Thursday, December 1, 2011


- A Study of Ambush

"Begun, the Clone War has."
- Yoda

     The conclusion of the Star Wars prequels found a powerful schism running not only through the center of that long ago, far away galaxy, but also through the very heart of the Grand Master of the Jedi Order himself.
     Yoda began the saga at the top of the Jedi Temple in the bright center of the galaxy, only to have fallen into the swampy lowlands on a hopelessly backwater planet by the time his help was needed again. Bound to the holistic Force, he likewise served a corrupt, divided Republic on the verge of tearing itself apart. Eventually arguing that wars do not make one great, he also led one of the largest armies ever created in one of the biggest galactic conflicts of all time.
     It is only fitting that the first episode of The Clone Wars television series prominently features Master Yoda. He very famously foresaw that, "In this war, danger there is, of losing who we are." As the series has progressed, audiences have watched the Jedi, the perennial "peace-keepers who failed to keep the peace,"[1] struggle to maintain their pacifistic philosophy, even within combat situations that constantly undermine it.
     Yet even during a rigged war fought largely by programmed masses of clones or battle droids, the Jedi stand out, their ancient wisdom often filtering through and teasing inspiration out of sources very few others would even notice. This fascinating paradox is on full display in Yoda's character in Ambush.

     On the remote, neutral moon of Rugosa, the Republic and the Separatists are once again vying for allies to join their respective causes. In full ceremonial garb, King Katuunko of the Toydarians has invited Yoda to negotiate on the Republic's behalf for a supply base in that sector.[2] However, Asajj Ventress, the deadly, pale-skinned apprentice of the Sith Lord Count Dooku, arrives first, bringing with her a Separatist trap.
     In space, several frigates pop out of lightspeed, promptly launching an attack on the Republic shuttle approaching Rugosa. Adamant that they must reach the surface of the moon, Yoda calmly advises they launch all the escape pods in order to confuse their enemy. From the beginning, the little master uses cunning to outwit the enemy, rather than simply retaliating with aggression.
     Shooting toward Rugosa, the pod Yoda shares with three other clones nonetheless takes its share of pummeling. For his part, Yoda tellingly assumes something akin to a meditative pose in one of the seats, coolly assessing the situation even as it rattles the clones. For anyone familiar with the inscrutable stories surrounding Zen masters, the scene is somewhat evocative of D.T. Suzuki, one of the first purveyors of Eastern wisdom in the West. As Monica Furlong points out in Zen Effects, "Suzuki was good at dropping off during turbulent airplane flights, a child at home in the universe, unworried and serene."
     At his best, this passage describes Yoda as well. "After all," Irvin Kershner noted at his creation in The Making of The Empire Strikes Back, "he is a Zen master." [3] Beyond words and theory, Zen Buddhism as it came to flourish in China and then Japan is first and foremost not spirituality or a philosophy, but an experience. Contrary to an egocentricity which constantly separates and divides, Zen is a direct experience of the universe as a whole. One has set aside their limited idea of "self" only to discover that their real center of being is the center of all life. This breeds a rather spontaneous, enlightened personality that acts as naturally and deliberately as stars and planets, rocks and trees, streams and rainfall.

     Yoda demonstrates this kind of understanding throughout the episode. After landing in the escape pod, he speaks to King Katuunko via hologram, coyly mentioning he was unaware that Count Dooku had been invited to the meeting. Even though the snouted king establishes that the Separatists invited themselves, Yoda unflinchingly accepts the challenge dropped by Ventress. If her battalion of battle droids can capture him, Rugosa will go to the Separatists; if he eludes them, the moon will be open to the Republic.
     Yet even as a droid carrier thunders overhead, Yoda still takes the time to pause and reflect. "Beautiful, this moon is, hmm? Amazing, the universe is." For the first time since the original trilogy, audiences begin to see Yoda away from the decadence and intrigue of Coruscant, free from his executive burdens within the Jedi Order. He is once again on a vibrant world imbued with the Living Force, "a child at home in the universe," drinking in the wondrous beauty of existence, and is all the better for it.
     His three clone companions, however, find themselves unable to comprehend their eccentric little master. Born for battle, they nonetheless are overwhelmed by the odds; initially their thinking seems as linear and mechanical as their droid foes. "At ease, be," Yoda advises, as their trek to Katuunko begins. "To reach our goal, a straight path we will not follow."
     The poet William Blake once wrote that, "Improvement makes strait roads; but the crooked roads without Improvement, are Roads of Genius." As Yoda draws out the battle droids intent on capturing them, he aptly demonstrates this. His enemy proves cumbersome and inadaptable as their heavy tanks roll into the dense coral foliage, their Euclidean minds unable to think in any way but the straight lines in which they also march. "Size is not everything, huh?" Yoda asks his clone troopers, as he smoothly breezes across the landscape. "Smaller in number are we, but larger in mind." 

