On a Saturday afternoon, one usually doesn’t put in a 2+ hour black-and-white Japanese samurai drama from the early 60s… or most people don’t, anyway. But I have a feature to do here, and this will actually be my final Foreign Fare (at least for quite a while). So why not go out with a film about death? The movie takes place in 1600s feudal Japan. A Ronin (masterless samurai) named Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai) show up at the home of a feudal lord asking to use his grounds to commit Harakiri (sometimes known as seppuku)–the act of honorable suicide via self-disembowelment and decapitation. However, the people of the house have become privy to many other poor Ronin showing up at their and other homes begging to commit this act, but really are there to appease to sentimentality so that the feudal lords will give them money to leave. So the question becomes is Hanshiro there to actually commit Harakiri, con them out of some money… or is he there for something else entirely?
I was very pleasantly surprised with this movie. It was incredibly fascinating and engaging. For being a little over 2 hours long, it really holds interest throughout. Just when you think the story can’t move forward anymore, there’s yet another twist. It’s a masterful building of tension, even though there is relatively minimal action. And there is some violence, but that’s not really where the suspense comes from. And for those of you who squirm at the idea of disembowelment, there’s no gore (there’s definitely some blood, but no gore). There is one part, however, within the first 30 minutes that is quite a bit cringeworthy.
The film is told mostly in a series of flashbacks. The first flashback is told from one of the men in the feudal lord’s home of the last Ronin who came to commit harakiri and what happened to him. From there, the bulk of the rest of the movie is Hanshiro telling about his life and how he came to be at this place. In between these moments are, of course, the interactions at the home that raise the tension. And the writing is done well so that you don’t have to be knowledgable in Japanese culture or history to understand it. All terms and concepts are explained so that you don’t feel you’re lost in a flood of words and cultural ideas that you don’t “get.”
The movie doesn’t exactly have a happy ending, though, but it’s not an entirely depressing one, either. Thematically, the movie is really an exploration of honor–the most important thing in the lives of samurai. Harakiri itself is one of the most honorable ways for a samurai to die, so those conning feudal lords out of money by threatening it is very distasteful and disgracing. And then there’s the idea of actually having honor vs. the appearance of honor. How far would a person in this culture go to save face in the eyes of others, even if it means losing all honor in yourself. And what does it mean that you don’t care? It’s a continuation of a belief system that is going by the wayside, and following it only because that’s how their world works.
But it can still be viewed as a piece of entertainment rather than something like a homework assignment. The acting is great. The cinematography is beautiful. Seriously, there are some really fantastic shots in this movie, not to mention great sets. And there were some pretty grisly moments, as well. The tension builds incredibly well, as previously mentioned. You never really know where the story is going to take you, even if you think you’ve figured it all out. If there was anything I might have liked to see, it’s more of the action scenes. I know the action isn’t the focus of the film, but there are really 4 “fights” that happen throughout the film, and the movie has a tendency to just… cut away and not show them. Or just show a few seconds of them. The only exception is really the last one (and even that cuts away from time to time). But when you have a whole movie talking about great swordsmen, I want to see great sword fights. On the whole, though, it’s a brilliant film. If you like samurai movies or Japanese dramas, definitely check it out. This one is fantastic.