If you are a fan of action films, you may get tired of all the elitists that spew hate at you for your tastes. Maybe, you can’t stand dramas because they bore you, or because you don’t like watching things that make you sad or uncomfortable. You may just want all the movie critics like me to stop bugging you about what movies we like—unless, of course, we want to talk more about the movies that you like (so long as we aren’t mean about it). I understand. But what if a movie critic such as I decided to recommend a film that I thought that maybe you’d like? Would you watch it? Would you trust me?
First off, I promise that I have never written about or recommended a movie that you wouldn’t like. They are all great. I do however, recognize that some movies I like you might not enjoy. You can know everything there is to know about cinema, but if Luis Buñuel still creeps you out, there’s nothing I can do about it. You can know and appreciate everything about film and its language, but if Martin Scorsese still makes you uncomfortable, that’s fine, too. You can fully grasp the evolution and staggering history of movie-making, but if you find romance cheesy and obnoxious, then by all means, you are allowed to your own tastes. But, I think that I am about to recommend a film that you will really, really like. I’m serious. So, I ask the question again, do you trust me?
I think you should. After all, I have always been a fan of the action film. Since I was a kid, I loved watching movies with taut thrills and violence. I loved imagining myself as the cool characters that were created onscreen. I think that my earliest concepts of masculinity came, in part, from the action stars I saw in the movies, and these concepts were molded over time as I was exposed more to such movie stars as Gary Cooper and John Wayne. For me, the attempt to go from being a casual movie-goer to a competent film-connoisseur was most treacherous when it came to reconciling these new cinematographic and artistic ideas with my inherent love of the action film genre—a genre that, all too frequently, throws these artistic and cinematographic ideas to the wind.
I think that that is why I started so early on in my blog with a chapter on action films. These are the bread-and-butter for the casual movie-goer, particularly of the masculine tendency. It is important, therefore, to address it early on in my attempt to help my readers move from enjoying film as a mundane pleasure to enjoying film as a true life experience. My love for the action film, I feel, is well-documented in the aforementioned chapter. I think it was further exemplified in my recent divergence from the trajectory of this blog, when I ranked and analyzed the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
With these in mind, maybe all you lovers of a good action film should trust me with this recommendation. This recommended movie is cool; it is taut; it is exciting. But it is also thoughtful, artistic, and tasteful. It serves as a great commentary on violence while providing us plenty for our action-loving side. It is beautifully filmed, finely framed, and well-acted. It is also an art-house classic, therefore working as one of the best films out there to help you move from casual to competent in your love of movies.
The movie in question is called Seppuku, or, more commonly outside of Japan, Harakiri. The difference in titles, as far as I can understand (I do not know Japanese, after all), is an issue of formality. The former is used more frequently in writing while that latter is more of a spoken term; but they mean, when all is said and done, the same thing.
Harakiri (the word, not the movie) means the act of disembowelment that exists as part of the samurai code of honor. This is the preferred method to preserve honor for a “dishonored” samurai who has failed to protect his master or his master’s property, has existed for a sustained period of time masterless, or who has been captured in the field of battle.
The movie Harakiri is focused on this practice, and shows us a new look at this idea of true honor. Ultimately, what works, at least on the surface, as a striking rebuke of the old Bushido code is actually a story for our time. Regardless of the time period in which the story takes place (the 17th century), the story transfers well into our current lives. This is perhaps, one of the greatest compliments to Japanese viewers: being so well-versed in their own history and tradition, the Japanese audience—particularly in the 1960s—easily translated the goings-on before them on screen to what was happening outside the theater walls. Though this story of a wandering ronin and his own, personal harakiri was generations removed from them, albeit completely fictional, they saw a mercurial and constant tale of the individual’s struggle against authoritarianism as well as the relationship between morality and freedom.
For me, the lesson of Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri is just that: morality only exists in a world where people are truly free. That there is a distinct relationship between morality and freedom plays out very well when one watches this movie. It begins with a wandering ronin—an honorless samurai—who’s lack of employ after the reconsolidation of power during a Civil War has forced his hand and led him into the courtyard of the Iyi clan to commit harakiri. The process of harakiri was a gory one at best, and the reason why this ronin sought the formality of the Iyi clan’s courtyard was because one central element to the practice involved having a “second”, as it were, to perform a decapitation after the disemboweling took place. Using his second, or short, sword, the samurai, on his knees, would slice his belly open from left to right before witnesses. Once that evisceration was complete, the beheading would take place from a position behind the dying samurai.
