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October 17, 2010: Kobayashi’s “Hara Kiri”

October 17, 2010

Although, Masaki Kobayashi’s “Hara Kiri” is a dramatic and telling film, let’s get two problems with it out of the way: the first is the title. I recognize that “Hara Kiri” (literally “slit-belley”) was probably a more known term, by Westerners, as the name for the Japanese ceremony of “seppuku” or ritual self-disembowelment of a samurai warrior for some disgrace or failure. “Hara kiri” is the more rude form of the word and although Westerners may not be able to understand the reasoning of such an act, you can’t deny the strength and fortitude of someone committed to such an act, so let’s give it the respect of at least the proper name. Also, in my ongoing struggle with the translators, I don’t know what the characters are actually saying, but I’m pretty sure that terms like “lily-livered” and “upsy-daisy” were not spoken in 17thC. feudal Japan (in fact…I don’t think they are so common phrases today in Western vernacular)!

So, vernacular aside, “Hara Kiri” is a good film about the struggle of individual man against the power of the state. In this sense, “Hara Kiri” is a kind of anti-samurai movie, showing how a totalitarian state disregards the struggles of individuals under its government. When you see the empty samurai uniform on display in the governor’s mansion, it represents everything the state can be at its worst: big, scary, threatening…but totally empty and devoid of any feeling or soul.

The film starts with a “ronin” (masterless samurai) by the name of Hanshiro Tsugumo visiting the household of Lord Seito, who is the leader of the ruling Iyi family. As a ronin, Hanshiro is down on his luck and asks to perform seppuku in the courtyard of the household, due to the shame of his position. Lord Seito is counseled by his retainers that this is a gambit by Hanshiro to either gain a position in the government, or else be given a handout and suggests that he be allowed to continue with his self-execution or else word will spread and other ronin will be drawn as “ants to a mound of sugar.”

To scare Hanshiro off, Lord Seito tells a story of an earlier visit by another ronin, by the name of Motome who tried the very same gambit, and whose bluff was called with the most dire consequences. It turns out that Motome had pawned his swords and had replaced his swords with bamboo ones. As  a samurai’s sword is his “soul” in this culture, Motome reeks disdain from the Iyi family and is ordered to proceed seppuku with a blade that “couldn’t cut tofu!”

Hanshiro is not put off by the story and is committed to proceed, with the only request that he only be able to tell a story. In that story, Hanshiro reveals his own agenda, and his history with the  ronin, Motome.

One caution with this film: Motome’s self-execution, while very essential to the storyline…it is very hard to watch! There’s something about that scene that made me squirm more than any of the  “Saw” or “Hostel” type films ever could!

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