By Andrew Nickerson
There have been many great leaders that have put their thoughts/theories about combat on paper for future generations to study. Depending on the source, they emphasize any number of tactics or strategies for victory. The use of frontal assault, piercing the enemy lines with tanks, sitting behind defenses, wielding air power alone etc., their minds are as fluidly brilliant as often as they are rigidly stern in just what it takes to win. However, despite all that, there’s one voice that’s stood the test of time far better than any other: Sun Tzu, whose masterpiece, The Art of War, is truly a marvel of battlefield tactics/strategy. Its uniqueness comes in its no-nonsense format, not the least of which is its goal: how to win. Other such manuals emphasize minutiae or translate into long-winded complexity, but Sun Tzu sets his views in common-sense principles so effective they still work today, regardless of the medium. Used by generals, sports teams, businessmen, and even politicians, many have thought every possible medium has been covered up until this time.
However, there’s still one medium left to be analyzed and dissected: entertainment plotlines. Literally any type of story outcome can be predicted/explained via this ancient genius, for his wisdom not only reaches that far, it merges with the subject matter with ease. To prove this, let’s look at such an example right now: the defeat of evil mage Ukitsu and Imperial official Chojo in the third season of the anime franchise Koihime Muso AKA Shin Koihime Musō: Otome Tairan. This series, a wonderful spoof of the classic epic The Romance of the 3 Kingdoms, is known for its fan service heavy content, as well as replacing nearly the entire normal cast of men with women. Having said that, this series also has exceptional tactical writing, including many of the most brilliant female minds in anime to date, all bringing their strength to bear on villains ranging from bandits to traitors to internal political enemies. The reason behind choosing this particular storyline is that it’s the best overall one of the series, laid out perfectly for just such an analysis, as well as its use of tactical brilliance by both heroes and villains; the latter point is especially great, because Sun Tzu can be used by both all parties in real life. To more efficiently dissect this plotline, analysis will be focused on the most consistently applicable Sun Tzu principles: Immorality, Underestimating foes, Deception, Impulsivity, Terrain, and Some commands mustn’t be obeyed.
Here’s the background for those unfamiliar with the franchise. Starting in the second season (Shin Koihime Musō), an evil mage named Ukitsu began an evil campaign based around a book called the “Crucial Keys to the Ways of Peace” (CK from now on). It’s a magical text created by an order of healers called the Way of Five Grains, featuring many powerful spells, but also containing its own magical energy. The latter enables even those with little to no training/ skill to perform extremely powerful spells, using its imprinted power in place of the energy normally needed for such feats, but there’s great danger in doing so because said energy’s source: oppressed peoples’ cries of hatred against their unjust conditions. The intent of CK’s creation was to use it to better the lives of others but, somehow, the book manifested its own will, drawing out its wielders’ evil tendencies to cause more suffering. This way, it increases the peoples’ ire so it can gain more power. As a result, the Five Grains sent one of their own, Kada, to try and seal the book. Meanwhile, Ukitsu, still working his secret goal, gave the book to the three Chō sisters, a group of aspiring performers, telling them to use the book to liven their act, thereby using the Sun Tzu principle “All warfare is deception.” Initially the girls did so, but found they could brainwash those entranced by their songs. It led to them exploiting their fans for various gifts, but an ugly incident soon led to an incomparable mess that culminated in the Yellow Turban Rebellion. That’s an entire saga unto itself, but since it’s not something very applicable to this tale it’s best to leave it be. Suffice it to say the sisters were defeated, but Ukitsu stole the book before it could be sealed, which is what leads up to the beginning of season three.
Here, Ukitsu used that same tactic of deception to lure in the head of the Imperial Eunuchs, Chōjō, by playing on her ambition. The latter wants more power, but she needs an army to do it, and that’s what Ukitsu offers her through revealing his goal: reviving the treasure of the first Emperor, better known as the Terra Cotta army. Normally they look like clay statues but, if they’re empowered with magical energy, they move/fight like veteran troops, utterly obedient to their master. Worse, they don’t feel pain, and normal hits won’t defeat them, forcing their opponents to literally smash them to pieces. But there’s a big catch: to revive this army requires an incredible amount of power, normally the combined energies of 100 powerful mages, so most feel such a feat is impossible. Then again, CK can do so, provided it’s charged enough. Thus, Chōjō takes the bait and sets out her own plan to charge CK.
