Harakiri (Masaki Kobayashi, 1962) “Bloody Code”

Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri belongs to the jidaigeki genre (period piece). It follows the period shortly after the battle at Sekigahara and the establishemnt of the Tokugawa shogunate (1630). The film begins with a short exposition by the official of House Iyi, who talks about the everyday life of the samurai warlord. It is a perspective of a person in power, whose status is in sharp contrast to the one of rōnin, a samurai without a lord. We see the samurai armor, which belonged to the one of the ancestors of House Iyi, surrounded by a fog similar to the one we can see in performances of Wagner’s operas. The armor represents tradition, the samurai code of honor, bushido. An impoverished rōnin comes to the House Iyi to ask for permission to commit seppuku in their courtyard. The house of his lord has fallen and he wants to end his life honourably.

He s told that acts of this kind have become widespread since one rōnin, after asking for a place to commit seppuku, became a retainer in one of the houses, causing the admiration of the samurai. The others followed him, with insincere intentions and got a few coins so the samurai could get rid of them. It is important to note, as Daniel Botsman writes, that the rōnin were the destabilizing element in the time of the shogunate’s rule and were often the source of public disturbances. Once, a group of rōnin tried to overthrow Bakufu. They were not just vagabonds and beggars who were imprisoned in the West during the time of “the Great Confinement”, as Michel Foucault understands it. The rōnin were trained warriors, a violent element dangerous to the established order.

Impoverished rōnin Motome Chijiwa comes to the doorstep of House Iyi without the intention to actually perform it. House Iyi decides to make a precedent so that dishonourable and extortionate practice stops. Motome’s wish is accepted, he is absolutely horrified, and the ritual of seppuku is arranged in the courtyard. He is forced to disembowel himself with a bamboo sword, since he did not have a steel sword. He stabs the sword in his stomach, manages to penetrate his skin and thrust the sword into his gut. His face shows horrific pain and his head is cut off by his second. Seppuku, which Motome is forced to perform, is the example of the functioning of sovereign power as Foucault understands it. It is the power that lets one live or exiles him into death, in other words, it is power over life.

The telos of the punishment is the prevention of similar acts. Foucault believed that power is productive, it makes things happen. In this case, the image of honor of House Iyi is strenghtened, as well as the projection of the image of horror toward others who could try the same thing Motome did. Daniel Botsman writes: “By far the best-known example of a status-specific punishment, however, is the notorious seppuku, or “suicide by disembowelment” for warrior men. In spite of its name and repuation, when practiced as an offical Tokugawa punishment, this was, in fact, little more than a ritualized form of beheading, involving neither genuine suicide nor actual disembowelment; once the condemned warrior had readied himself, he simply reached toward a symbolic wooden sword to signal the executioner to proceed.” Despite the tradition of the execution by decapitation, Motome is not only forced to disembowel himself, he has to do it with a bamboo sword. Wooden sword which served a symbolic function became an actual means to execute the punishment.

drawn-samurai-harakiri-15

Motome’s father-in-law Hanshiro (Tatsuya Nakadai) comes to the doorstep of House Iyi with the same request. In the palace courtyard he speaks to the gathered samurai about the fall of his lord’s house, as well as destitution of his family, almost in a Faulknerian manner. He speaks of son-in-law’s motives to come to House Iyi and his Motome’s son’s illness which put his life in danger. The film has a fractured narrative, with frequent retrospections and its fabric gradually gains a clearer shape as time progresses. Black and white photography is paired with brilliant use of lighting, of light and shadow. When they find out about Motome’s death, Hanshiro’s and Motome’s wife backs are illuminated, as in prayer, while they are surrounded by darkness. Appalled by the conduct of House Iyi, Hanshiro decides to ask for their remorse. Since he does not get it, the film draws to a close with an aestheticized revenge.

 

 

 

Vigorous line:

After all, this thing we call samurai honor is ultimately nothing but a façade.

Hanshiro

The main tension, or antagonism, is the one between honor as illusion (façade) which conceals socio-economic realities and honor as a legitimation discourse which sustains the order. It is not hard to draw a comparison between the ideology of the shogunate which produces an impression of its benevolence and all the “fine” layers of exclusion which function beneath. Bushido is, speaking in a Nietzschean manner, a ruse which serves the warrior elite to project “moral superiority” and secure their social status. Hanshiro is executed with guns, which foreshadows “the taming of the samurai” which happened in the Meiji era. “The Great Peace” of Tokugawa means that the age of the samurai as actual warriors is at its end and they adapt to the emerging modernity to secure their positions as the rulling elite. The Meiji revolution showed that it could not last indefinitely.

The main counselor of House Iyi orders the defeated samurai to perform seppuku and proclaims that those who died, died of illness. House Iyi gets praises and enfirms its status through lies (illusion): “The house of Iyi has no retainers who could be felled or wounded by some half-starved rōnin”. They tell the other houses that a rōnin performed seppuku in their courtyard, forgetting to tell the truth that the measures to include the excluded and desperate are nonexistent. In the same manner in which Hanshiro sees the samurai honor as a façade, the film ends with the reestablishment of illusion, a façade according to which all the historical and contemporary societies function. Harakiri shows a tragic era in which Hanshiro’s poetic remark that our lives are castles built on foundations of sand, and one strong wind tears them down, holds truth.

