Thursday, March 8, 2012

Paragon Shepard: Soul of the Samurai

The innate ideal of the warrior who serves to defend others before themselves has been present in most every culture that ever existed in the history of our world. Americans need only look at their own culture to see that, in our respect for the soldier who make it their life's calling -- and a mostly thankless one -- to defend our country and way of life from any threat, known or unknown, and in the respect given to veterans living and dead. Often in our popular culture, heroes have numbered in the very few or even a lone figure who must serve as a stalwart against enemies driven by greed or worse and are superior in number and strength. John Wayne became a legend for embodying such a larger-than-life hero in Westerns even before "Stagecoach", which made him a star. Time and again The Duke played virtually the same character, the resolute and courageous cowboy who saddled up time and again against renegade Indians and brutal outlaws, and he was a natural because his off-screen persona and his fictional ones were close to the same. No matter what role he played, you couldn't imagine John Wayne not wearing a gunbelt or unprepared for a good fight for someone else's sake. In sci-fi, we've had many, many heroes like William Shatner's James Tiberius Kirk of "Star Trek", who couldn't imagine doing anything else but serving in Starfleet and sitting in the captain's chair of the U.S.S. Enterprise...heroes like him defined their lives by protecting the innocent and serving the greater good.

Those in our world history who can be said to have embodied such a warrior ethic at its best were the samurai, the legendary warrior class of Japanese history. For over a thousand years they served their lords and society, but it wasn't until the Muromachi period (1336-1573) they developed Bushido, or "The Way of the Warrior". Influenced by Shinto, Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism, Bushido became the code and way of life for samurai, and was defined by seven virtues: rectitude, courage, benevolence, respect, honesty, honor and loyalty. Fealty to one's lord and self-discipline were paramount, and a warrior was taught that one must enter into battle already believing oneself dead, in order to fight one's enemies with a clear mind...or simply, don't think and just do. For a samurai, dying by the code of Bushido was as important as living by that code, that a warrior's death upholding one's duty was its own reward. Bushido ultimately influenced Japanese society as a whole, and still does over a century after the samurai class was abolished by the modernizations of the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th Century. Names of legendary men like Miyamoto Musashi and female samurai (or onna bugeisha) like Tomoe Gozen are well-known and beloved. The mystique of the samurai holds a lot of power in other cultures, fact, it was one of my greatest influences writing the novel "Hell Knight".

Think of the samurai's seven core virtues. The philosophy of living for others, and perhaps dying for others. Sound familiar? If you answered no, then you haven't played any of the "Mass Effect" games.

Paragon Shepard, at his/her very best has reflected the samurai of old since the first game. A Commander of the Alliance Navy, Shepard was already devoted to the cause of defending others. His/her fealty to her commanding officers could never be in doubt, especially to those like Captain Anderson and Admiral Hackett, and to the Council when made a Spectre to track down Saren. Even when Shepard worked with Cerberus, it was first and foremost for Humanity's defense and to protect the galaxy from the Reapers.

(From here I'll talk about what I've played of the latest installment as a first one, Mary!)

At the start of "Mass Effect 3", the final chapter of Shepard's epic quest, she has been held on Earth under virtual house arrest since she was taken into Alliance custody six months earlier because of the events in the DLC adventure "The Arrival". Any worries about the Batarians, however, are placed on what might be permanent hold as Reapers flood into the solar system and descend on Earth like building-sized locusts. Unprepared and overwhelmed, Shepard is reinstated by Anderson and sent to unite the galaxy and bring them to Earth's defense. Shepard is a warrior, however, and leaving Earth in its darkest hour in order to gather together allies is clearly painful for her. But just as painful is seeing a boy she tried to save earlier be obliterated by a Reaper blast as she leaves on the Normandy.

The Mary Shepard I've played into the third game has always been ready to fight for others. To see a boy killed on her watch so brutally as she was forced to retreat is a moment that will haunt her soon enough. Not much time later, she has a dream in which she finds the same boy in a dark, dark forest...and watches him burn again. It's a dramatic moment, and Shepard must feel like she's going through Hell every moment she's away from Earth.

So would any samurai who is ready to lay down everything for their lord and all they held dear, and yet must turn away to fight another day. So it would be for any who make the way of the warrior their way of life. A lot can happen between now and the end of this war with the Reapers, I know, but I hope laying down her life for duty and galaxy isn't something Shepard must do following the Paragon path. (She already did once, and that doesn't have to happen again!) Tomoe Gozen lived a long life as a warrior...I'm crossing my fingers my FemShep also will in spite of the nightmare threat of the Reapers.

Art of the samurai Tomoe Gozen by Schin Loong.

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