Comfort culture. A mentally safe place to retreat to.
Somehow Sherlock Holmes’ London of 1880’s and Zatoichi in Japan’s Edo period took on the role of a haven to retreat to. And I think I understand why.
I Started Young
I was first introduced to these characters in my early years. Holmes first via the films staring Basil Rathbone. He’s pictured above. These movies aired regularly on TV and I watched them repeatedly. I went on to read the entire Holmes canon.
About the same time, I saw Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and thereafter was ever on the lookout for Samurai movies. It wasn’t long before I stumbled in to the Zatoichi series although I only saw the early titles. It would take the full power of the Internet to allow me to locate the more obscure ones.
The stories are simple. The main character is also simple. That is, he is a well defined character who behaves in a strong predictable manner. His character is inseparable from his trademark idiosyncrasies. He is successful against all obstacles and he faces them on his terms. There is no authority that can influence him yet he behaves according to a rigid, self-imposed moral code that is clear and just without being sanctimonious.
This description applies to both characters.
Not only do both characters have moral strength but they also posses physical and mental strengths too. Holmes is chiefly known for his mental capabilities but his physical strength was an important aspect of the character. Zatoichi also posses a fine tuned intellect. Several of the films focus around murders or other crimes that he must solve. The ability to “out fox” adversaries is a key element to these characters.
Repeat As Required
Consistent repetition is crucial. The enforcement of the character’s nature takes place over the many installments in the series. In this way a simple, essentially, two dimensional character can acquire depth and complexity. The rich detail is slowly built-up over time.
Being simple, (yes, I know, because they’re fictional characters), they are predictable. That is a safe and reassuring trait even if it isn’t integral to the stories it’s transmitted through to the reader.
I think that the fact that the stories are set in distant environments is also provides comfort. Good art will cause the reader to identify with the characters and their issues but what is missing is a whole set of stresses that we would have if we were actually living within that society. It’s similar to being tourists in a foreign city as opposed to living there.
That these stories are set in the past means that at some level, we know what happens eventually. Perhaps not in the plot of a specific tale but overall some vague tension is relieved knowing that history has already been resolved for these people. It lacks the uncertainty of our own present.
It needs to be stated that good writing is a requirement. And good acting too in the case of the films. It is up to each of us to decide if our standards are met. When the character posses extraordinary skills meant to instill wonder – Zatoichi’s ability to fight blindly or Holmes’ ability to deduce remarkable conclusive truths from the merest clues – there is a fine line where he viewer says “wow, how does he do it?” and when the writer fails and the viewer says ” yeah, well, it’s just a movie.” Our suspension of disbelief must be maintained.