References: 

Daniel V. Botsman,  Punishment and Power in the Making of Modern Japan, Princeton University Press, Oxford, 2005

Rashōmon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950) “Deceptive Perspectives Echoing the Truth”

To claim that Akira Kurosawa is an enigmatic director would be an understatement. One of the greatest filmmakers in cinema history, but also a paradigm (and a synecdoche) of post-war Japan, he combines influences from Western literature (e.g. Dostoyevsky) and philosophy with distinctive Japanese aesthetics and tradition. After the American occupation, Japan found itself flooded with Western influence but also wanted to preserve its cultural heritage. This makes Akira Kurosawa one of the most interesting directors of the Japanese post-war era (other notable examples are Shōhei Imamura and Hiroshi Teshigahara, just to name a few).

Rashōmon begins with the conversation between a woodcutter, a local thug and a priest. The priest says: “War, earthquake, winds, fire, famine, the plague. Year after year, it’s been nothing but disasters… I’ve seen so many men getting killed like insects, but even I have never heard a story as horrible as this. Yes. So horrible. This time, I may finally lose my faith in the human soul.” The apocalyptic heavy rain that falls during the film gives the movie its somber tone but also sends a message to the viewer: The catastrophe is about to happen. This quote may very well be a paraphrase from The Book of Revelation attributed to John. This sets the tone and the viewer may most correctly anticipate the horrors ahead.

 

Durer Four Horsemen

Albrecht Dürer, The Apocalypse: The Four Horsemen

Rashōmon tells the story of a murder and rape from four different perspectives. We can guess, almost with certainty, that they are all lies. A bandit (Toshiro Mifune) sees a noblewoman, considers her a goddess and wants to have her. He decieves her husband, dishonours her and then kills the husband. All of these facts are presented in all four stories so we can claim that the events unfolded in this manner.

The film draws heavily on Friedrich Nietzsche’s perspectivism. In his famous essay On the Genealogy of Morality, he writes: “There is only a perspectival seeing, only a perspectival ‘knowing’; the more affects we are able to put into words about a thing, the more eyes, various eyes we are able to use for the same thing, the more complete will be our ‘concept’ of the thing, our ‘objectivity’“.

Thus, paradoxically, the farther we are from the „self-evident truth“, the closer we are to the real truth at hand. For Nietzsche, there are no absolutes, no dogmas to believe in, no Truth. We can suppose that Kurosawa was familiar with Nietzsche’s work since in his Ikiru there are some lines that are straightforwardly Nietzschean. Keeping in mind these arguments, we can put the four stories by different characters into perspective and try to be nearer to the truth. This interpretation presumes that all these four stories are lies.

Note: This interpretation does not claim to be a definitive one, it is just that, an interpretation, one out of a thousand and one possible. Each character has his own motives to lie; the first three out of pride and desire to present themselves as strong or honourable, while the Woodcutter has his own motives that are the hardest to decipher.

Story A: Tajōmaru

By observing Tajōmaru’s erratic and uncontrolled behaviour and his vanity, we can tell that he considers himself a great warrior; in his version he is bragging about the way he killed the nobleman.

The reason why the story is a lie:  Tajōmaru seems to project his proud temper and fierceness to the woman he is in love with.

Story B: Samurai’s wife

It is obvious that she feels shame because she was dishonoured and wanted to commit suicide. She fantasizes of killing her husband because she resents him for not protecting her and thus facilitating the violent end.

The reason why the story is a lie: It is obvious that in the court she manipulates the judges and talks of suicide in a manner that is too blunt.

Story C: The Spirit of the Samurai

He feels what Nietzsche termed as ressentiment (to look at someone with an „evil eye“, to feel resentment, to say it bluntly – the term is much more complex and far-reaching) toward his wife. He is angry because she let herself be dishonoured and then chose to live in shame.

The reason why it is a lie: His feelings and suffering in hell make him vulnerable to misinterpret himself and others: out of all the first three characters, he has the strongest urge to lie.

Story D: the Woodcutter

The story he presents seems to be in line with his concept of justice (both the Samurai and Tajōmaru are not virtous men), but is not the „real“ story.

The reason why it is a lie: Usually the interpretations tend to emphasize that he should not be trusted by the viewer because he stole the dagger (e.g. Donald Richie). That very well may be true, but also, his black-and-white moral beliefs (he simplifies morality in an almost Manichean form) cloud his judgment and he wants to believe that the world is a just place: Kurosawa suggests that it is not.

Vigorous line:

Well, we are only men. That’s why they lie. They can’t tell the truth even to themselves.

Commoner

That may be true. Because men are weak, they lie to decieve themselves.

The Priest

An Allegory of Truth and Time

Annibale Carraci, An Allegory of Truth and Time

In his novel Light in August William Faulkner writes: „They say that it is the practiced liar who can deceive. But so often the practiced and chronic liar deceives only himself; it is the man who all his life has been selfconvicted of veracity whose lies find quickest credence.“

This quote from Faulkner’s novel captures the ideas Kurosawa presented, only with more psychological depth. The mechanism „works“ as follows: to mantain our positive image of ourselves we create lies about ourselves. Since we consider ourselves credible, we start to believe our lies and they become the „truth“.

Precisely that happens with Tajōmaru, the Noblewoman and the Samurai.  Nietzsche used to highlight that illusions are necessary for certain types of living, with the truth at hand, we suffer pointlessly. Dostoyevsky once wrote that if we told the truth, the naked truth to others, life would be unbareable.

Hrvoje Galić