To empower CK, she’ll need to torment and oppress people on a grand scale, and for that she’ll need an initial force in the meantime to enforce said cruelty until the book’s ready. Unfortunately, she’s just an official and can’t possess her own troops, and the current head of the Imperial Army, General Kashin, is her long-time political enemy, so she’d never cooperate. Therefore, in the season opener, Chōjō uses that same rule of deception to lure Kashin into an ambush. She has her surrounded, falsely accuses her of a crime, and force her to take a medicine that’ll slowly turn her into a cat, an epic failure on Kashin’s part of Sun Tzu’s principle not to underestimate a foe, which he described thus: “He who exercises no forethought but makes light of his opponents is sure to be captured by them.” Kashin flees in humiliation, leaving Chōjō unopposed, but then runs into Kada in the mountains. In contrast, he follows Sun Tzu, more specifically one of his five principles that must be mastered for victory, morality, by sending Kashin to the home of the series’ protagonists, Touka Village. There, she seeks refuge while Kada continues his journey, leaving the latter to spend much of the season finding the ingredients needed for an antidote for the general. They do so, but through using morality as well (ex. helping new series arrival Gien with an old foe), they gain new allies in the process. Therefore, this simple act of initial kindness starts the downfall of Ukitsu and Chōjō.
Meanwhile, Chōjō still needs an army, and gets an opportunity in feudal lord Tōtaku, whose forces have been mauled trying to stop a hostile incursion. The latter’s strategist, Kaku, violated the rule of underestimating a foe in the campaign, in her case a plague that swept through their camp and disabled much of their army, forcing them to retreat. Swept with guilt, she’s hampered by another burden: her friend, General Kayū, was supposedly killed covering their retreat, driving her into an even deeper depression. Chōjō steps in, using deception to offer apparent sanctuary for the weakened army in the capital, along with extending a chance for Kaku to take an important position in the royal court. Amazingly, the latter knows she’s being played, but violates Sun Tzu’s rule of underestimating a foe again by accepting, thinking she can simply use Chōjō in turn. It comes back to haunt her when Chōjō, again using deception, lures Tōtaku to the palace under the guise of seeing the emperor, only to snatch her and hide her in a secret prison, using her as a hostage to force her army to obey. Unable to resist, Tōtaku’s army now becomes Chōjō’s private enforcers, which violate Sun Tzu’s rule of morality to astonishing extents: conscripting people for mass labor and large-scale construction projects, levying cruel taxes to pay for the work, jailing any who protest/hold out/can’t pay etc. All the while, Chōjō wields deception and immorality by cruelly circulating a rumor that she’s fled the capital due to a falling out with Tōtaku and that every evil move is the latter’s doing. To rub more salt in the wound, Chōjō daily torments and bullies Kaku by forcing her to issue all her evil orders, ensuring the deception stays intact. These immoral acts soon build CK’s power at an astonishing pace—but also undermine the plot even more. Tōtaku’s generals are wearying of their forced compliance, the oppressive regime is becoming worse in the eyes of all surrounding feudal lords, and Chōjō is growing steadily more arrogant since none in the capital can oppose her.
These failures begin taking effect with Chōjō first, courtesy of her becoming so arrogant she forgets she can only get away with these evil acts in the capital because of Tōtaku’s army. Outside the capital she has no such leverage, and it leads her to violate one of Sun Tzu’s fatal failings of a leader—recklessness, more specifically it’s most dangerous form, impulsivity. An expert on the subject matter explains this point thus: “Sun Tzu is deadly against impulsive behavior…for in Sun Tzu’s mind, victory comes from deep thinking, from detailed calculation, from long preparation.” It comes about when she has Kaku send a request to feudal lord Enshō to exterminate bandits, something which makes no sense considering the latter is notoriously lazy. For example, in season one, Enshō had people come from the capital to wipe out bandits in her territory, and she also has a long-standing reputation for sleeping late and living on her family’s name and money rather than competency. When the request goes unanswered, Chōjō impulsively orders Kaku to strip Enshō of her rank, summon her to the capital, and have her explain her actions while whipping herself. It’s a clumsy mistake, one that also violates the underestimation principle, since Chōjō expects meek compliance like always. However, while Enshō isn’t known for her work ethic, she’s very proud, and complying with such an insulting request is unthinkable. She decides to follow Sun Tzu herself, namely his principle “Some commands must not be obeyed”, by sending word to the other feudal lords to, under her family’s banner, march on the capital to depose/kill “the traitor Tōtaku”. Admittedly Enshō’s reputation isn’t very good amongst her fellow lords, so many don’t answer it, but the immorality in the capital takes effect here too, giving many the incentive they need, especially when coupled with the chance for some to further their own wishes. Therefore, Enshō’s cousin, Enjutsu, musters her troops to show unity under the family banner, but so do the forces of powerful lords Sōsō, the Son family, Kōsonsan, and the Touka Village army. The latter are particularly important here because several of them met Tōtaku once, and they know she’s a selfless leader who’d travel amongst her people in disguise to hear their problems. Thus, they know someone else is behind these evil acts. Kashin, newly recovered (except for her ears), also comes with them, a factor that’ll help greatly in the coming fight.
