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Film – Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai

Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai
Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai, directed by Takeshi Miike
Written by: Kikumi Yamagishi
Starring: Ebizô Ichikawa, Eita, Hikari Mitsushima
My rating: 4 of 5

So you’re the head of an honourable household. One day a destitute ronin comes to you and asks if he could possibly kill himself in your courtyard, because that would help him leave this life with as much as honour as he can salvage. Just another day in feudal Japan*.

However, you’re moved by this ronin’s plight and offer him a position in your household. After all, it’s not his fault his house disbanded and Japan is going through a peaceful period that prevents him finding work. The heads of other houses follow suit, offering work where they’re able or giving them a little money when they aren’t. Either way, the ronin are getting some help and all is good.

Then, of course, people take it too far, and it reaches a point where the less honourable ronin realise they have an easy way to find work or at least a few coins. Can’t afford those rice cakes? Go offer to kill yourself before the Iyi clan, they’re always good for a few ryō.

That’s the situation when Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai begins. A young ronin, Motome, who is just twenty years old, had recently come to the Iyi clan and asked to be allowed to perform hara-kiri there in their courtyard. They suspected he was bluffing in the hopes of walking away with a few coins so decide enough is enough and call his bluff, granting his request. He’s clearly shocked and starts begging for a temporary reprieve or to be given a few coins as his last wish, confirming their suspicions, so they force him to kill himself with his own sword (which is made of bamboo and doesn’t allow him a quick death).

All of this is presented in flashback as a story told to Hanshiro, another ronin who has come to clan Iyi to ask for the same honour. We see Motome’s end before knowing his start or his middle, so don’t know who he is, what brought him before the Iyi clan or if their disdain is truly deserved.

If your code of honour makes forty people versus one seem fair, that might be a good time to re-think things.

If your code of honour makes forty people versus one seem fair, that might be a good time to re-think things.

Hanshiro, however, did know Motome, and the bulk of the film covers his explanation of the rest of Motome’s story, from a young boy through to adulthood through to the situation that led to him making that desperate request. His tale is sometimes sweet but ultimately tragic, in more ways than just the conclusion the film has already shown. Motome reached his lowest, most desperate point, tried the only option remaining to him and was treated disrespectfully, and his life wasn’t the only one that ends because of it.

I enjoyed the film. The samurai setting is always interesting, people who adhere so closely to a code of honour that death is a much more preferable option to dishonour. They can lose their master, their household, their home, their job, their family, anything but their honour. Around that is a sweet story of love and a sad tale of revenge that ends in dramatic fashion and leaves the Iyi clan – who technically did nothing wrong according to the samurai code – looking very wrong indeed. After all, if a code of honour can enable so much wrong behaviour and hurt so many good people, then what is it really worth?

*Wikipedia says this would actually be Early Modern Japan rather than Feudal Japan, but I don’t think it would explain the setting quite as well  to say, ‘Just another day in early modern Japan’. I certainly wouldn’t understand what that meant.

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