In March 2010 I wrote a review of Masaki Kobayashi’s Harikiri, a 1962 film that was as much of a assault on bushido (warrior) values as the knife upon the stomach in ritual suicides.
Following up on his 2010 remake of 13 Assassins, a film I reviewed last year that was more partial to bushido values, Takashi Miike presents a new version of Harikiri now showing at the IFC Center in NYC titled Hari-Kiri: Death of a Samurai. Other than its use of 3D, the film does not stray too far from the original, as was also the case with Miike’s reworking of 13 Assassins. Considering this 62 year old prolific director’s (88 films to his credit) unquenchable appetite for the bizarre (see my reviews of the whacked-out Great Yokai War, Zebraman, Happiness of the Katakuris and Dead or Alive), he plays his versions of Harikiri and 13 Assassins fairly straight. I can only surmise that this is out of respect for two of the greatest films to come out of Japan in the 1960s, both on a par with anything by Kurosawa.
If you read my review of the 1962 Harakiri, that should suffice as an introduction to Miike’s remake, especially these paragraphs:
It stars Tatsuya Nakadai as the middle-aged ronin Hanshiro Tsugumo who has arrived at the Iyi palace in order to make a request that was frequently being heard in such quarters in the capital of Edo in 1630.
Without a job and any prospects in a period of general peace, the warrior decides to do the only thing that makes sense—to disembowel himself in the house of a powerful Lord with all the dignity that entails.
The lord of the house Kageyu Saito (Rentaro Mikuni) feels duty-bound to explain to Tatsuya that when another ronin named Motome Chijiiwa showed up a couple of months earlier with a similar request, they decided to force him to go through with harakiri even though it was likely that he was only seeking a handout to last him for a few days. Given the collapse of so many samurai clans in the recent past, there had to be some way to set an example for other such beggars. Tatsuya reassures the lord of the manor that he fully intends to kill himself.
Unlike Masaki Kobayashi, the director of the original film who had deep pacifist and anti-authoritarian convictions spurred by his experience as a soldier during WWII, Miike does not have a reputation for being political. Despite this, he clearly had an affinity for the story of dispossessed warriors based on his heartfelt direction. Given Japan’s protracted decline over the past quarter-century, it would be hard for any sensitive filmmaker not to be drawn to material that dramatized the conflict between the haves and the have-nots.
As a long-time enthusiast of samurai movies, dating back to my encounter with Kurosawa’s Yojimbo in 1961, I watched Miike’s latest with a somewhat different perspective. After Fukushima, it is difficult not to think about the problems of Japanese authoritarianism whether it is manifested in 17th century feudalism or 21st century capitalism. Of course, the underlying explanation for the continued existence of authoritarianism is Japan’s failure to have undergone a thorough-going bourgeois-democratic revolution.
So deeply engrained in Japanese culture is bushido that the men who volunteered to go into the nuclear reactors initially were referred to as Atomic Samurai:
THEY are being hailed as the modern-day samurai — the 180 brave men who stayed behind to fight the crisis at Fukushima nuclear power plant knowing it was very likely they had volunteered for a suicide mission.
It is virtually impossible to talk to the workers by phone. But the message came out from one that he was “not afraid to die” — that was his job.
The families of these brave men may never see them again, but they are proud of their sacrifice.
A 27-year-old woman, whose Twitter name is @NamicoAoto, tweeted that her father had volunteered for Fukushima duty.
“I heard that he volunteered even though he will be retiring in just half a year and my eyes are filling up with tears,” she said.
“At home, he doesn’t seem like someone who could handle big jobs. But today, I was really proud of him. I pray for his safe return.”
Another loved one says in an email: “My father is still working at the plant. He says he’s accepted his fate, much like a death sentence.”
Prime Minister Naota Kan told the volunteers: “You are the only ones who can resolve a crisis. Retreat is unthinkable.”
And just as those higher up in the feudal chain exploited those lower down in 17th century Japan, so do the corporate elite and their political servants take advantage of these workers and the Japanese people in general.
When the Japanese economy was expanding rapidly back in the 60s and 70s, so much so that pundits began writing about the country overtaking the U.S., the social basis for blind loyalty was more solid. However, the steady decline of Japan makes the samurai ethos applied to the corporate world more difficult to sustain. The salaryman, the modern version of the warrior ready to commit harikiri on behalf of the boss, is not so eager to make an equivalent sacrifice as the October 5, 2002 Sydney Morning Herald reported:
In the late 1980s, when Japan’s economic miracle was in full bloom, an ad appeared on television exalting the corporate warrior hero, the salaryman. “Businessman! Businessman!” went the chirpy jingle. “Can you work 24 hours a day?”
It was selling one of the quick pick-me-up tonics in little brown bottles that helped push the salaryman to work harder and longer. The yellow and black label of this brand, the ad said, was a “token of courage”.
At the time, it must have made perfect sense as Japan Inc seemed to be on the verge of taking over the world, and the Japanese way of doing business was the way of true enlightenment. Then, of course, the bubble burst, so spectacularly that Japan has endured a slump for most of the past 12 years.
What has happened to the salaryman? He still drinks his tonic, and puts in the punishing hours. But warrior hero? Try tragic figure – a crumpled soul in a crumpled suit.
He still leaves for work at 7am, makes a long commute sardined into trains, and may not get home until 10pm. But there is little of the bushido, the spirit of the samurai, about the salaryman today. Like a reflection of his country, he is just hanging on grimly, hoping for better times but not sure how or when they will come.