Sanjuro the Antifragile

The wandering samurai, Sanjuro, is a character who appears in two of Akira Kurosawa’s movies: Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962). He is a kind of flaneur of disorder and intrigue. At the start of the movie Yojimbo, we see him at a crossroads tossing a stick in the air to decide in which direction to walk. He follows the path into a town torn apart by greed and avarice where he gets to work helping the bad guys annihilate themselves in the most efficient and effective manner possible.

As I was rewatching the movies recently, I  realised that Sanjuro is probably the ultimate human embodiment of Nassim Taleb’s concept of the Antifragile.  A man who not only survives in chaotic environments, but thrives.

Sanjuro operates in situations of political intrigue and instability.  There are two broad groups of people we can use to characterise the dynamic: The Players and The Mob.

The Players are the leaders. They either wield political or physical (fighting) power. Among this group are the clan leaders, the rich, the bodyguards and henchmen. As a samurai, Sanjuro naturally belongs to this group.

The Mob are the low level fighters, the clansmen, the peasants and even the young aristocrats. Any people whose actions are governed primarily by their membership of a group and the group psychology which that entails.

The Players are Antifragile in their approach.  They run the show and drive events while the Mob haplessly react.  The two groups share a number of behavioural characteristics which I summarise below:

The Players
The Mob
Create optionality.  This element is crucial in the plots of both Yojimbo and Sanjuro. The victor is the one who has the best options going into the endgame.
Instantly accept any “opportunity” even if it seems too good to be true (which it often is because it’s a trap laid by one of the Players).
Improvise. Able to think on their feet and react as events unfold in real time.
Cargo cult thinking. Revert to standard scripts of behaviour even when the circumstances make these scripts redundant.
Have deep understanding of other’s motives.  Always ask the question: In whose interest?
Project their own motives onto others.
Know how to question the veracity of information.
Accept all information. Take everything on face value. 
Know what they do not know.
Absence of evidence equals evidence of absence.  (The movie Sanjuro provides perhaps the most concise exchange possible to explain this concept – Q. “Are there any hidden bodyguards?”  A. “No. None at all.”)
Act alone or join with the group as appropriate to the circumstances.
Seemingly unable to function on their own. Always part of a group. 
Have deep situational awareness.  Understand the skills, strengths and weaknesses of the other players and can anticipate their next move.
Have no strategy and no situational awareness. Are always reacting to developments haphazardly.
Know how to deceive others by telling them what they want to hear.
Simply don’t deal with people outside their in-group. Group membership trumps all.
Know how to play on the emotional weak points of others to create advantage.
Are easily roused to anger. Any disagreement turns into petty bickering.
Tenacity, stamina and patience in the face of adversity. Never lose their heads.
Allow emotions to cloud judgement.
Not only do the Players deal well with disorder, they actively promote it.  Spreading misinformation, causing violence and breaking rules and norms.  What differentiates them and Sanjuro is not the means they use but the ends they seek.
The bad guys are engaged in a zero sum game.  They aim to profit at the expense of the greater good.  Sanjuro, on the other hand, works for the common good.  He takes significant personal risk with no personal gain in terms of wealth or fame or what have you.
It is this dedication to honour and to taking personal risk for the greater good that links Sanjuro to the ethic underlying Taleb’s work.  This angle has often been lost in much of the discussion of the Antifragile, particularly in the startup/entrepreneur community.  Taleb advocates for entrepreneurship not as some recipe to fame and fortune, but because it benefits the larger community.  Sanjuro represents this ethic perfectly.  His actions literally save the townsfolk from ruin.  Sanjuro serves to help people he will mostly never meet in a town he will never live in.
Kurosawa makes it clear that what is good about Sanjuro is not that he wins, but that he is honourable.  But what good is honour without smarts? There are plenty in the Mob who are also honourable and who quickly blunder their way to their death.  It is not enough to be a Player and it is not enough to be honourable.  One must be both to make a real difference.
At the end of Sanjuro, we see the samurai reject the offer of a comfortable life as bodyguard in the community he has helped.  He takes to the road again seeking disorder and volatility somewhere new.  He pursues honour and the Antifragile at the expense of wealth, comfort and luxury.