Tag Archives: Harakiri

My Thoughts on: Samurai Rebellion (1967)

The last film I watched from the new Criterion arrivals was Samurai Rebellion, a 1967 film directed by Masaki Kobayashi. If the name sounds familiar, that’s because he also directed Harakiri, another film that I’ve reviewed.

While I enjoyed all three of these Criterion films, I think I liked Samurai Rebellion the most. This may or may not have something to do with the fact that Toshiro Mifune leads the cast in this tragic tale of what happens when a samurai attempts to defy the commands of his lord. The story is set in the 18th century and follows Isaburo Sasahara (Mifune), a dedicated vassal of his lord. Out of the blue, Sasahara is commanded to wed his eldest son and heir to the clan lord’s mistress, Ichi, who has fallen into disfavor with the lord despite bearing him a son. All seems well for two years until….the clan lord demands Ichi leave her new family and come back to the castle.

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Near as I can tell, the overriding message of Samurai Rebellion seems to be: is it worth it to do the right thing when doing so could get you and your entire family killed? Not only that, but is it even the “right thing” when obeying the order breaks up a happy family? For, you see, if Sasahara were to obey this order, his son would lose his wife and the mother of his own child. The fact that the Sasahara family is supposed to just obey the clan lord’s whims regardless of their own feelings is what pushes the formerly loyal-to-a-fault samurai over the edge into first resistance and then outright rebellion.

Toshiro Mifune is great in this film, as he is in pretty much everything I’ve ever seen him in. And once his characters makes the fatal decision to resist the clan, his entire performance is raised by several degrees. My second favorite performance in Samurai Rebellion is Yoko Tsukasa as Ichi. This is a woman who is trying so hard to adapt to her situation, only to find herself in a tug-of-war between the husband she loves and the clan lord she openly despises. The emotional trauma this is inflicting on Ichi is plain to see, and your heart will bleed watching her suffer in an attempt to get everyone through this struggle alive.

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Like Harakiri (which came five years before), the last half of Samurai Rebellion is tinged by a sense of fatalistic hopelessness. Even though Sasahara is doing the morally right thing, he knows (and accepts) that this will not only get him and his son killed, but it will disgrace the entire Sasahara family. But what really makes the story heart-wrenching is that Sasahara comes within inches of actually succeeding in his plan. In the film’s last act, the samurai decides to take his granddaughter to Edo and lay out the entire story to the authorities. And he comes so close to succeeding that it’s physically painful to watch him fail.

Again, like Harakiri (which I belatedly realized came from the same director), I was left watching the film end with the same feeling that came from the end of Harakiri: what was the point of all of this? Because in the end, nothing appears to change. Or does it? The film’s last shot shows baby Tomi being taken away by her nurse, presumably to be raised by her. There’s a subtle implication that maybe the story of what her father and grandfather did will live on with Tomi, assuming the nurse tells her when she’s older.

If you’re looking for must-see samurai films to watch, then you must include Samurai Rebellion on the list. It’s a moving film, a heart-wrenching film, and one I very much enjoyed watching.

Let me know what you think about Samurai Rebellion in the comments below and have a great day!

See also:

My thoughts on: Harakiri (1962)

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My Thoughts on: Three Outlaw Samurai (1964)

As I’ve mentioned once or twice here on the blog, I’m a big fan of Japanese cinema, particularly samurai films. Today, after several previous attempts, I finally got to watch Three Outlaw Samurai, directed by Hideo Gosha, one of the samurai films I have in my collection. The film is, apparently, an origin story for a Japanese television series of the same name.

Three Outlaw Samurai reminds me a little bit of Harakiri, in that part of the story deals with the seeming futility of trying to change the system. See, most of the film revolves around the farmers of a certain area trying to appeal for better living conditions, going so far as to draft a petition for the lord to read when he passes through. However, the magistrate of this area wants it all hushed up and the titular samurai, at various points in the story, end up in the middle of the conflict.

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I mentioned futility because it feels like the story is leading up towards a meeting with the lord, where the petition will be presented and things will get better for the farmers. However, when the moment comes, when the samurai presents the farmers with the petition and urges them to run after the lord, they do nothing. And in frustration, the samurai who brought the petition to them throws it down and walks away. My initial reaction was to say “Well what was the point of that?” So much revolved around getting that petition and it ultimately does nothing. But then I considered that maybe the point they were trying to make is that societal change can only occur if the people really want it. After suffering great losses at the magistrate’s hands, the people are too scared to come forward now. In other words, they’re just not ready to make a lasting push for change. Recognizing this, the samurai move on to other adventures.