Stunned by the rebellion, Chōjō learns that Kaku has moved half of the army to the southernmost of two gates that defend the capital from that direction. The former violates the rule of impulsivity again by having the latter send the rest of Tōtaku’s army to the other gate, opting to let the Imperial Guard, who only answer to Chōjō, defend the capital. It’s gambling on the use of another of Sun Tzu’s essential factors for victory, terrain, because if those two gates don’t fall the capital will be safe. However, her prior immorality comes back to haunt her in the form of Ryōfu, Tōtaku’s best general and the southernmost gate’s commander, and her strategist Chinkyū. Despite initially holding back the rebel forces, the latter is deeply concerned for the former, whose depression at the immorality she’s forced to endure is slowly draining her. Thus, the underestimation rule takes effect, as does that of not obeying some commands and morality, when Chinkyū, wishing to stop her lady’s suffering, sneaks out at night and heads to the rebel leaders’ camp. It takes some convincing due to the conditions of her appearance, but she manages to expose Chōjō’s evil actions, and the lords now adopt Sun Tzu’s principle of morality by changing their goal: rescuing Tōtaku, which’ll cripple Chōjō’s ability to fight since the Imperial Guard, tough as they are, aren’t numerous enough to defend the capital.
Their plan has two goals: find Tōtaku, and then get her out of the capital. Unfortunately, her hiding spot is cleverly concealed, meaning someone needs to physically get inside the palace to find her. Touka Village helps via Kashin, who fulfills an advanced rule of terrain: “Make use of local guides.” She tells Son family spy Shūtai of a hidden passage that leads to an old well in the courtyard of the palace, meant for the Imperial family to use to escape during a crisis; she knows of it because she used it to escape after being drugged. Unfortunately, it’s also booby-trapped to prevent outside incursion, as Shūtai verifies the hard way when infiltrating the location: she manages to get in, only to have it collapse behind her. It’s a bad break, since she now can’t use the passage to escape, but she’s inside, and that’s what counts. Unfortunately, she can’t find Tōtaku no matter how hard she searches, so Touka strategist Shuri decides to use deception herself, playing on Chōjō’s arrogance. She goes to Sōsō’s retainer Riten, an expert builder, and asks her to make a mechanical doll of Tōtaku, which is soon drawn in front of Ryōfu at the gate by Chinkyū. The latter tells her lady the doll is the real Tōtaku, and the captive one is a piglet transformed by magic that’ll return to normal if it sees its reflection in a mirror. Ryōfu takes the bait and surrenders all forces, removing half of Tōtaku’s army and her best fighter from the battle. It also circulates back to Chōjō, who’s clearly feeling the effects of having underestimated the rebel forces due to her shock of losing half of her private army. She herself takes Shuri’s bait and takes a mirror to go check her captive, violating the impulsivity rule again and exposing the hidden prison to Shūtai, who’s been notified of the plot via messenger pigeon.
This winning strategy moves to Kaku next when Shūtai contacts her, telling her they’re getting Tōtaku out in the early morning, when the guard detail is lightest. The impulsive decision to pull the latter’s forces from the city, combined with underestimating the rebels, manifests when, after rescuing Tōtaku, Shūtai easily takes her over the palace wall to a carriage driven by Kaku. Although the guards give chase, there aren’t enough to stop the carriage, especially when Shūtai counterattacks. A pair try to seal the city gates, but the plot’s final demise occurs when the supposedly dead Kayū suddenly reappears, having survived captivity and escaping to the capital to investigate the rumors of her lord’s cruelty, another case of underestimation on Kaku and Chōjō’s parts; she’d hidden in the city disguised as a beggar, an ingenious use of deception. Kayū kicks open the gates and the carriage escapes, leaving the latter in a perilous position due to having an enraged populace all around and not having enough troops to suppress them. But Ukitsu then appears and tells her CK has gathered enough energy. She’s elated, but underestimating her supposed ally Ukitsu by falling for his deception costs her here: he not only declares he’s done with her, but forces her to drink a potion that instantly turns her into a rat. Leaving, Ukitsu then uses CK to revive the terra cotta army.
