A Ku Indeed!

In Search Of: Asian Films

Posted in Chinese Philosophy, Course Material, Ethics, Fun, Pedagogy by Chris on June 17, 2008

In my usual Values Analysis course (core curriculum ethics course), I have students watch two films — one after reading Confucius, and one after reading Mill/Bentham. Students are expected to write a paper that answers a question about the film using the material just studied. So, for instance, we watch Groundhog Day and students are expected to use the Analects to answer the question: Is Phil a junzi at the end of the film? Similarly, students are expected to use consequentialism and answer the question “is (Ramon’s plea for) euthanasia acceptable?” after watching Mar Adentro (an excellent foreign film, by the way). In the fall, I’ll be teaching Asian Ethics, a course meant to fulfill the core requirement of Values Analysis (a course in ethics) but from an Asian perspective. So I need some Asian films!

As I develop this course, I’m trying to “mirror” the structure of my Values course as much as possible. I’d like to use two films as well (good breaks in a course that tends to be very difficult for non-philosophy students), but I don’t want to use Western films in a course meant to represent the Asian (cultural and ethical) perspective. So I’d really like to find two Asian films to use that fulfills the same function as the two mentioned above. Since the course attempts to present an Asian “representative” for virtue ethics, consequentialism and duty-based ethics, what I need are two Asian films around which a question can be asked that could be answered by two of those three traditions.

Does anyone out there know of any good ones? Basically, any film that deals in a central way with a central component or question that would seem appropriately addressed by any of the three ethical traditions will do. There are no restrictions on the type of film — comedy, drama, science fiction, it doesn’t matter. As long as they can be used for this purpose, and are actually decent films to watch (my students tend to be real critics).

Thanks in advance to anyone who has some suggestions.

By the way, I’m getting old — the post title refers to an old TV series with Leonard Nimoy that I loved as a little kid, and I’ll bet no one knows it but me. 😦


10 Responses

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  1. Adam said, on June 18, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    Didn’t know you knew Mar Adentro. One of my favorite films. I suggested it for the film festival here when I arrived and got to lead a discussion on it.

    As for Asian films. I used to be average on keeping up with them. Now I’m just bad. As popular as it was, there is a lot of depth in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I also love Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams and there is enough there to fill hours of discussion. And then I’m biased, having just finished teaching Shakespeare and moral philosophy, but Ran is basically King Lear. Lear is great for ethics, particularly generational conflict issues (which seem to be popular in Asian ethics).

  2. Alexus McLeod said, on June 19, 2008 at 6:53 pm

    I was thinking of Kurosawa as well, but a different film, “Ikiru”, about a bureaucrat facing death from cancer and his reflections on the actions he’d taken in life and his final decision to become a virtuous person (or his actions might be interpreted as selfless and an attempt to better the community–good “egoism vs. altruism” questions here). This would work really well with any of the Confucian texts, especially Mencius. I was convinced that Kurosawa had Confucianism in mind the first time I saw this film. It’s all the way Confucian. It would be good in any ethics class, really–it’s a “big question”, meaning-of-life type piece, and it’s awesome. One of my favorite films. Check it out–even if you don’t end up using it for the class, it’s a great film.

  3. eyeingtenure said, on June 20, 2008 at 12:18 am

    Ran might be good, but that’s a roundabout way of throwing in Western influences. Ikiru is an excellent movie, ranking up there with Seven Samurai and High and Low. Let’s look outside Kurosawa, though.

    If you’re willing to get into anime, there’s always the ponderous Ghost in the Shell. The television show regularly addresses questions of duty and the nature of consciousness, and is much shorter and to the point than the movies. It’s also a lot better.

    Evangelion is a lot more esoteric, but just as good.

  4. Chris said, on June 20, 2008 at 7:37 am


    I’ve been using Mar Adentro for a few years — every time it causes a few of my students to tear up on the way out. It’s a really powerful film.

    I’ll have to check out the other Kurosawa films (Ran and Dreams). I’ve never seen them.


    Long time, no see! How’s your search for a regular teaching job going? I’ll check out the two you mentioned — I’ll do some research on them today. Thanks!


    Actually, Ikiru is one of my all-time favorite films. I use it regularly in my Existentialism class. I thought about using it, but I was having problems coming up with a good paper question to relate it to Confucianism (though I can see the connection to it). Do any come to mind for you? I suppose something general would do, like “from a Confucian standpoint, what is the real nature of Mr. Watanabee’s illness, and how, if he is, does he get “cured” at the end?” But I’m sure there are many angles here to try. If you have one, feel free to let me know!

