The question I posed in my review of Grand Illusion, a film in which the action took place within a POW camp and the war was almost entirely offstage, was, “where is the war?” One might well ask the same question of Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai. Or perhaps – how are we (Japanese, samurai) to live without war? Takashi Miike’s Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai is set in 1600, in a newly peaceful Japan. Many Japanese are delighted to have the warring states at a relative peace with one another and to get a chance to settle down and make money.
To the warrior class, the samurai, this peace of the Tokugawa shogunate, or bakufu, which includes the indolence of peace and the contemptible wish of the merchant class to amass money, are morally and socially bankrupt and they are devastating to their way of life. For one thing, they can’t easily make money—their skills as warriors are no longer needed. Many lack the ability to create new skills. They slide into poverty. The peace of the shogunate has robbed the samurai of their code of honor, their livelihood, and their very reason for being. It is a peace in which the status of the samurai has fallen so far that the ruling bakufu refuses to allow them even to repair their castle, which is falling down around them.
And in which the prosperous country folk, farmers, artisans and traders, traditionally of a much lower caste, feel it incumbent upon them to give sly and unpleasant and unasked for marital advice to the o-jo-san, the young (then unmarried) and beautiful heroine of the tale. They tell her that an official of indeterminate merchant status, traditionally the lowest of the low, has come calling to her home for the fifth time, the fifth time! And that she must soon consider this flattering attention. They smirk, pointing out that they are well aware that they, the lower castes, do not “understand the very complicated affairs” of the eminent noble but impoverished samurai class. At the same time, they hint broadly and cruelly at how far the samurai have fallen. And that she had better not wait too long.
It is the older samurai, father of the young lady, an elegant and stately but gentle warrior who now makes paper umbrellas, is one of the two heroes of the story. The action of the film cuts back and forth focusing first on the elder samurai and his umbrellas and then on his son-in-law, the second hero. The elder samurai comes to a neighboring castle, the Hose of Ii, to ask for the use of its courtyard in which to commit seppuku (also known as hara-kiri). The head of the household warily commends him for his fine samurai spirit and muses that this is not the first request to commit seppuku in their courtyard. The samurai curtly replies that he is aware of the story.
For in fact, the story is about hero #2; hero #1’s son-in-law. When the younger samurai’s wife and baby fall ill, and he is too poor to pay for a doctor’s care, our samurai’s son in law resorts to two desperate measures. First, he sells the blades of his swords, replacing them with bamboo- which is truly the act of a desperate man, as it garners very little money, renders the swords useless, and is a further painful status symbol of how far he has fallen. Then he goes to the aforementioned neighboring castle where he begs the use of their courtyard in order to commit seppuku.
Our hero has heard of “seppuku bluffs,” in which the act is never actually carried out but the samurai successfully requests money or favors. Our young man’s financial need is also very great. In one sad sequence the young hero goes shopping to buy three eggs for his wife and baby, is jostled by children and drops the eggs, and is so hungry that he falls to the ground and laps them up.
And the young man hopes to use the same “seppuku bluff” tactic to obtain money for food and a doctor. The warrior code of the samurai has fallen so far and his need is so great, and resources so few, that it never occurs to him that he will be taken seriously and that the loan will not be forthcoming. This request is a terrible mistake. It is his misfortune that the House of Ii has heard of “seppuku bluffs” and are determined not to let this happen to them. They order him to commit seppuku on the spot. Astonished, terrified, he begs for 3 ryo, the bare minimum of what it would cost to obtain the services of a doctor for his wife and child.
The samurai are outraged at his nerve, snarling at him, telling him he is pathetic, and again orders him to go through with his request. They insist that he bathe and put on the requisite kimono and hakama for seppuku.
Our young hero brandishes his bamboo sword. It does not soften the House of Ii. An agonizing sequence then follows in which our hero tries to cut his belly with a bamboo blade—blunt and wooden. Until he has the thought that if the bamboo breaks the shards may be sharp enough to cut him. His cries, and the gushing of the blood, and the relentless avid looking on of the entire House of Ii, make this an excruciating moment.
We return to the elder samurai. He tells the Head of the House of Ii the story of his son in law and in short order, makes it clear that he feels that it is this house that has failed to show the minimum of human compassion and has betrayed the samurai code of honor. And that he has ambushed the ringleaders responsible for forcing seppuku on our young samurai—and that he has cut off their topknots, deeming it too far beneath him to take their heads. He contemptuously tosses the topknots, symbols of the retainers’ lost status, on the ground in the courtyard for all to see.
In this film nature forecasts events. Whereas in other films 3D is used in a kitschy way, in this film 3D is used with a very light touch—with raindrops which begin torrential and then slow down and stop, becoming snow flakes turning to clumps, slowing down and falling delicately. Something ominous is about to happen. And it does. In true samurai drama fashion, finally, what we’ve been waiting for—war! On a small scale but war nevertheless. It begins with the retainers’ furtive return to the House of Ii, wearing filmy gray scarves over their heads to hide the absence of their topknots.
And then everything explodes! The head of the House of Ii, in a rage over the humiliation of his retainers, shouts, “Slice him!” No, it isn’t fighting on the grand, warring nations scale, house against house, the way things used to be before the Tokugawa bakufu. The action is indeed violent, and powerful, and our hero is a powerful and charismatic killer.
In fact it is shameful. The odds are hardly fair or reasonable. One heroic warrior against approximately 20 less than remarkable men in the courtyard of House Ii. But our hero fights brilliantly, and with a dull wooden bamboo sword. Cutting down the House of Ii relentlessly. And it is completely breathtaking and by the time he is cut down there are only five of the original 20+ Ii retainers left in the courtyard.
But this is the grand manner, the posturing, the beauty of violence and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The great moment comes when our hero slashes at the red armor of a huge ancestral warrior, the spirit of the House of Ii, who sits in an alcove, venerated by all. When the armor is battered, however, it falls to bits like a broken child’s toy. Its magnificence and significance have vanished.
This is a film in the grand samurai drama tradition. It is beautiful, tragic, touching on the great illusions but lightly. It ends with a really wonderful exchange. The daimyo- lord of the castle returns and gazes on the reassembled suit of red armor. He asks nothing about the suicide bluff, or the battle in the courtyard, or what has become of the bodies. He asks, “Has it (the armor) been polished?” The head of the household replies, proudly “Why yes of course! It contains our entire honor!” The film does not even linger to allow us to savor the irony—the curtains come down.