Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Samurai Double Bill

Back in the late 70s, we watched a LOT of Japanese films, mostly samurai movies. Roughly 2-3 double bills a week, for 2-3 years. But there are still a lot of samurai films we haven't seen. We caught up with Harakiri (1962), directed by Masaki Kobayashi (best known here for Kwaidan). It was so good that we queued up Samurai Rebellion (1967) right away.

Harakiri starts with an older masterless samurai (ronin) approaching a mansion. He requests the use of their front entrance so that he can commit honorable seppuku. When the clan leader is informed of this, he says, "Again?"

You see, masterless samurai have been pulling this scam where they ask for a place to kill themselves, but they really just want a handout to move along. So they invite this ronin (Tetsuya Nakadai) to hear how they made sure the last guy who tried this really did commit harakiri. It is not a pretty story. Since they have a little time, he tells them his story.

This is a ~2 hour movie, and a lot of it is told in flashbacks, the story of the two ronin and how they are related, and why they want to die. It has to do with Nakadai's son, his daughter-in-law, and their baby daughter. And it is a tale of vengeance, honor, and violence. The kind of honor that makes a samurai, even without a master, value his sword more than his life, and maybe more than his family.

Note that "seppuku" and "harakiri" refer to the same kind of ritual self-disemboweling. But "harakiri" means "belly-cutting", and sounds low and vulgar, not elevated and noble.

Samurai Rebellion stars Toshiro Mifune, with Nakadai-san in a much smaller (though critical) role. Mifune is samurai with a shrewish wife and a good son. One day, the clan steward comes to say that the lord is getting rid of his mistress after she bore him a son, and Mifune's son has to marry her. This is very humiliating, but they have to follow orders. She turns out to be very sweet, and gives birth to a daughter that is much beloved. So, once more, it is the story of a man, his daughter-in-law and granddaughter.

But then the lord decides he wants his mistress back. Will Mifune bow to the demands of the samurai code and obey? Or will he rebel? Let's check the title...

These movies have a strong family feel. They are both slow and stately, but build to an exciting climax, They have that father-daughter-in-law-granddaughter theme, used for the same purpose: to stand for the tension between masculine honor and feminine love. They both do exposition having a character narrate a flashback, or even a flashback within a flashback. They share that exquisite sense of the proper with so many other Japanese period pieces - raked gravel courtyards, men in formal kimono stepping through halls lined with paper doors, and the particular way that men make a crease behind their right knee in their hakama pants when they kneel.

If that's the kind of thing you like, you'll love these.

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