Wednesday, October 14, 2009

To Sir, with honor...

If you only watch one movie about samurais and revenge this year, it just has to be Hara Kiri.

Hara Kiri takes place in post-fuedal Japan. After the warring lords laid down their arms and the Empire took hold, many samurais were left jobless. In a peaceful Japan there was little work for hired swords.
Now, per the samurai code, there is no honor in a life of poverty and there is even greater dishonor in a death from poverty. Therefore, the only way to meet one's end as a true warrior was to commit hara kiri. If you don't know the deal with hara kiri (AKA seppuku), I give you this excerpt from the Wikipedia article:

"In time, committing seppuku came to involve a detailed ritual. This was usually performed in front of spectators if it was a planned seppuku, not one performed on a battlefield. A samurai was bathed, dressed in white robes, and fed his favorite meal. When he was finished, his instrument was placed on his plate. Dressed ceremonially, with his sword placed in front of him and sometimes seated on special cloths, the warrior would prepare for death by writing a death poem.

With his selected attendant (kaishakunin, his second) standing by, he would open his kimono (robe), take up his tantō (knife) or wakizashi (short sword)—which the samurai held by the blade with a portion of cloth wrapped around so that it would not cut his hand and cause him to lose his grip—and plunge it into his abdomen, making a left-to-right cut. The kaishaku would then perform dakikubi, a cut in which the warrior was all but decapitated (akin to a coup de grâce. The maneuver is done such that a slight band of flesh is left attaching the head to the body). Because of the precision necessary for such a maneuver, the second was a skilled swordsman. The principal agreed in advance when the kaishakunin was to make his cut. Usually dakikubi would occur as soon as the dagger was plunged into the abdomen. The process became so highly ritualised that as soon as the samurai reached for his blade the kaishakunin would strike. Eventually even the blade became unnecessary and the samurai could reach for something symbolic like a fan and this would trigger the killing stroke from his second.

This elaborate ritual evolved after seppuku had ceased being mainly a battlefield or wartime practice and become a para-judicial institution (see next section).

The second was usually, but not always, a friend. If a defeated warrior had fought honorably and well, an opponent who wanted to salute his bravery would volunteer to act as his second."

That's an honorable death. A methodical and glorious suicide.
Go big or go home, I guess.

So, word starts to get around Japan that a samurai went to a lord's house and asked for permission to commit hara kiri on the grounds. The lord and his advisers cringe at the thought of this spectacle, so they give the samurai some money and ask him to go somewhere else.
This story gets to some down-and-out samurai, and they decide to do something very similar, and very stupid, in hopes of receiving some charity.
A lord's advisers and samurai hear of this disgraceful disception and decide to treat anyone who comes to their grounds with a similar objective, very uncharitably. And what goes around, comes around.

What occurs, I really cannot spoil for you, but I promise you that it will be hard to watch.

No one takes revenge like a samurai. This a flawless and artistic movie about honor, desperation and loss. It's about what is worth living for, and what is worth dying for. Most of all, it's about the courage to know when there's no way out except on top of one's own sword.

The movie was made in the '60s but it feels fresh and exciting. It's black and white, but when the blood spills your imagination fills in what the monochrome leaves out.

Watch this movie.

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