By Jonathon Penny
Open on a gaunt, intelligent looking man—Tsukumo Hanshiro—seeking the indulgence of a retinue of samurai at the palace of a feudal lord. He claims to be a ronin, a lordless samurai, left to wander in poverty after the dishonor and dissolution of his clan. His request: to commit ritual hara-kiri so that, it is explained to us, he might regain some of the honor he has lost.
There is skepticism. Not two months before, Chief Retainer Saito informs him, another ronin from the same clan made the same request. This one, Chijiiwa Motome—younger, more gaunt, and with less bearing—sought an audience with Lord Li, delayed the ritual, fidgeted and fretted.
There was skepticism.
Takashi Miike’s resume reads like the inside cover of a pulp novel. He has directed film after film whose English titles, at any rate, smack of that Hong Kong irony we all thought Kurt Russell was lampooning, if we grew up in the 80s, or that Tarantino was satirizing, if we grew up later: “Bodyguard Kiba: Combat Apocolypse [sic] 2,” anyone? How about “Rainy Dog”? “Full Metal gokudô”? “Blues Harp”? “Andromedia”? “Ichi the Killer”? “Ninja Kids!!!”?
I’ve never bothered with any of them, though I did see “13 Assassins” (2010) and I indulged in “Sukiyaki Western Django” (2007). (Hey, it was a late night, and I was grading a rather demoralizing stack of research essays: the distraction was welcome.)
Whatever their excesses, both of those movies are evidence of the man’s genius: he knows the cinema. He can be reverent when he needs to be, goofy when he doesn’t. He is not intimidated by genres, or variations on genres, or variations on the variations. I have heard, for instance, that “Audition” (1999) is a harrowing example of Japanese torture film, and one that, in the weird way such movies have, empowers women as perpetrators, not merely objects, of physical violence, and in doing so fetishizes them the more.
Miike’s oeuvre is not entirely auspicious, perhaps, however skilled, and certainly not my cuppa; but it is also not to be dismissed. Whatever the plot, whatever the archetype—or stereotype—Miike seems to know his way around the movies like Danielle Steele knows her away around pulp romance or Louis L’amour knew his way around westerns. And he is as prolific: he has churned out as many as seven movies in a single year, and no doubt attends to each according to its desserts.
Hearing all that, it’s easy to lower one’s expectations. If all you’ve read about Miike are the titles of his films, “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai” promises to be gruff, gory, and sensational (in other words, more of the same). It promises to trade heritage for a hedonistic action fix, to wallow in blood and bowels and severed limbs. It promises to traffick in myth and melodrama.
It breaks these promises, and thoroughly.
It is, until the final scene, a surprisingly and unsettlingly quiet film. The soundtrack is spare, as is the dialogue. Moments of grief are commoner than the noise of war. The photography—adroit and beautifully textured—is similarly minimalist. We are not to be stirred by gorgeous prospects on the natural world, or distracted by sweeping shots of metaphorically attractive but narratologically irrelevant chasms or valleys or rivers. The choreography, too, is restrained and awkward and brutal, as real life combat must be. There are no battles in the tops of trees. No flights of fancy. No Tom Cruise. No Wolverine.
It is also, literally, a set piece, apparently inspired by the staid tradition of Noh theater. Action is restricted to three locations, in the main, and moreover action is restricted, restrained. There is much kneeling, and prostrating, and looking, occasional dying, and far less disemboweling than you’d think (though when it comes, and even though the camera fixes its gaze on gazes, on the straining of muscles, and not the blood and guts, it just might wreck you).
This is indicative of the film’s philosophy of gaze. “Hara-Kiri” looks consistently inward—into rooms and eyes and hearts.
Not everyone gets it, of course. Saito, piercing but not seeing, dismisses Chijiwa Motome as a very poor samurai, indeed, to be so ragged and spindly; he seems uncertain of the death he asks for; other ronin have been known to request the ritual to win the sympathies of other houses in a ruse called a “suicide bluff”—surely he is one of these. He’s neither, really. And he’s both.
There are generational divides in play: the younger men, thirsty for action, full of the bluster and false courage of their inherited status, adept in the forms of honor and tradition, but unfamiliar with its costs, are to observe this “impressive death,” for the land, Saito tells us, sighingly, “is at peace,” and there is no other way for them to learn of honor.
And so it is that three of them act as second and witness and attendant. And so it is that the young ronin, in apparent cowardice, confronted by the generosity of the samurais’ honor and thus the reality of his death, begs a stay of one day, of even a few hours, a gift of 3 ryo for a sick wife and child. And so it is that things take a turn for the horrific. His death—harrowing and gritty—occurs one-quarter of the way through and extends over nearly eight minutes.