In accordance with the Bushido code, the story’s hero, Hanshiro Tsugumo, presents himself before the Iyi clan leader, Saito. But, Saito has become merciless and disillusioned by a new generation of unemployed samurai who have been frequently offering themselves for harakiri only in the hopes that the Iyi would offer them a position with them (and, therefore, provide, as Prince Humperdinck put it, “an alternative to suicide”). He tells Hanshiro Tsugomo that he had better be sincere about his appeal, and that there would be no mercy with the Iyi. In an attempt to help him fully understand Saito’s seriousness, Saito tells Hanshiro Tsugomo a story.
The story Saito tells is not for the faint of heart by any stretch. It is a story from the recent past (from the characters’ perspective), about a young man named Chijiwe Motome, who, like Tsugumo, was also a wandering ronin. Chijiwe also had come to the Iyi clan requesting audience for harakiri. But, he soon learned that the Iyi would not be fooled into offering him a way out. Saito approved the act, and commanded that it be performed immediately. When Chijiwe requested a little time beforehand to pay a personal visit to someone, Saito was enraged. It was yet another delaying tactic that he had seen so many other times by ronin who weren’t really sincere about harakiri, who were merely trying to exploit the wealth and mercies of the Iyi clan. Saito then demanded Chijiwe perform the act now, or be killed himself (a far worse way to go according to the Bushido code). Chijiwe was forced to disembowel himself before the Iyi with no personal visit, but that was not the worst of it. As a result of his youth and his poverty, Chijiwe did not have a beautiful, sharpened short-sword with which he could perform the act. Instead, when Chijiwe pulled out his short-sword, it was revealed that he had only a sharpened bamboo blade. What a tortuous way to die, but die he did, in what might be the most brutal scene in all the classic samurai films. And Saito watched. This story is shown entirely in a flashback.
Upon telling the story, Saito looks at Tsugomo, sitting before him. Then, he asks him again…is he sincere? Tsugomo, it turns out, is quite sincere. But first, Tsugomo has to tell a story. And, with his story, he builds a web of plot lines that perpetually digs Saito deeper into a hole of his own digging, against a wall of his own making. With Saito’s exploitation of the laws of Bushido, and with his obvious disrespect for human life, Tsugomo shows that entire system in which they live is one big, empty shell.
That symbol of a shell is best shown in the opening and closing sequences of the film. We start with a look at the symbol of the Iyi clan, a burly and intimidating suit of armor perched upon a throne with a white wig. The camera rests on the suit for a while while narration plays overhead. At the end of the movie, we see Tsugomo tear that suit of armor down, exposing it for all it is: an empty, lifeless, pointless shell with no substance and no life.
Here, we have a theme that is best exemplified in the works of Akira Kurosawa, particularly Seven Samurai, a film which came out eight years earlier. In my review of that work, I discussed the singularly Kurosawa-ian ability to portray the humanity of violence. This humane violence is focused more on life than on death. That it portrays seven ronin who, themselves, qualify for harakiri, who choose, instead, to give life to those in danger of losing it, shows that Kurosawa’s approach to screen violence was focused more on what to do while still being alive rather than how best to die.
Seeing the suit of armor, empty and lifeless, tossed to the ground as it is reminds us that true honor is found in the living, not in the lifeless. That the suit represents all that the Iyi clan stands for—an authoritarian rule rooted in a strict code—shows that such authoritarian codes remove life from society. Whether that life is literal, like those lives taken in the movie, or figurative, like the moral depravity of the Iyi clan themselves, the result of a society based solely on prescriptive codes is emptiness. This is why, I think, the ultimate message of Harakiri is not so much that the Bushido Code was bad or good or somewhere in between. The ultimate message of Harakiri was that when a society is based on prescriptive and strict codes to the point of authoritarianism it is no longer truly free, and it is within the context of that lack of freedom that morality and an appreciation for life is lost.
That this notion is decidedly Western should not be missed. Even more important is that we recognize that its themes, therefore, apply very well to us, 6400 miles and fifty years removed. This melding of Eastern and Western ideas in post-war Japan is another reason why Harakiri works so well as a part of this grouping of samurai films that I have reviewed over the past few months. In particular, I discussed in my review of Rashomon that these ideas are one of many reasons why the themes addressed in the films are so accessible to people of all nations.
