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

Late Spring (Yasujirō Ozu, 1949) “Tears at A Noh Play”

There is a certain sadness that permeates Ozu’s films, of the passing of time and an era; of transience, of a time that will be long gone, but needs to be preserved. This is most particularly true for his so-called “Noriko Trilogy”, which stars Setsuko Hara, Ozu’s muse; Last Spring is a part of the trilogy. The film follows Noriko as she is living with her father, her devotion to him and her reluctance to get married and leave him. It is a domestic drama that strives for simplicity, but also portrays an era Japan is going through, the post-war period. The rapid change of social structure and most particularly young generations is presented.

His other films, Tokyo Twillight, for example, show the consequences of those changes for the structure of the society, most notably the family. Ozu is called “the most Japanese” of the directors famous in the West; Akira Kurosawa was never recognized in Japan in a way the Western societies valued him. Ozu was called a “social conservative” by the New Wave Japanese directors, and that may very well be true. His portrayal of the changes that ocurred in the post-war Japan show the impact of Westernization policies in everyday life and in the prevailing atmosphere.

 Late Spring opens with a shot of a railway station sign written both in English and Japanese and a shot of a traditional Japanese building. This scene alone shows that the film deals with the traditional and newly emerging influence on the Japanese culture. Later, Coca Cola sign appears; it was not unusual for Japanese directors of that era to use its symbolism as a sign of the Western influence on Japanese culture – the ending of Imamura’s Profound Desires of the Gods uses this particular symbol extensively. When Noriko’s father and his friend are talking about in which direction Tokyo, the ocean and the shrine are located, his friend seems to lose orientation with regard to the exact location of the places and static objects. This implies that Japan is losing its cultural locus  and identity in the historical changes, and is lost in the transformation that is taking place; the identity needs to be rashaped and found again.

West Tower

The changes are not just cultural, in the sense that children are playing baseball and Gary Cooper is a symbol of masculinity; they are broad in the sense that the societal structure is changing, but there is a need to preserve the traditions of the people. This particular tension is the major force behind Ozu’s most important works. Late Spring seems to be a personal film for Ozu, since he never married and stayed with his mother until she died, he passed away two years later.

 The film is mainly about filial devotion and care, and ultimately the sacrifice for the loved one. A particularly powerful scene is the one in which Noriko and her father are at a Noh play in the theatre. Noriko, anticipating the possibility of leaving her father and marrying, looks down sadly, while the chants and music are being performed. The camera beautifully captures Noriko’s feelings and sadness over her anticipated departure, the solemn atmosphere and her father’s face showing delight make it the key scene in the film.

 

Noriko’s father tells how she was engaged in forced labor during the war and  used to “spend her holidays scrounging for food” and how that built her character. Ozu implies that character is built through sacrifice and suffering. The scholar Motoori Norinaga invented a term to define the essence of Japanese culture; it is called mono no aware, the phrase derives from aware which means “sensitivity to things.”. This kind of sensitivity is particularly present in Ozu’s films, Late Spring seems to capture the moments with great care and the film delicately captures the feelings of the protagonists and the spirit of the tradition. There is a certain warmth in this portrayal, characters are shown as deeply sensitive and caring toward others and prone to endure what is necessary.

 

Vigorous line:

If I had said otherwise she wouldn’t have married

Noriko’s father

 

Noriko’s father lies about remarrying, wanting to leave impression that he will ve someone to live with and take care of him. This is particularly hard for him since Noriko repeatedly expressed her wish to stay with him so he can be taken care of. When they talk for the last time before her marriage, she says: “Even marriage couldn’t make me happier. My greatest happiness is to be with you.” Ozu uses an ellipsis, which is a characteristic of his cinematic style, when he does not show Noriko’s marriage on screen; her fiancé is not present as well. Her father’s lie about remarrying is what Plato presented as a “noble lie”, a lie which is necessary to be the foundation of something of utmost importance; for him the foundation of a state, for Noriko’s father the prospect of his daughter starting a new life in marriage.

Noriko’s father’s friend remarries and Noriko calls him “unclean”, jokingly, but she sees that act as indecent, to say the least. Her father’s sacrifice is thus even greater since the biggest lie he told, as he says, involves an act which his daughter sees as immoral. The viewer cannot but feel respect toward a man who does not shy away from putting his honor at stake for good ends; at the same time he loses his loved one and condemns himself to loneliness.

 

The film ends with father entering the house, sitting on a chair and peeling an apple. There is immense sadness in this scene, and the viewer cannot but feel father’s pain, alongside him. His head falls down in despair; he is left alone so his daughter can have a prospect of a good life and happiness. One cannot but think that this symbolizes the end of the old Japan, as it was known to many. A shot of the sea at the end reminds us of the transience of life, but also that endings are the new beginnings. Thus, with life’s spring ending, a new season begins.

Hrvoje Galić