First thing: Looks like Sunny’s got a new film blog here.
I’d previously blogged about the “corruption” against which Tatsuya Nakadai’s character Hanshiro Tsugomo in Harakiri (Masaki Kobayashi, 1962) speaks critically. Upon reviewing the film, I stand corrected; it’s not the corruption, but rather, the hollowness and hypocrisy of a wartime system which not only has no place in peacetime, but also a system in which its honorable warriors are scattered (discarded) from their fallen masters’ homes and into the streets. We see this once singularly meaningful honor become not only facade, but straight up farce with the remaining clans going through the motions of something they only know in abstract.
There is the story the samurai and ronin tell one another of the one ronin who, with the most honorable intentions, came to a feudal estate, asking if he could be permitted to use their grounds to commit seppuku. His intentions were so honorable that the feudal lord was so moved; he took on the ronin as one of his own samurai.
All the samurai and ronin in this film know that story. They agree that in this one instance, that was the correct thing to do; that one ronin’s intentions were indeed honorable. It’s that other ronin that followed, equally as destitute. They’d also heard the story, and hoped they too would find employment in this way. Not only did this become a nuisance to the remaining feudal estates, but it also eroded away the honor behind the act of seppuku, as these ronin really had no intention of committing the act. In the very least, they hoped for a handful of coins the estates would give them so that they’d go away. They’d become no more than beggars.
OK, so that’s the narrative which sets the tone for the film; this story is on every samurai’s and ronin’s mind, and they all have an opinion about it, whether or not they consider the substance behind each ronin’s motives. Hanshiro Tsugomo’s son in law and ronin, Motome Chijiiwa, for example, had come to the Iyi clan’s estate as one of these allegedly dishonorable ronin, hoping for either a little bit of money or employment. He’d done so because he had a very sick wife and a dying baby at home, and no means to pay for a doctor. He’d tried to find work, as a teacher, as manual laborer, to no avail. He’d pawned off everything of value, including his own samurai blades, which we know are the same as a samurai’s soul.
So it’s this kind of desperation which makes a once noble samurai think again about codes of honor — what good is honor if you can’t provide for your family; under what circumstances would you sell your own soul. The Iyi clan members act the opposite of compassionate, and even when discovering that Chijiiwa has replaced his blades with bamboo (and they are understandably appalled at this), force him to go through with it, using his own bamboo blades. The death scene is very slow, deliriously painful, and very bloody. Everyone just watches, pleasurably, sadistically. Serves him right, some of them are thinking. At this point in the film, I don’t think we know all of Chijiiwa’s story, so we can buy into the Iyi clan’s lack of compassion for such a ronin who appears so dishonorable.
What makes this film so great is its seamless layering of narratives and their well paced unraveling. Motome Chijiiwa’s story unravels through Tsugomo’s telling, as well as the the Iyi clan head’s telling. In telling Chijiiwa’s story, Tsugomo is telling his own. Whereas Chijiiwa really did hope his feigning seppuku would allow him to help his family, Tsugomo has lost everything; his son-in-law, daughter, and his grandchild have all died tragically. He has every intention of committing seppuku, but only after the entire clan hear him out. He means not merely to reprimand them, nor to state his grievance with this meaningless, hollow concept of honor. Since he’s got nothing left to live for, he means to whup some ass, humiliate some of these hollow samurai in the process, then go out in some fantastic bloody glory.
Last couple of things:
(1) The hollow samurai armor that is placed at the altar of the Iyi clan’s ancestors. This is some good, obvious symbolism. Hollow armor. Hollow concept. Before Tsugomo’s final ass whupping of the estate’s samurai and his subsequent death at his own hands, he defaces this armor as all of the samurai stand there and watch in horror (arguably with more horror than when watching Chijiiwa disembowel himself with bamboo blades, which does say something about priorities).
(2) The Iyi clan head administrator Kageyu Saito is the records keeper or keeper of the estate’s daily journal, and as he records the day’s events, consider the sanitation process which this “master narrative” undergoes in his hands. At the end of this very eventful day, in which not only did Tsugomo come and tell his and Chijiiwa’s story, he’s cut off the topknots of three of their retainers (serious humiliation and defacing here), killed four men, and badly injured eight others. But at the end of the day, Saito writes in the daily journal of the ronin Tsugomo coming to the estate and committing seppuku on its grounds. Otherwise unremarkable day.
(3) In terms of Tatsuya Nakadai’s ability to sit in a single position and talk story in a confined space, as well as his ability to communicate a whole lot with eye movement, facial expression, subtle body language, and tone of voice, a couple of things Sunny and Oscar were saying: First, that Harakiri couldn’t have been made by Akira Kurosawa, whose films tend to epic sweep with grand landscapes that rely on actors going over the top in these large landscapes. Second, that Toshirô Mifune couldn’t have played this part due to the focus on his mighty physicality. He’s always in charge or leap mode, and range of emoting tends to be angry and angrier. Think back on Seven Samurai, when Toshirô’s character finds the newly orphaned baby boy, and weeps, “I was once this boy!” Even that moment of vulnerability and tenderness is occurring against the backdrop of a loud and chaotic battle, and thus relies upon unsubtle emoting.