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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
The Roiled Twelve Thousand Ronin
by Donald Levit

Set in 1630, after civil wars and early in Ieyasu Tokugawa shōgunate isolation, intrigue, totalitarian control, and strange peace, Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri/Seppuku carries forward into the past themes from his 1959-61 World War Two The Human Condition trilogy. The 1962 single masterpiece uses ploys of the written word in picturing the past and/or far away to criticize the present. The adaptation of a novel by Yasuhiko Takiguchi again champions defiance of authority, once again of the military mentality but more particularly that of unquestioned tradition. Modern manifestations of Japan’s venerated bushido sacrifice, honor in death and feudal fanaticism are no less to be abhorred as violations of individual worth and freedom of choice.

This penultimate of nine in the Museum of the Moving Image compilation of Kobayashi-Tatsuya Nakadai collaborations was, like the included abovementioned trilogy, followed by a Q&A with the legendary star. Through an interpreter, Nakadai talked about thinking it impossible to play a grandfather at twenty-nine but “I had to do it” since screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto was “one of the best”; of old but real swords being used for (standing and demonstrating) seventeenth-century fighting stances; of working with other directors, most famously Kurosawa; of the postwar Hollywood fare his generation cut its teeth on and of his favorite, Marlon Brando.

Jidaigeki or jidaimono, historical or period pieces, often concern this Edo era, which lasted nearly three centuries until forced opening and the Meiji Restoration of 1867-68. In the stark b&w of regular Kobashi DP Yoshio Miyajima, the book-ended story has the same tales-within-a-tale format as Rashomon, with the difference that the hero’s flashback narration reveals relationships unknown to the first teller. Further, unlike Kurosawa’s portrayal of subjectivity and the ambiguity of truth, here Senior Counselor Kageyu Saiko (Rentarô Mikuni) decrees falsehood to be truth since he is, not so much victor as the last one standing.

A time of controlled peace made samurai -- hereditary military retainers of lord daimyos less chivalrous than but analogous to European knights of the Middle Ages -- a glut on the market. Now “masterless” ronin, these “floating men” wandered about, seeking menial employment, begging, turning to brigandage, or starving.

In contrasting black and a beard, one such appears at the Iyi clan compound to request that, at the end of his resources, he be allowed to perform honorable ritual self-disembowelment, harakiri or seppuku, in the courtyard. An impatient and supercilious counselor notes that real and fake ronin are applying in growing numbers with that request but think they will be dissuaded and bought off with alms.

As example, he relates the flashback of the request of one Motome Chijiiwa (Akira Ishihama), whom the house forced to go ahead with it despite his pleas for two days’ grace. The steel blades of his curved killing sword and short dagger having been sold, the young man’s bamboo replacements make a mess of four jabs, until ritual beheading administers the coup de grâce.

Undissuaded, the new suppliant is Hanshiro Tsugumo (Nakadai), who, kneeling on the white-sheeted death platform, requests one after another that three separate house retainers serve as seconds to cut off his head. All three so indisposed as to be unable to attend, the ronin now tells his flashback.

A widower, he single-parented beloved daughter Miho (Shima Iwashita) alongside Motome, the slightly older son of Jinnai (Yoshio Inaba), a widower friend and fellow ronin who committed harakiri. He had blessed the love of daughter and ward, who married and gave him the joy of all their lives, the grandson he had christened Kingo. Poverty, fever and consumption, however, soon reduced them to such desperation that son-in-law Motome had set off supposedly to visit a moneylender. He never returned alive.

“Myself a regular law-abiding citizen, I [Nakadai] have played a lot of madmen, although in this movie it was a justifiable madness.” The last of his family, Hanshiro seeks revenge if not necessarily death; re-growable topknots will do, though he could have no way to predict that commanded harakiri will be others’ fate as well. Lack of pity or basic considerateness dooms those whose souls reside solely in their swords. Death and honor have their places in life, reads Butterfly’s ancestral dagger, but death is not an end in itself. Life with compassion and love trumps it.

(Released by Janus Films and rated "G" by MPAA.)

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