Harakiri: individual honor vs. institutional corruption

The valor and honor of warriors is a given in fiction.  Otherwise what you have is a bunch of violent thugs acting for immediate interest:  sometimes entertaining, but not genuinely moving.

Honor requires that others are aware of your honor.  Fiction would have it that this is automatic, that honorable acts are clearly visible to all, dishonorable acts likewise.  Most works involving honor posit that honor transmits itself without barrier, like gravity.  But, of course, this isn’t true at all.  PR is always important, and often absolutely necessary.  Without a Homer, an Achilles is nothing.

Harakiri is a savage story of private honor and institutional corruption, with a clear-eyed view of the requirements of running an enterprise that has honor as an important balance-sheet line.  It was made in 1960, coincidentally the same year as the action of yesterday’s movie, In the Mood for Love, and takes place in 1630, the era when the Tokugawa Shogunate was tightening its grip on Japanese life, and beginning the process of turning the islands into the samurai theme park they remained until Commodore Perry kicked over their carefully balanced house of cards.

The movie, directed by Masaki Koboyashi and written by Shinobu Hashimoto, the writer of the better-known Rashomon, among others, is an impressive work, and must have hit its postwar audience, anxious to remind themselves of their past glories, like a katana blow.  This is no slice-‘em-up samurai movie (though it does have some great fight scenes, one an atmospheric duel, the other a many-against-one fight that is as realistic-seeming as any such unequal contest I’ve ever seen).  This is an almost mathematical analysis of honor and responsibility, and highly recommended.

Hairy, basso profundo, and sardonic, Tsugumo arrives at the gate of the Iyi palace and announces that he wants to use their courtyard to commit ritual suicide.  He is an unemployed samurai, who came of age in a high-demand civil war environment, and is now excess to requirements with a central power that needs enforcers more than it needs warriors.  He turns out to be the second masterless samurai to show up at Iyi Palace—and the samurai managing the palace in his master’s absence, a politic man who clearly knows all about honor and its limitations, tells Tsugumo the story of the earlier suicide, which we see in brutal flashback.  Then Tsugumo tells his own story, seen in flashbacks alternating between rising stress in the courtyard as various events are seen to be intimately connected.

Sharp, well-structured, without a wasted move, this movie was previously unknown to me.  Highly recommended, particularly for anyone wanting to write more adult fantasy, as this manages to mix exciting local color and dramatic action, the daily life of people just trying to get by, and sharp ethical conflict, all in one tight package.