role to take up the mission of hunting down Gaksital, who killed his brother and has stolen the heart of the woman Shunji loves. Though at the beginning of the drama, Shunji presents as gentle, soft-spoken, and rational, he rapidly changes into a seemingly violent and tortured individual who lashes out, sometimes without provocation, going to extreme lengths to unleash his anger and pursue revenge.
…I argue that Shunji’s character has in fact not changed; rather, he presents differently – often ruthless, sometimes insane – given the influence of the “colonial mentality” on him as a colonizer. To shed light on this transformation, I turn to the character of Mr. Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness.
… In treating African people as animals (or worse… for more on the genocide in theBelgian Congo, please refer to King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild) for the sake of his own avarice and ambition, Kurtz has lost his moral compass completely, and by extension, the sanity not just of his body or mind but his soul.
…Like Kurtz, Shunji is motivated to participate in the colonial project by seemingly noble ideals. In the first instance, he indoctrinates children (albeit gently) to eschew their cultural identity and embrace Japanese-ness, to buy into a system in which they will always be second-class citizens at best. He also strives to uphold the honor of his family, especially following the death of his brother at the hands of local hero Gaksital. And he wants to use his position as a police officer to protect his childhood love, Mok Dan. But in Shunji’s increasingly violent and erratic behavior, we see the same slip into spiritual insanity, his self-control failing and the “primitive emotions” that drive colonialism surfacing. Shunji’s madness of the soul is present, then, from the beginning, since he passively accepts the argument that Japanese culture should dominate Korean culture; the madness begins to manifest itself once the stakes are higher due to the murder of his brother and Mok Dan’s rejection of Shunji in favor of Gaksital.
It was an interesting analogy, to say the least, for Shunji to be compared to Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. Radio Palava has obviously done her homework, as she is aware of the humungously imperialist mentality of Japan at the time (during world war II). The fact is, MOST Japanese of the time felt that the Japanese were the finest breed of Asians, the so-called “Yamato Race”. (Yamato meaning “Aryan”, in a Nazi context) It is therefore not surprising why the horrendous attrocities of Nanking and Singapore took place under the Imperial Japanese army; by “dehumanizing” their victims, the Japanese viewed them at the same level they viewed animals, and if you’ve ever seen a live fish getting chopped up to be served in a traditional Japanese restaurant… Well, you can imagine how it must have been like for the victims of WWII. However, I do take issue with the notion of Shunji being an innately cruel and bloodthirsty sociopath, as she seems to suggest. The fact is that Shunji does get sudden fits of remorse at his actions, and even though these become more and more sparse the further Shunji degenerates into darkness, they are still there – No matter how cruel, how callous he may get, kind and gentle Headmaster Shunji is still somewhere under violent and sadistic Superintendent Kimura. Furthermore, he makes it clear to Rie that he has no “imperialist ambitions”, and describes her as a “pitiful woman”, for her lust for power. But, just like Anakin Skywalker under Darth Vader, that decent part of him has been put aside, for more reasons than one, which will duly be elaborated.
I was once scrolling through the Bridal Mask fanpage on facebook, and I was surprised to see a whole group of passionate Shunji haters. Remember he was once a decent guy, who went out of his way to teach Kangto Kendo (Japanese swordsmanship), and even got himself beaten up by his father so he could save his nanny? I don’t hate Shunji; I think he should be pitied actually, coz no matter how nasty he gets, he’s also a victim of the strict gender role society places on men. The rigidly defined expectations patriarchal society has on him as a man totally contradict his nature, forcing them into strictly defined hegemonic masculinity. And since men are supposed to bottle their feelings up, some men just reach a point when they explode. Shunji is like that; he is forced to repress who he really is, in order to please his cold, imperialist father and avenge his brother, and as a man, he doesn’t have much emotional support he can turn to, since society assumes that men being the “overprivileged gender”, “don’t need a support system”, and if he speaks about his problems, society would probably just laugh it off because he has a d*ck, and therefore no right to complain. So he goes around bottling up his rage and hurt, and jealousy towards Kangto (for Mokdan’s affections), that he just.. Explodes. (e.g. when he shoots the lady from the circus, when he beats up his subordinates, when he tortures Leader Jo)
“Masculinity is a tightrope that men are forced to walk at the point of a cultural gun. In exchange for infibulating their feminine side, they are granted the illusionof power.”
(Big Fat Trauma Queen, Female blogger)
I highlight the term illusion because I see it in the same way the 1950s trophy wife might consider herself more “powerful” than her single, un-hegemonically feminine friends. It’s not that women who were fighting for their rights to wear pants and men’s suits were fighting for the same “freedoms” that men enjoyed. People are quick to blame the patriarchy for forcing women into tightly bound gender roles, while the big bad men get to do and wear whatever they want, but have they actually stopped to wonder if men were actually happy in their assigned role? Some people seem to assume that all the men were happy with their assigned gender role, since they were already somehow “over-privileged”. How do you know that men CHOSE what role they wanted to play? And how do you know that most men today actually CHOOSE their assigned role in society, if you haven’t considered the possibility that a great number of men have actually been forced into this role? I know it sounds politically incorrect, but truly – The term “male privilege” has been thrown around so much that it’s not funny.
In most parts of the world, patriarchy isn’t some form of wicked underground organization which was formed by a coalition of men to systematically oppress women. Rather, it is simply a system that prefers feminine women and masculine men, that is all. But men historically haven’t actually had the luxury of fighting for their rights to express themselves, considering that they were expected to go out, make a living, etc. And when somebody is filling your rice bowl (e.g. your conservative boss), it is very important to please that person by wearing what he/she expects you to wear, even though you hate it. (e.g. Ties, suits, etc)
Notice how the more evil Shunji gets, the more… “GQ” he looks? I think the producers of Bridal Mask may be hinting at something by Shunji’s progressively stiff and conservative dressing. The way I see it, the restrictive and drab Don Draper uniform (the dark suits and ties) of Superintendent Kimura, as opposed to his former more relaxed, bohemian tieless style as Schoolmaster Shunji serves as a symbol that Shunji has now become a “slave” to the patriarchy, and its rigid gender roles. In order to meet the demands of the patriarchy, Shunji must change every aspect of his life, and the fact that even his wardrobe has had a complete overhaul just goes to show what a changed man he has become as a result of the pressure to conform to patriarchy’s strict expectations of the male gender. Shunji, has in other words become a repressed corporate drone, a man Chief Kimura would certainly be proud to call his son.
Let’s just hope that Shunji sees the light, before he is completely engulfed in darkness.
Shunji expressing his grief to Kangto at his brother’s death. That was before he became an evil homicidal maniac.
An early Shunji, as Headmaster Shunji.