  5. Alexus McLeod said, on June 20, 2008 at 9:17 am

    I was thinking of something along the lines of “what was the role of the community in relation to Mr. Watanabe’s life, aspirations, and final attempt to make his life relevant, and how does this echo Confucius’ (or Mencius’, etc.) own concerns?” There might be a number of answers to this–I, for example, took Ikiru to be about the individual’s relation to the community, and the attempt to understand one’s own life as subsumed in that community. The benevolent, selfless, courageous act (if it really was all these things) of cutting through the red tape to get the park built seemed to me, in the end, an attempt to rectify the community, which ultimately failed, of course. This also could bring up questions close to Confucianism–“if the thriving society is the (or a) goal of Confucian ethics, what is the point of direct action (Xunzi’s ‘wei’) to bring such a society about when there is corruption all around, when one is going against the current? This will only bring the reduction of one’s own qi and ultimately death.” We might take this as a Daoist question. To the question “was Mr. Watanabe’s effort worth it?” the Daoist and Confucian might give different answers. I strongly suspect that the Confucian would say it was worth it, even though the community was not shaped in the way Mr. Watanabe might have hoped it would be, and the Daoist (thinking of Zhuangzi here) might say (though I’m less sure about this) that Mr. Watanabe should have spent his remaining time “wandering free and easy”, observing the transformations of the ten thousand things.

    By the way–one thing that just occurred to me is that the American film “About Schmidt”, with Jack Nicholson, is basically an American version of the same story. Interesting comparative material there, as “Schmidt” is clearly more individualistically focused than “Ikiru”. In “Ikiru”, Watanabe is not even alive anymore for a large part of the film, while it explores the implications of his life in the community. “Schmidt” is almost solipsistically focused on the main character, and its focus is much more internal. Even though it’s clear Nicholson’s character doesn’t have many years left, we don’t see his end, and the film begins and ends with his reflections on his own life–we never really see him through the eyes of someone else, as we constantly see Mr. Watanabe in “Ikiru”. In a lot of ways, this made “About Schmidt” very depressing in a way “Ikiru” was not. It’s the crisis of the western individual, in some sense. Schmidt/Nicholson was the center (really the only inhabitant) of his own psychological world, but no one else knew who he was or gave a damn, because they were too busy paying attention to themselves also. This made the final scene one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen on film.

  6. Chris said, on June 20, 2008 at 12:11 pm


    We’re thinking on the same lines. Although I take Ikiru to be a direct attempt by Kurosawa to address existential issues (I believe he admitted as much in interviews), it’s very easy to adapt the existential questions to a Confucian framework where the issue at hand quickly becomes one of the relationship between individual and community.

    When I said earlier “what was the real nature of Watanabee’s illness” I meant that from the Confucian point of view, it wouldn’t be his stomach cancer that mattered, but rather the fact that his relationship to the community, and thus to his own life, was almost entirely degraded. He was, in a real sense, already dead. The task is for him to learn “to live” (ikiru) and that means finding a way for him to reintegrate or to find a meaningful path inside the social framework.

    Of course, he already “has” a place in the social framework before, but as the existentialist (perhaps Heidegger) might put it, it is dominated by “das Man” (the crowd, the “they”). “He” does not exist; he’s merely a functionary within his own life. He no longer contributes, and as a result his relationship to that community is without life, without resolve, and without passion. Perhaps a very similar point is made by Confucius regarding one’s relationship to li, and by extension, to the community as a whole. If one’s relationship to li is without passion or simply “rote” or mechanical, then one is not a meaningful part of the relationships those li govern. As a result, if personhood depends on being “authentically” a real part of those relationships, then from a Confucian standpoint when the film begins, Watanabee is “dead.” Of course, as things proceed, he learns to reconnect and thus learns “to live” — this itself coinciding with the recognition and embrace of his own impending actual death.

    You’ve also given me a good idea that I’ll have to ponder. The students will be reading Tao Te Ching, and it might make for a great paper assignment to have them read Confucius and Tao Te Ching first and then write the paper as a “what would the impressions of each be of Watanabee’s situation and how he resolves it” and then for them to pick one of those two as the side that most closely represents their own side.

    Also — I don’t doubt that Nicholson’s film closely mirrors Ikiru — as far as I can see, Ikiru itself is an attempt to mirror Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, so both of them are, as far as I can tell, continuing on in the tradition of telling a great story.

  7. Alexus McLeod said, on June 21, 2008 at 8:16 am

    I’m a big fan of Tolstoy’s novels, but I’ve never read “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” (or many of his short novels/stories in general). I’ll have to check it out now!

  8. Chris said, on June 21, 2008 at 9:04 am

    I’m a huge Russian literature fan (Gogol is my favorite, but Tolstoy and Dostoyesvky are obviously up there too). The big ones are good, but Tolstoy’s short works are really great too. Ilyich is an absolute must read (takes a few hours at best, it’s about 80 pages, I think). But be prepared to be pensive and in an existential funk all day long, much like Ikiru.

  9. Emily Morgan said, on June 24, 2008 at 1:53 am

    You should show “Dragon Seed”. It’s a Hollywood movie where Katherine Hepbern is in make-up as a Chinese person. The movie deals with a family’s quest to survive the Japanese invasion during WWII. It’s long, but the movie is really close to the book which is a really good read. I think the movie shows the Chinese family values but in a way Westerners might understand…and most of the actors are actually Asian.

  10. Chris said, on June 24, 2008 at 8:52 am

    Hi Emily —

    Hopefully your summer is going well? Thanks for the note on the movie. I think I’ll add this one to my growing list!

    I’m also a big Hepburn fan, so that helps!

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