Elsewhere, Tōtaku orders her army to surrender, but a brief crisis occurs at the second gate, where rogue officer/traveling martial artist Chōryō demands a fight before she’ll surrender. The challenge is answered by Touka Village protagonist Kan’u, who promptly uses morality when she demands to know why Chōryō is fighting. When the latter claims it’s to prove she’s the best, the former counters by saying “That’s why you’re so weak.” She defines it by relating what Chinkyū did, explaining that, compared to the latter’s motive of love, pride in one’s skills will always be weaker. Her words hit home even though their clashing blades end in a draw, and Chōryō surrenders, leaving the rebels to advance to the city. En route, they meet with Tōtaku, whose moral compass is so great she wants to atone for the sins committed via her being held hostage with her life; she even threatens suicide if the rebel leaders refuse. It’s an impulsive case of guilt, but it’s quickly rectified when Kakuka, one of Sōsō’s retainers, asks to handle the situation. Soon, one of Soso’s generals, Shuran, shows up with a bloody bag she claims holds the head of “the traitor Tōtaku”, only to reveal the head of the mechanical doll used to fool Ryōfu. Sōsō, playing dumb, asks who’s kneeling before her, and Chō’un of Touka Village, catching on, says it’s Tōntōn (Tōtaku’s alias when she’d pass amongst her subjects), a village girl who makes up weird stories and is a little weak in the head. When Tōtaku mentions Chō’un’s name, the latter presses the point, saying a tyrant wouldn’t know an average person’s name, whereupon Sōsō tells Tōtaku to leave and not waste anymore time. It’s an elaborate ruse that fulfills the principles of morality and deception: it placates the people, who’d want the “traitor” punished, avoids punishing Tōtaku for crimes she didn’t commit, and ends the conflict without bloodshed. Underestimation factors in as well, since Tōtaku wasn’t anticipating being forgiven.
The rebels then reach the capital, where the Chō sisters, touring the country as atonement, meet up for a possible victory celebration. Unfortunately, any celebration is put on hold when Kada shows up, revealing Ukitsu’s involvement with Chōjō and the plan to revive the Terra Cotta army. Things get worse when news arrives that a fort protecting the western approach to the capital has been overrun by a mysterious force. Strangely, the fort was supposed to be unbreachable, but a construction project recommended by Ukitsu weakened it, a brilliant use of deception by him for this moment and another count of underestimation for Chōjō. An assessment reveals a dire situation: almost 100,000 clay troops are approaching from the west, while the rebels only have about 30,000 troops, including those of Enshō and Enjutsu. In the center of their formation is a massive altar, which is where Ukitsu is controlling his troops, and where CK is stored. Worse, the western approach favors attack, meaning they can’t wait behind the city walls, a brilliant use of terrain by Ukitsu. Thinking quickly, the rebels recall the newly deposed Tōtaku and her forces to bolster their own, but it’s not enough. They’ll have to smash his army of clay troops now or all is lost.
To stop Ukitsu, they’ll need to seal CK, which will stop his army too, since they need magic to move. But he’s a powerful mage, and ordinary weapons won’t work against him. Kada mentions that the ideal weapon would be a dragon’s claw, formed when a dragon hatches from an egg amidst thunder and rises to Heaven, leaving a claw behind. The latter transforms into a sword that, if wielded by someone of high birth (noble blood) and a strong will, can kill any evil. Ironically, the Touka forces have such a weapon, earned in the second season by leader Ryūbi’s use of morality in sacrificing an ancestral blade to smash a large rock (called a “dragon’s egg” since it was near a lake where a dragon deity was said to live) in a thunderstorm to save a village from bandits. The village later found a newly forged blade in a nearby river in the aftermath and gave it to her. Moreover, Ryūbi herself is of noble lineage, and happens to have the sword, which she produces. When asked to project her will to destroy evil, it shines, showing the power of her morality and beginning the next phase of the evil plot’s failure. However, the rebel leaders have violated the underestimation rule here too, since Chōjō, still a rat, happens to overhear the bit about the sword and scampers off to Ukitsu. There, violating the morality rule again, she trades the knowledge of the blade for the antidote to her condition.
