Becoming the Tiger

When I read Landon’s posts about when pacifistic heroes do and do not work, they resonated a bit with me because it’s interesting to me when a non-violent character’s (or maybe a character who isn’t afraid to throw down, but stops short of killing) ideals are challenged, and there’s a choice with clear consequences on both sides — compromising one’s ideals, or watching real damage be done as a result of sticking to one’s guns (so to speak).

I’ve been watching Moribito lately, and it’s this type of conflict that is at the crux of the show’s 13th episode, “Neither Human Nor Tiger”. When Balsa and Chagum are discovered after they show themselves during a village festival in the previous episode, Balsa is challenged by a man she defeated and left in shame because she did not kill him. The rival makes his terms clear: Balsa must engage him in a fight to the death; if she refuses, then he will kill the first people who pass by the village. Balsa attempts to circumvent this by protecting the couple that passes by the village, but the rival is relentless in both his attacks upon the couple and in chipping away at Balsa, forcing her to go a night without sleep.

What really makes the next part of the conflict work is that Balsa is no idealist. She has taken a vow to never kill again, but she is not strictly a non-violent person; after Balsa initially takes Chagum from the castle and fends away her pursuers, it is clear that she will do anything short of killing a person to protect those whom she guards. Balsa wants to stick to her ideals, but she is no fool — it is clear to her that her rival will not let Balsa concoct a non-violent means of settling the score. It is a duel to the death, or nothing.

And it is a duel to the death the rival receives, or at least it is this way from Balsa’s point of view — she attacks him so relentlessly and ruthlessly that when she lands the finishing blow, Balsa believes she has killed her rival. It is only after Balsa leaves the field of battle that it is revealed that the man is still alive, albeit so psychologically damaged that he has completely forgotten about Balsa.

There is a story told in the middle of the episode: A man is so consumed with honing his fighting abilities that he wears a tiger pelt while training in the hopes of becoming like a tiger. He fights so much that he eventually has no more rivals and discovers that he has become a tiger; he loses everything he had and retreats to a bamboo forest to live alone for the rest of his days.

The story clearly demonstrates Balsa’s conflict: Will she become like the tiger and compromise the way she lives? Everyone around Balsa believes taking another person’s life is bad; Balsa and Tanda had a rift for a while because of how many lives Balsa took while protecting people as a bodyguard. Balsa’s vow to never again take a life (and to save as many as she had taken) is born of Balsa’s realization of the equality of life and how simply tired she was of killing people again and again. But, perhaps, isn’t what Balsa is really tired of is needlessly killing people?

The battle is presented as quite emotional for Balsa — she is clearly pissed with the guy as she is fighting him — but at the same time, there is a rationality to Balsa’s anger. Again, he makes it clear that he will never stop until Balsa accepts the duel. If Balsa does not agree, then people will die. The man also knows of Chagum’s identity as the prince, which will put his life in danger if word spreads of his whereabouts (since the mikado wants to kill Chagum to destroy the spirit growing inside of him). Balsa does not want to do it, but she gives in to her inner tiger to protect Chagum.

(On that note, that’s why I think the ending of this episode is a bit cheap — the rival doesn’t die, but he no longer poses any danger to Balsa or Chagum, so for the time being there is no real physical consequence of Balsa going into Kill Mode.)

I tend not to buy statements like “all lives are equal” when it comes to how people treat each other, because people value certain people more than others. Most of us don’t act callously toward strangers, of course, but I’d say we value friends and family more than people we don’t know. We’d help strangers if asked, but given a choice between family and someone we don’t know, most of us would probably choose family. From a person’s subjective point of view, lives aren’t really equal because we give different value to different people’s lives based on their closeness with us. Doesn’t mean we hate other people or even that we’d treat a stranger to a noticeably different degree than we’d treat those we know; just means that certain people mean more to us.

It’s the same with Balsa. She says all lives are equal, but her actions speak differently — she attacks her rival with the intent to kill so that she can protect Chagum. In that moment, she values Chagum’s life and safety more than that of a man who would kill innocents to get a chance to regain his ridiculous sense of pride. And I honestly don’t think that is the wrong choice given how far the rival showed he was willing to go.

Taking a life is not (nor should it be) easy, and it is not (nor should it be) good. If Balsa could have thought of a way to debilitate the man so that he would not have threatened her or Chagum, or if she could have thought of a non-violent means to stop him, then she would have undoubtedly gone down that road instead of fighting to kill. But she was pushed and had to make a difficult choice. She became the tiger, but is that truly reprehensible?

EDIT: Also need to add that this is the latest episode of Moribito I’ve watched, so please don’t spoil anything beyond this point. 🙂


10 Responses to “Becoming the Tiger”

  1. > She became the tiger, but is that truly reprehensible?

    I’d say yes, but this is clearly one of of those questions that will be answered differently depending on your personal philosophies.

    As for whether or not all lives are equal, subjectively to Balsa they’re not (i.e Chagum > random killer guy) but Balsa isn’t a fair judge of whose life is worth more. Unless you say that whoever ends up stronger and ends up wins is more right.

    • Who is a fair judge, though? I’d say that when you try to calculate the value of human life, you’re throwing any semblance of pure fairness out the window. Nobody values exactly the same things.

  2. I thought this episode was the most superfluous in the anime, I thought it added very little that we could already discern about Balsa (especially after the sharing of her back story, perhaps some time after this episode). I kind of felt that the anime needed to have her perform something martial after the show indulging great stretches of character development.

    That said, I appreciate what you got from it and present here.

    Balsa’s human life math is interesting and fuzzy. As a bodyguard it makes it automatic that the life she protects is more important than others’ particularly those of whom who threaten it.

    • I don’t think it was that superfluous, although I get where you’re coming from. Balsa actually taking the extra step to kill someone and break her vow (even if it doesn’t actually happen that way) makes this episode fairly important to me.

  3. You’re legally allowed to kill to defend someone from immediate deadly force. Does that make it right? Eh, I’m a lawyer, not a priest.

    • For me, killing in self-defense (given someone attacking with immediate deadly force, as you put it) is morally justifiable, as if this whole post didn’t make that obvious. :p But it isn’t something I’d feel great about if I happened to be in that position.

  4. You should really read this article that talks exactly about what you were mentioning regarding how much value we place in others’ lives. It’s about something called the “Monkeysphere”.

    • Ah, yeah, I read something similar in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point — basically, that 150 is where humans operate at the highest efficiency, and once you get beyond that, then we just fuck things up. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything “wrong” with placing more value on those who are closer to you, but of course that’s not license to act like an asshole to people you don’t know, either. But it does happen, whether we’re aware of it or not.

      Thanks for sharing that! 🙂

  5. I got a kick out of this episode. Basically this is a turning point in the show, signaling an end to the slower episodes. But aside from that, I enjoy Balsa struggling to keep her vow, and the resulting “snap” that came out of it (yeah, the show cheated, but…). In essence, it’s a “don’t-fuck-with-Balsa” episode, and it delivers what’s asked from it.

    Oh, and glad to see you watching this show. It’s one of my all-time favorites!

    • Yeah, exactly. (Though I kind of don’t like how the show is “Eh, whatever” with it in the next episode, even though I think a lot of people would actually shrug something off like that.) It reminds me of one of the late episodes in GitS: SAC (don’t remember the exact number) when the Major’s cool demeanor finally breaks, and she just goes apeshit on a powerful machine at the end of the episode. It was pretty damn scary.

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