     Taking the fight to them, Yoda himself ambushes two patrols of battle droids. Giggling impishly, he deftly bounces about, over, and in between wildly blasting droids to a clueless chorus of "roger, roger." [4] As an impatient Ventress gets reports from afar, her mechanical minions fall victim to a form of Jedi Judo. Another principle from the Far East, in judo (and aikido) all the aggressive energy of an opponent is deflected back at them, their own force leading them to their doom. Feinting and dodging, Yoda takes down an entire patrol of battle droids without firing a shot, their blaster bolts constantly missing the mark and hitting each other.
     Minutes later, Yoda's small squad is pinned down by super battle droids. Again, the master responds by crossing his legs and sitting down, easily capturing one of the supers in the Force. The super keeps firing even when redirected at his own patrol, the droids once again destroying each other in a hail of blaster fire. The group doesn't retreat until the heavily-armored droidekas roll onto the scene, Yoda still deflecting fire while hitching a ride on the back of a clone.[5]
     Meanwhile, King Katuunko anxiously hovers about, asking his Republic contact if he is having trouble with the droid battalion. "Trouble? I know nothing of this trouble," Yoda answers, as calmly as ever. "Look forward to our meeting soon, I do." He's practically winking at Asajj Ventress, who crushes the hologram device in frustration.
     Even against the relentless march of the droids, Yoda advises rest for himself and his battle-weary men. Fittingly, he guides the clones into the dark recesses of a cave, a form of shelter ripe for mythic initiations. According to Signs and Symbols, a symbolism dictionary by Mark O'Connell and Raje Airey, the cave represents rebirth, creativity, and even the hidden potentials of the womb. It is about a return to insight or, as in this case, inner sight. 
     Beside a humming glow-lamp, the clones lament their lack of firepower, but their wise sage shrugs off their anxiety. "All around us is that which we need to prevail," Yoda advises, igniting his shining green blade. Literally and metaphorically, he is bringing illumination to them, opening up a new way of seeing. Tellingly, he uses his saber to turn a blaster rifle into a crutch for a wounded clone, fashioning an instrument of war into an aid for healing.

     Asked to take off their helmets, the clones argue there's nothing much to see since they're genetically identical. Yoda is unconvinced, posing as much of a riddle for them as any Zen master to his pupils. In The Method of Zen, Eugen Herrigel, a German professor who studied the Zen arts for six years in Japan, noted this attitude. It perfectly conveys what the clones are probably feeling:

He becomes aware, almost with dismay, that he is consorting
with a people of quite a different mold from the ordinary. They
seem to be ruled by a special star, not only in what they do, in
their talk, in their silences, but more particularly in their casual
behavior: in the way they stand or walk, or drink tea, or drive away
a mosquito. It is as if the world they live in had sets its own
incomparable stamp on their whole being.

Surely, this description matches what it would be like to trek across a remote moon with a nine-hundred year old Jedi Master.
     For his part, Yoda is likewise one who can no doubt sink into himself, changing his state of consciousness as easily as someone flicking on and off a light switch. "Deceive you, eyes can," he reassures the clones. "In the Force, very different each one of you are." [6] The mystical energy field created by all living things is not only tangibly felt, but is almost a new way of seeing altogether. As Herrigel says in Method, the master sees things illuminated by their true source, and "lets each thing be itself."
     Becoming that teacher once more, Yoda interacts with the clones as individuals. The first he tells to look to his comrades for inspiration; the second to use his mind instead of his weapons to out-think the enemy; and the third that the war is long, and one must survive it to prevail. "Clones you may be," he simply yet sagely states, "But the Force resides in all life forms." It surrounds and binds the galaxy, but also imbues every life with its idiomatic stamp. As Herrigel remarks of the Zen master:

It then seems to him that things do not come to him in his vision,
but that they come to "themselves," and that only then do they
 attain full reality, as if Being were beholding itself in everything
that is, as if it embraced and sustained the process of seeing.

Simply change the word "Being" to "the Force" and the sentiment works perfectly.
     His clones open to this new reality, Yoda leads them back out of the cave at the sound of passing assault tanks. Confident in his troops, he dives down the ravine to meet the Separatist column head-on. Soon utterly surrounded by blaster rifles and tank cannons, Yoda doesn't attack, but rather eases down to
meditate.[7] When a battle droid informs Ventress he's "just sitting here in front of our tanks," this panics her and she orders him to shoot Yoda that instant. [8] 
     With an awesome bit of sound design, Yoda suddenly streaks up into the air and dives like a falling missile. Eventually hitting the ground, he doesn't stay there for long. Spinning and wheeling, leaping and diving, the little Jedi Master decimates his opponents. Stabbing a droid here and cutting open a vehicle there, he even takes out a tank with another one, flipping onto the cannon and out of the way again before it fires. A whirling dervish of paradoxes, he is simultaneously young and old, gentle and deadly, coaxing a still, steady aura even in the blinding soul of action.