Awash in the pathos of Motome’s death—a suicide both sick and sacrificial—the movie folds back into an hour-long exposition, full of foreshadows and phantoms of what is to come: what we have already seen. Such framing is hardly new, but under Miike’s direction it is gently, patiently wrought to full affect, without encumbrance, and without gimmick.
There is solace in the relative peace of the third movement: trouble, we sense, is brewing. Poverty and death are immanent. But here is also love: of a widowed father for his daughter, and for the orphaned boy he raises alongside her. Here are secret, heroic acts of parental devotion and sacrifice, though these are implied, and not performed, as in life. Here is abject grace in the father’s work as a maker of delicate parasols: he who once wielded a sword in service to a great lord, and knelt to him, kneels now to ‘woman’s work,’ and never gives the evident indignity a thought. Loaves, after all, must be bought and divided; the naked must be clothed.
We smile at his casual humility. We take comfort in the chaste and growing love between the children, in their simple prayers and expressions of thanks to God and to each other. We love that she is a maker of tea and a sewer of cloth, and that he is a teacher of other children, and a reader of books. We take refuge in the gentleness of the house, the similitudes of personality, the sharing of rice cakes, the smiles, and the affection that transcends and redeems the forms of culture that would otherwise stiffen and even violate the easy, homey intimacy. Here are smiles, and here is laughter, homespun and happiness, real humility, and profound honor, even as here is also poverty and fear, even as here is eventual sickness and the desperate, rash, and tragic madness of raw, essential, altruistic love.
“Hara-kiri” isn’t, I’ve warned you, for the faint: tragedy pours out upon tragedy, indignity upon indignity, suffering upon suffering in what are believable and therefore all the more affecting ways. There is hunger, and there is anger. Those who are in a position to alleviate suffering fail to see or hear, or worse, hide behind custom, cling to class caste, stand on ceremony and ‘honor,’ and repress the compassion it would take the greater courage and the greater honor to act upon.
You feel these things long before Hanshiro says them.
This is one of the things that make this film, set in feudal Japan, intensely scriptural, whether Miike means it to be or not (and he must mean it to be). Among other things, there is threeness, and swaddling, and self-sacrifice. There is the washing of a broken body, a sacramental death, a routing of false priests and pretenders to a corrupt code. Saito makes a Pilate just reckoning the shallowness of the honor he clings to, and fleeing from his doubts. Motome is part gentle Jesus and Joseph, Miho is Mary and Martha, Hanshiro is Job and Moses and Peter and Baptist and Abinadi and, when he needs to be, the militant and crucified Christ.
There is also, figuratively, the making of swords into ploughshares, and the beating of ploughshares back into swords. There is a courtyard, and judgment, and the piercing of a side, the reluctant yielding of flesh to splinters of wood, a plea for relief in death. There is cleansing and truth. There is reckoning and Judas. There is the lifting of arms in cruciform, a hieratic rejection of ritual in preference for an offering that is not selfish, that does not seek honor, but pays it out. There is all this and the pestilent folding of the world’s infection back over it, as though light and life were the wounds, and not the other way around. (“All is back in place,” Saito is told, and with him we regret it.)
Though he surprises us, Jesus isn’t out of place in the dark, inward world of “Hara-Kiri.” Believe in him or not, figures like Christ (and the Buddha, and Saint Francis, and Mother Teresa, and the Chinese woman who raised 30 abandoned babies, and the countless thousands who choose forgiveness and love over hatred, and mercy over justice) are the antidote to the inhumanity that, trembling at the prospect of the better nature it aims to overthrow, fusses, chafes, pouts, postures, and tantrums in order to mask its fear of being discovered for what it is: cowardice. Abuse of power, Miike’s film reminds us, is cowardice. Denigration of others is cowardice. Elevation of forms and traditions over persons is cowardice. Sarcasm and petulance and easy anger are cowardice. Humiliation is cowardice.
Humility is courage. Kindness is courage. So is tenderness. So is the confession of weakness and of need. So is submission to desires better than our own. To mourn because others mourn is courageous, and to weep when there is something worth weeping for, something outside or deep within us. To give is courageous. To dandle a child and laugh its name and sing to it without embarrassment, but rather with abandon and with joy is courageous. To hold an ailing spouse or dying child is courageous. To love is, most of all. And where there is courage, there is honor, not for taking, but for receiving, and with thanks.
“Hara-Kiri” is as humane and austere and difficult a film as any I’ve seen, beautifully, evocatively acted by its principals and the supporting cast alike, without melodrama, without saccharine affectation. It is a serious, rich, rewarding tragedy in the best sense: provocative, complex, artful; simple, clear-eyed. It isn’t a perfect film, but in its own courageous look on the heart and heaviness of peace, it is more nearly so than I expected.