Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 8, 2010

Chushingura; Harakiri

Filed under: Film,Japan — louisproyect @ 11:10 pm

The figure of the ronin, or unemployed samurai, is a staple of Japanese movies that received its most celebrated treatment in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and The Seven Samurai. Recently I saw two movies made in 1962—both available from Netflix—that offered starkly contrasting views of their ronin heroes, suggesting as a corollary alternative takes on Japanese culture and values.

The first is Hiroshi Inagaki’s 206 minute Chushingura, a name given to literary accounts of the 1703 vendetta by 47 ronin of the house of Asano whose master was forced to commit seppoku (ritual disembowelment known as harikiri outside of Japan) after landing only glancing blows against Lord Kira in the Shogun’s castle in Edo. Not only has the incident inspired several movies, it is also the subject of Kabuki and Bunraku (puppet plays) as well as serving as a kind of national martyrdom mythos on a par with Joan of Arc for the French or the Battle of the Alamo for the Americans. There is no trailer unfortunately for the 1962 movie on Youtube or elsewhere but this Kabuki version might give you a flavor for what is in the film:

At the beginning of the movie, Lord Naganori Asano (Yûzô Kayama) is embroiled in conflicts with Lord Yoshinaga Kira (Chûsha Ichikawa), a much more powerful figure with far less scruples than Asano who he presses repeatedly for bribes. When Asano refuses to make payments, Kira refuses to turn over instructions from the Shogunate about his duties. Without the document, Asano will lose his place in the pecking order of a grotesquely feudal pecking order and all that goes with it. When he strikes Kira with his sword in a fit of rage, he still ends up losing everything—including his life.

The conflict between Kira and Asano takes up perhaps the first half-hour of the film. From that point on, it becomes the story of his retainers who are forced to vacate the clan’s castle and take jobs as common tradesmen. Eventually we discover that their leader, Asano’s second in command, has a vendetta planned to kill Kira and uphold Bushido, the Samurai’s ethos of loyalty and courage. For most of the film, up until the final 20 minutes or so that depicts the bloody battle between Asano’s 47 ronin and Kira’s bodyguards, the plot revolves around the quotidian existence of an unemployed Samurai.

The Kira camp is lulled into a false sense of security from the seeming withdrawal of the 47 ronin from vendetta. But unbeknownst to their enemies, Asano’s former retainers have a major assault on Kira’s mansion. It is as much of a surprise as the Corleone family’s attack on the Five Families at the end of Godfather Part I.

I can only recommend this film for those with a particular interest in Japanese culture since it is clearly made for the domestic market and more particularly for the segment of Japanese society that has a thing about traditional values. At its most benign, this amounts to a commitment to courage, loyalty and honesty. At its worst, it is manifested as the 1941 version of Chushingura that was meant to arouse the Japanese army to a blind sense of devotion to the imperial cause. Unlike the hackwork put out for the Nazis by Veidt Harlan, the 1941 version was directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, one of Japan’s greatest directors who would go on to make Ugetsu in 1953, regarded as one of the greatest movies of all time. Mizoguchi made Chushingura under duress and the end product was considered insufficiently martial in spirit.

Also made in 1962, Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri is everything that Chushingura is not. Closer in spirit to Yojii Yamada’s recent samurai trilogy, it is a passionate denunciation of feudal values and especially the ritual suicide of the film’s title. For both Kobayash and Yamada, the feudal overlords represent a brutal and unyielding system that victimizes the samurai even as it puts them on a pedestal.

As art, Harakiri is Japanese movie making at its very pinnacle and surely ranks with Kurosawa and Yamada for its narrative and dramatic power. Unlike Chushingura, there are no slack moments as the movie hurdles forward with the power of a diesel locomotive until its wrenching conclusion.

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.