Another thing that I pointed out in Rashomon is the way that everything is so well-framed. It seems like you can pause the movie at any time and be provided a worthy still-shot in any photography collection. Just like in Rashomon with its focus on vertical rainfall and ninety degree angles in its framing (or, an appeal to sunlight and the curves of nature in outdoor settings), Harakiri uses lines with brilliance to frame its images. Sometimes, these lines do not move perpendicular with the edges of the frame, like, for example, in the bird’s eye shots of the courtyard. But, often, these lines are those of the parallel and perpendicular variety, particularly in the Point-of-View shots that dominate the discussion between Tsugomo and Saito.
Straight lines, as you will see the more you become a competent film-connoiseur, are the essence of great Japanese cinema. I think the fact that Akira Kurosawa is so great a director is that he wasn’t so caught up on those lines as others. But, many greats, like Kobayashi and my personal favorite, Yasujirô Ozu, were masters of using straight lines in their framing. Obviously, this is a result of their culture; straight lines are an integral element of traditional Japanese architecture and design. But, instead of using these lines to create bland or uninteresting framing, both directors, Ozu and Kobayashi, used them as a way to give depth to their images, as if you were looking in, through a door or window, not at one.
While Ozu and Kobayashi were both experts of framing, they were also the two of the greatest directorial masters to come out of Shochiku Ofuna, a film studio which, at the time, was thriving as one of the best studios in Japan. I would say they were the two greatest, were it not for the fact that other directors made movies through that studio, including Kenji Mizoguchi (whose three masterpieces, Ugetsu, Sasho the Bailiff, and Life of Oharu, are in many film lovers’ lists of the greatest movies ever), Keisuke Kinoshita (director of the famous Ballad of Narayama), and of course, Akira Kurosawa, who filmed his adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot there. Ozu and Kobayashi were contemporaries throughout the studio’s most powerful period, while Japan held a tight grip on world cinema.
Many will say that despite their contemporary position, Ozu and Kobayashi couldn’t have been more different. They would cite the obvious fact that Kobayashi made far more period pieces and samurai films. Ozu always dabbled in modernity. But, they were more similar thematically than one would think. Ozu just told his story through the present. Kobayashi, used history to tell his stories. Joan Mellen, an expert on Japanese cinema, made this the central thesis of her essay on Harakiri for the Criterion Collection. Kobayashi thought that the struggle between individualism and authoritarianism was best told through an appeal to history, in particular, through an appeal to Japanese history. That’s why his most contemporary masterpiece, The Human Condition Trilogy, (one of the greatest trilogies of all time), was still an historical piece, dealing with the events of the war in the Pacific. Where Ozu was talking about a changing world by showing modern day people dealing with the changes, Kobayashi was talking about a changing world by showing what the world used to be like firsthand.
Where they were most different was in the way they showed their characters dealing with the change around them. Where Ozu showed people learning to deal with the change whether they liked it or not, people who recognized their individuality as part of a greater humanity that operates almost with a will of its own, Kobayashi took a far more idealistic approach. For Kobayashi, it was not right to sit and let change happen all around you, particularly when that change replaced individualism for the false morality of totalitarian codes. That is why, in Harakiri, you have a man who somehow embraces the change around him, but still fights with reckless abandon against it.
The fight is what really matters, and this is where Harakiri cements its place with such masterpieces as Seven Samurai and The Samurai Trilogy. Because, in the fighting comes the redemption. By spilling his own blood in a fight with this ruthless authoritarian regime, the main character, Tsugomo, in what may be the best-choreographed sword fights in all of Japanese cinema from that era, Tsugomo washes himself from the blood that is on the hands of his generation and culture. What I especially love about the way that this story is crafted is that it shows a man who walks willingly up to the source of the evil and confronts it. He doesn’t try to hide. He seeks out the conflict. The Iyi clan doesn’t even know that he exists. But, at movie’s end, they are certainly aware. I love this element of the film’s story so much because it lets us into Kobayashi’s mind and heart so well. For Kobayashi, nothing was more important than the fight. And the fight, for all you action fans out there, does not disappoint. Not one bit.