     Watching the battle from afar, the wry King Katuunko observes that there is a lot of smoke for an alleged surrender. Ventress tries to communicate with her droids, a hologram of one falling as Yoda races by and decapitates him. Incidentally, this is one of the more sublime bits with the battle droids, not to mention the one wailing, "I-just-got-promoted" as he's Force-pulled back to his doom.
     The tide of the battle turns for a moment when more destroyer droids roll up, only the three newly inspired clones step in with a well-aimed shot. The droidekas are soon taken care of in an avalanche, and the fight ends with Yoda sitting easily on a rock. Centering himself in meditation, he allows a butterfly-like nebray to light on his arm. This scene is reminiscent of the Taoist sage Lao Tzu, who was sometimes depicted in Chinese art as being so in tune with nature that colorful birds and butterflies would light on him.
     "Learn something, today?" Yoda asks his clone friends, and then reminds them of their manners. "Not polite to be late." Another great juxtaposition, coming from someone who just tore apart half a battalion.
     With King Katuunko convinced one Jedi is now worth a thousand battle droids, Count Dooku grows tired of negotiation. Thinking his successor might be easier to cut a deal with, he orders his eager apprentice to kill Katuunko. Striking out with twin red sabers, Ventress finds her blow caught in mid-air. Yoda steps onto the scene, effortlessly disarming her with the Force. Taking a moment to examine the hilt design, he carelessly tosses the lightsabers back, rendering her so inconsequential next to his skills it doesn't matter if she's armed or not.[9]
     Taking a page from her master Dooku, Ventress fires an explosion, creating a distraction so she can get away. Saved from the Sith, King Katuunko tells Yoda negotiations are not necessary, and presents him with a ceremonial sword. As gunships arrive, the Toydarians agree to house a Republic base in their system.
     This establishes a fine tone not only for the series, but also for the Jedi themselves. Yoda is wise but whimsical; cool but firm; gentle but dangerous. He may be a whirlwind of opposites, but he usually juggles them with the finesse of an expert entertainer. Perhaps losing the war but not himself, there are few scenes more satisfying than the master poised on a rock communing with his fellow creatures after unleashing havoc on a droid army.
     These lines are from a translation and commentary by Stephen Mitchell in The Second Book of the Tao, and while they refer to the Chinese philosopher Chuang-Tzu, they strongly describe this scene with Yoda:

We love to see the sage get the best of it, coming to his conclusion
like a tonic chord ... He is planted in his own integrity, and there he
stands, gnarled and knotted, perfectly at ease with himself, his roots
deep in earth, his branches held up to let the light in.[10]

So this, finally, is how a Jedi master makes war. 

Also available here.

[1] As Sugi aptly put it in Bounty Hunters.

[2] So great to see another Toydarian besides Watto right out of the gate. And a snappy dresser, too.

[3] In the same book, writer Lawrence Kasdan also refers to his inspiration as Shimada, the lead character in Akira Kurosawa's film Seven Samurai.

[4] The excellent Clone Wars encyclopedia helps explain that the battle droids have been pushed to the limits of their programming: "Some Battle Droids react by talking endlessly about what they're doing, attempting to handle data overflows in their strained logic modules." Makes sense, and I always thought it was kind of funny.

[5] A nice nod to Luke's training scenes on Dagobah a generation later.

[6] Another nice old trilogy nod, this time to Luke's training scenes with old Ben on the Millennium Falcon.

[7] In the coolest bit of meditation since Qui-Gon Jinn gathered his energy during his battle with Darth Maul.

[8] I would like to think this references "shikantaza" in the Soto Zen Buddhist school, literally translated "just sitting."

[9] A quick moment, but nonetheless one of Yoda's grooviest, right up there with the scene in which he walks into Palpatine's office and knocks out two royal guards with a Force-flick of the wrist.

[10] Equally fitting is the fact that Mitchell considered using Yoda as a mouthpiece for his translation of that classic book of Eastern philosophy, the Tao Te Ching.


  1. This is wonderful! I love Jedi and I love essays about them. (I mean those that not only list their flaws and failures). Yours are beautifully written, too, as always. :)

    And Yoda character is one of the most fascinating! There can't be enough discussions about him. Well, George Lucas doesn't create simple, one-dimensional characters, it seems. :)

    Now I'll go to watch Ambush again, for the 15th time. :)


  2. Gotta love "Ambush." You know, we haven't seen Yoda in action since he hitched a ride on a Zillo Beast. Oh well.

    I need to get shorter on the blog format, but glad you liked it. This is the one I gave Tom Kane at Dragoncon, so I hope he liked it too.

  3. i didn't at all mind the length. it never got boring or repetitive.
    very cool essay, one of the best things about star wars is how something new can always be revealed in a character as familiar (massive understatement) as yoda is.

  4. If you really sit back and think about some of the arcs these characters have gone through, it does get pretty amazing. And if you want to do the work of connecting the dots, sometimes it just all falls together pretty perfectly. :-)