Monday, April 15, 2013

American Mishima looks at Hara-Kiri Death of a Samurai

So many Samurai films concentrates on the heroic battles of the Warring States Period or the tumultuous whirlwinds of the Bakumatsu Period. But with the exception of the Mifune Toshiro classic Miyamoto Musashi Samurai Trilogy, few noteworthy films have featured the lives of those disenfranchised Samurai stripped of their positions in the wake of those great battles at the dawn of the Edo Period. In a sense this remake of the 1962 Samurai Classic Hara-Kiri (also known as SEPPUKU) poses the question of how one maintains his honor when one has lost his position. Director Takashi Miike better known for cult films like Ichi the Killer and blood feasts of 13 Assassins vividly addresses this issue.
Enter our main protagonist Hanshiro Tsugumo played by Ebizo Ichikawa. He is a proud dignified Samurai who fought on the losing side of the Battle of Sekigahara and the Siege of Osaka. He like many Samurai of the late Warring States Period have found themselves destitute and without position due to the vengeful abolishment of his clan by the victorious Ieyasu Tokugawa. Hanshiro is the first of a generation of the new Edo Period of masterless Samurai plunged into dire poverty into the new peace. Humbled, yet not defeated, Hanshiro makes due scraping a living making kasa (parasols) while raising his daughter Miho played by Hikari Mitsushima and the orphaned son of his fellow Samurai friend Motome Chijiiwa played by the actor known as Eita best known for his work as Nogoro of Satsuma in the 47th NHK Taiga Drama Atsuhime. Hanshiro somewhat reminiscent of Seibei of 2003's Twilight Samurai is a likeable man who will do his best to raise his family his dignity.
But no sooner that our comfort zone is established by this premise, the dark tragic tale unfolds. Hara-Kiri is filmed in a manner that juxtaposes time frame from past to present so we did find this difficult to write about without giving away the entire film. In our synopsis one could say this film is one example when the best of intentions goes horribly wrong.
We agonized for weeks how we would write this because we absolutely loved these characters. Hanshiro the dignified Samurai turned impoverished ronin. His daughter Miho who grows up to become a beautiful woman who marries Motome and bears him a child. You want them to prevail. It kills you to watch such a beautiful family fall into such tragic circumstances. If you are looking for the typical Takashi Miike Slash & Gore film, this is not your film. Rather, we applaud Miike for stepping out of his box and trying to tackle a dark subject without the usual fare. Hara-Kiri takes us back and forth setting us to the beginning of the film the circumstances to Hanshiro appearing at the House of Ii to petition Lord Kageyu played by Koji Yakusho of Isoroku Yamamoto fame to commit Seppuku, ritual disembowelment.
What has driven this Samurai with so much love and devotion for his family to end his life is soon revealed. As Lord Kageyu reveals another Samurai recently came to the House of Ii with a similar request. It became clear that this poor young desperate Samurai deliberately tried to deceive the House of Ii and was nothing more than a “Suicide Bluff.” Now why someone would do such a thing is revealed by Lord Kageyu. These “Suicide Bluff's” all started in the wake of the last siege at Osaka Castle. As the Toyotomi's fell, so did many clans who fought against Ieyasu Tokugawa. Thus spawned a generation of ronin desperate to make a living.

One such ronin came to a great house and petitioned it's lord to die with the dignity of a Samurai who can no longer bear the shame of being unable to support himself and his family. His gesture was so sincere, it moved the lord to tears that the lord halted his suicide and offered him an official position. Inspired by this tale many suicide bluffs started appearing at the doors of many great houses. Such was the tale of this unfortunate Samurai who appeared months earlier at the House of Ii. Hara-Kiri takes us away from this dark scene to that poor ronin that was none other than his adopted son in law Motome!
So desperate his condition was with Miho gravely ill who has since made her baby ill and in dire need of medicine, the doctor will not come unless he is paid a lousey 3 ryo to save their lives. This forces Motome to make a desperate, impulsive act to save his family. His petition to end his life is convincing enough he is paid full honors at the House of Ii. But then it becomes clear to head swordsman and antagonist Yumanosuke Kawabe played by Kazuki Namioka of 13 Assassins and Tokyo Drift that Motome is pulling a scam. Upon inspection of Motomo's sword it is revealed his sword is not real but that of bamboo. Exposing this fraud before Lord Kageyu Kazuki insists that Motomoe carry out his insincere request to end his life. Motome pleads for his life for the sake of his dying wife and child but Kazuki will not let him off the hook. We cannot go into the gruesome details here without becoming emotional for his death is only the start of a compounded tragedy.

So here we return to Hanshiro poised to commit ritual seppuku in seiza before Lord Kageyu and one hundred of his men with swords drawn. Hanshiro reveals he has no intention of ending his life, rather to avenge those who allowed Motome to die and in particular that of Kazuki and his two cohorts.

In fairness, Kazuki is not so much the heartless villain but typical of loyal retainer exposing a fraud perpetrated upon the House of Ii. What makes him a villain is that he took satisfaction in Motome's undoing. Thus is it up to honor bound Hanshiro to right this wrong of compounded wrongs by exacting revenge that will lead all to tragedy.  
One must ask did such things really happen during the early 17th Century and if so how often? When you consider that in our own times of recession suicides of entire families take place for similar dire circumstances both here in America and Modern Day Japan, we are reminded of our humanity and the fragility of life. These are not the sole domain of a long gone Edo Culture but that of a universal human condition that exists with us today. While we had difficulty watching this tragic tale and even a harder time writing about it we at American Mishima applaud director Takashi Miike for illustrating this dark yet relevant to today's problems brought to life in this remake of a Samurai Tale.

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