If you like samurai films, you will enjoy Three Outlaw Samurai. One detail I really like about it is that the one samurai is played by Tetsuro Tamba, who also played “Tiger” Tanaka in You Only Live Twice. I also enjoy watching how the three very different samurai come together and interact. One is rather cynical, he’s seen and done it all; one loves food and is described as a “country bumpkin samurai”; while the third is a rather spoiled samurai who likes his luxuries. They’re so different, and yet they end up meshing very well by the end of the story.

If you’ve seen Three Outlaw Samurai, what do you think about it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below and have a great day!

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My thoughts on: Harakiri (1962)

While browsing through Criterion films at the bookstore, I came across a copy of Harakiri (1962) (directed by Masaki Kobayashi) and realized this was a film I’d neither seen nor heard of before (and it sounded really good). Fortunately, my library had a copy I could borrow and last night I dove in headfirst and discovered a tragedy in every sense of the word.

Harakiri is set in 1630 during the Edo period (the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate). It starts simply enough with a ronin named Tsugumo Hanshirō (Tatsuya Nakadai) approaching the Iyi Clan to formally ask permission to perform harakiri (ritual suicide) in their forecourt as he is tired of living in abject poverty. As it turns out, he is not the first ronin to have approached with this request. Some months prior, another ronin, Chijiiwa Motome had come with the same request. The problem is, at this time, many ronin were approaching various lords to make this request in order to receive alms to make them go away. Fed up with this practice, the Iyi Clan forces Motome to perform harakiri, even though it’s revealed his swords are only made of bamboo.

The scene where Motome slowly kills himself is incredibly painful to watch. The way it’s put together, you literally feel every thrust of that dull bamboo blade as he thrusts it into himself. To compound the nightmare, the clan has determined that his suffering will not end by beheading until he has thoroughly ripped himself open (it’s made clear that they could have beheaded him straight off, so they’re choosing to make him suffer).

All of this is related to Hanshirō   in an attempt to make him reconsider his request, but the ronin will not be denied. Once he’s settled for the ritual, then the full tragedy comes out.

It turns out that Motome was Hanshirō’s son-in-law, married to his only daughter Miho. They had a son named Kingo and lived happily for a while, even though they were very poor (Hanshirō lost his master and thus his living to harakiri some years prior). Then, in quick succession, Miho becomes ill and not long after so is Kingo (both die not long after Motome’s body is brought back). Motome is unable to find work as his status as a samurai makes him ineligible for common labor but none of the clans are hiring ronin since there have been no wars for many years. Desperate (and having already pawned his blades for money to help his wife and son), Motome departs one day saying he knows of a way to get more money to pay for a doctor, but he never comes back alive.

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Your heart will break watching Motome struggle to find ways to support his family. If I understand correctly, samurai are considered to be “above” manual labor, which is why Motome is stopped every time he approaches a work site. He also can’t openly beg for money because that’s considered shameful as well. In effect, this family is completely screwed over by the system, small wonder that Motome resorted to asking to commit harakiri in the courtyard as a means to get alms (a practice that he had previously, in better times, said was shameful and only done by the worst kind of person).

Hanshirō’s point in relating all of this is to point out that no one should criticize another for doing something out of desperation. After all, what would you do if you were in their place? Unfortunately, Hanshirō’s lesson falls on deaf ears as the clan firmly believes they did nothing wrong. In fact, they’re so insulted by the ronin’s words that it’s decided they’ll kill him and not let him commit harakiri after all. This leads to an amazing sequence where Hanshiro fends off dozens of samurai as he moves through the building. There’s one or two strikes and then everyone freezes, but you can see them analyzing each and every move. It’s almost like watching a Mexican stand-off: at various points, though they outnumber him, the clan’s samurai stand frozen because Hanshiro has them in such a way that if any of them make a move, he can kill them. Tatsuya Nakadai is mesmerizing in this scene: you can tell he truly wants to die, but since the clan wants to make it difficult, he’ll take as many of them as he can with them.

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Though Hanshirō is brutally killed at the end (with guns no less, they couldn’t even kill him with swords), I do think one person learned something from this, even if he won’t admit it. Saitō Kageyu, the senior counselor for the clan, is seen with a very ponderous look on his face while Hanshirō is being pursued and killed. I believe that Hanshirō’s words did have an effect on him, and maybe he is starting to believe that the system is broken. In fact, after learning that one of the samurai who participated in forcing Motome to kill himself has also committed harakiri, he instructs a messenger to order the other two participants to kill themselves also, adding: “Send a squad of men to make sure it is done.”

Ultimately (and this may be the greatest tragedy of all) nothing seems to change as a result of Hanshirō’s actions. The courtyard is cleaned, all signs of the fight are removed, what was the point of all of this? Maybe the point is there IS no point, sometimes sacrificing yourself to prove a point accomplishes nothing. That, at least, is my thought as I consider the ending of a very moving film.

If you’ve seen Harakiri, what did you think about it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below and have a great day!

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