Through a series of flashbacks Lord Kageyu describes how the much younger ronin Motome was trapped into taking his life. He was prevented from leaving the palace until the deed was done in full view of his retainers. Unfortunately for Motome, he had to make do with a bamboo sword, an inexplicable replacement for the usually highly tempered steel instrument. Instead of lasting a second or two with a steel blade, Motome’s death is painfully drawn out he stabs himself with .the dull bamboo blade. Watching the lord and his retinue take in this spectacle is enough to inoculate one against Bushido culture once and for all, which was the director and screenwriters’ (Shinobu Hashimoto, Yasuhiko Takiguchi) intention.

Before taking his life in the same manner as Motome, Tatsuya only has one request. He wants to tell the imperious lord Kageyu how he came to such a desperate state and also why Motome was in such a state himself, adding that he knew Motome quite well and understood his decision.

Without giving away too much of the plot, it turns out that Tatsuya is Motome’s father-in-law and is seeking vengeance against the aristocrat and samurai warriors who forced him to kill himself. The movie moves forward through a series of flashbacks and encounters between Tatsuya and Kageyu as each flashback ends.  At each point, Kageyu demands that the ronin get on with the hari-kiri, only to be told that the story is not finished. The climax of the movie, as you might expect, involves a choreographed fight between the ronin and Kageyu’s men. It is about as exciting a sequence as you will see in a Japanese samurai movie. It should be mentioned that the actor who plays Tatsuya was Toshiro Mifune’s replacement in Akira Kurosawa’s movies after their falling out. He is simply brilliant.

Harikiri is the first movie I have ever seen by Masaki Kobayashi who also directed The Human Condition, a trilogy on the effects of World War II on a Japanese pacifist and socialist. The wiki on Kobayashi states that he himself was a pacifist, who after being drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II, refused to fight and refused promotion to a rank higher than private. Those are the kinds of values the Japanese should be celebrating, not Bushido.


  1. I recently watched Kobayashi’s “The Human Condition” and cannot recommend it enough, even if it is very long and occasionally sags in places. I was under the impression that it wasn’t intended as a trilogy, and the Criterion release was uninterrupted by title cards or credits. The film works much better, actually, as a seven part series, like an HBO programme; the protagonist’s downfall occurs in discreet enough sections for that viewing regimen to work. As a scathing indictment of the Japanese presence in Manchuria, the film works well, though it ultimately ends with an outlook reminiscent of Sartre’s “existentialism is a humanism” position, which in no way detracts from the film. I will definitely have to look up “Chushingura” as well.

    Comment by jolene — March 9, 2010 @ 2:34 am

  2. […] Chushingura; Harakiri « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist […]

    Pingback by Poet Matsuo Bashoo – A Ninja? | Real Ninja — March 10, 2010 @ 1:19 am

  3. Enjoyed your appreciation of Harakiri, one of my favorite movies. I’ve seen it several times and am therefore able to explain the “inexplicable.” They forced Motome to use the very bamboo sword he carried when he showed up impersonating a samurai. They were particularly irked by this desecretation of their sacred weapon and in their vengeful sadism came up with the idea of making him commit harakiri with it.

    Comment by Howard — March 10, 2010 @ 11:06 am

  4. Stayed up late watching Harakiri for the first time tonight. It’s every but as good as the post and comments say. Even though it was made in 1962, it’s the finest movie I’ve seen in a while. The Criterion version has some good interviews, including with some excellent background to the political situation of the time. I’ve got a new film to put on a top ten list.

    Comment by Rustbelt Radical — May 25, 2010 @ 5:57 am

  5. Howard, I think you’re misremembering. Chijiiwa really was a member of the samurai class, so he had no reason to impersonate being one. The other samurai become livid because he had sold the blades, an act they considered disgraceful. Realizing how far his son-in-law had gone to support his family when he himself hadn’t even considered the possibility had a huge impact on Tsugumo and eventually led to his abandoning the warrior code.

    Comment by vsm — July 30, 2011 @ 7:53 pm

  6. […] March 2010 I wrote a review of Masaki Kobayashi’s Harikiri, a 1962 film that was as much of a assault on bushido (warrior) […]

    Pingback by Hari-Kiri: Death of a Samurai « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — July 24, 2012 @ 4:06 pm

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