Yet, Ukitsu isn’t out of the woods at all, since Chōjō left before the rebels discussed their final plan to kill him and seal CK, showing her impulsive record is still intact. This plan is conceived by Sōsō’s strategist Teiiku, and it’s an ingenious use of his elements of terrain and deception. They’ll meet the mage outside the city, with Sōsō and the Son family manning the right and left flanks, respectively. When the enemy attack hits, the center, made of Kōsonsan and Enshō’s forces (front and rear respectively), will feign withdrawal, pulling the center with the altar forward while the flanks hold to keep reinforcements from arriving. Then, when the center’s far enough ahead, a smaller force of ten squads (led by Ryōfu, Chōryō, Sōsō’s retainer Ukin, Kayū, newly arrived feudal lord Gengan, and Touka Village warriors Kōchū, Gien, Batai, Bachō, and Chō’un) will punch through the side of the column near the altar, peel back the lines, and open a way for a carriage to bring Ryūbi up to Ukitsu. She’ll kill him, Kada will seal CK, and it’s over. It’s a wonderful plan, but Ryūbi is nervous due to her lack of skill as a fighter. However, Chō’un, in a recurring joke appearance as masked figure “Butterfly Mask” (with whom Ryūbi is infatuated), shows up and gives her a butterfly mask of her own to bolster her courage, using morality to reinforce the coming victory. This is also where Shuri makes two detours: the first is to Riten, where she asks her to make one more item, and the other is to the Chō sisters, both elements in an incredible use of deception that’re the final parts to their strategy.
When the battle commences, the initial phase goes as planned, including the withdrawal. Sōsō and the Son family also do well, the former cycling her troops around to let successive units rest while the latter feigns retreat to draw the dolls into a canyon ambush, an ingenious use of terrain and deception. Shūtai, watching via a kite, signals Shuri, who launches the strike on the center column’s flank, an act brushed off by Ukitsu, who merely has his forward units continue the advance while letting those immediately near the altar handle the fighting. It’s an impulsive move and a costly mistake, violating the underestimation rule too by not using his numbers effectively. The way is now made for the carriage, whose contents include Ryūbi (wearing the mask), Kan’u, another girl named Rin Rin (who made a sisterhood vow with former two), Kada, Chinkyū, Shuri, and Sōsō’s retainer Gakushin. Rin Rin leaps out with a large basket on her back, drops it on the altar, and begins crushing any foes in sight, followed shortly by Kan’u and the others, while Ryūbi heads up to fight Ukitsu. Here’s where a crisis occurs, courtesy of the latter easily knocking aside Ryūbi and kicking her sword away. Elsewhere, the terra cotta forces are wearing out the rebels, although Kaku, via morality, is able to persuade Enshō to get Enjutsu and the Son reserves to come up and stymie the advance.
However, the plan comes to fruition as Sun Tzu would’ve predicted when Ukitsu arrogantly asks why Ryūbi’s wearing the mask, to which she answers to conceal her identity. Instantly, the mage pulls off the mask, revealing “Ryūbi” is actually Tenhō, the eldest of the Chō sisters, wearing one of Ryūbi’s outfits. Shuri’s brilliant deception plan is now unveiled: she had Riten forge a copy of the dragon sword, and then had Tenhō pretend to be Ryūbi because the two look almost alike. It’s an incredible failing of underestimation on Ukitsu’s part, and that element’s effects are only furthered when the real Ryūbi jumps out of the basket Rin Rin was carrying. The mage fails the underestimation rule again when Tenhō pulls him off his feet as Ryūbi jumps into the air and throws the newly empowered, very real, sword into his chest, killing him. Kada then races up and seals CK, stopping the terra cotta army just in time to save the exhausted rebel forces, all of which are on the verge of annihilation from exhaustion.
As we can see, this campaign of evil was waged with brilliant cunning and trickery by Chōjō and Ukitsu. But their choosing to ignore Sun Tzu ‘s rules of morality, deception, underestimating foes, terrain, and impulsivity cost them their victories, power, and later their position/life respectively. It’s all been said before, but let’s say it again: follow Sun Tzu’s principles and you’ll win; ignore them and, as these two learned the hard way, you lose.
Andrew Nickerson is originally from Massachusetts, and has been a fan of military history/tactics/strategy for almost 30 years; combining that with a love of film has long been a dream. He started writing in high school with poems/short stories, moved to novellas while earning his BA in History (English minor) at UMASS Lowell and J.D. at Mass. School of Law, and never looked back. He has since self-published a novella on Amazon, printed 1 article apiece on Polygon and Anime Herald, recently printed a short story in Evening Street Review, and am currently finishing the last articles in a Revue Newsletter analyzing pop culture via SunTzu (viewable on my Twitter profile AndrewNickers19@).
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