Teaching Movies: Two Japanese Masterpieces, “Hara-kiri” and “Samurai Rebellion”

Before 1981 when I started teaching it was difficult to teach a movie–you needed to have 16mm projection capability–films were incredibly difficult (and expensive) to rent (they came by mail in big cannisters–I rented Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Shane for my classes–what a mistake).  But with the invention of Beta, VHS, DVD, and now YouTube, the insertion of video and film into classes has become considerably easier.

I taught the first film class at DeMatha in 1983 using VHS tapes. “Watching movies” doesn’t always endear you to your colleagues for whom movies are purely entertainment (though why school can’t be somewhat entertaining is something of a mystery to me); “studying movies” will be alien to your students whose entire range of film criticism can often consist of “It’s awesome,” “It stunk,” and “It was OK.”  The first time I walked students through Apocalypse Now in conjunction with Heart of Darkness I really began to understand things I could do with movies.

Because students are used to having movies wash over them and often have limited skills in watching movies I have always taken time to teach them how to watch movies.  This often requires picking good “teaching movies” that might otherwise not be particularly good movies (this is true of picking texts for classes–sometimes I use a text because it is a good “teaching text” not a particularly good poem or story or novel.  Consider Hawthorne’s painfully over-written “Young Goodman Brown” with the eponymous character’s wife whose name is “Faith.” He leaves his “Faith” behind one evening, witnesses a coven, sees the evil that people are capable of, and even though he returns home he has lost his “Faith.” Despite the heavy-handedness of all of this, a sophomore will always ask me, “Dr. McMahon, do you think that ‘Faith’ could also stand for his faith–like religious faith or faith in people?” It’s a good teaching story because it is so bald-faced and developmentally appropriate and what seems obvious to an experienced reader needs to be learned by an inexperienced reader.)

In any event, as part of my work on Japanese literature I teach two movies, Hara-kiri and Samurai Rebellion by Masaki Kobayashi.  While not as well-known as Akira Kurosawa (Rashomon, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, Kagemusha, Seven Samurai, etc.), Kobayashi is a top-flight director and the two movies I teach both deal with the Japanese Samurai code in ways I can’t always get to in a story.

Hara-kiri is a tremendous study of power, corruption, hypocrisy, and governmental cover-ups.  The movie opens with beautiful shot of an empty suit of armor that belonged to the ancestors of the House of Iyi; shortly afterward the common book of the manor notes that nothing of significance happened on this 13th of May, 1630 but that about 4:00 a ronin appeared at the house. This ronin, Hanshiro Tsugumo, asks to commit seppuku (the preferred term for hara-kiri which is considered coarse, ‘belly-cutting’) because, as he explains it, he has been living in poverty for 11 years since his clan was disbanded.  Lord Saito, who responds, “Not another one” when told of the request meets Hanshiro and tells him that just 4 months ago another ronin came and asked for the same thing–but he was a common extortionist who was hoping to get a few coins.  This ronin, Motome Chijiiwa, begged for two-days respite when he found out he was going to have to go through with the seppuku and with his own swords–made of bamboo (he had clearly pawned the actual blade some time before).  Hanshiro tells Saito not to worry that his sword is not made of bamboo and that he has no intention of leaving alive.

The tables turn when Hanshiro asks for three specific retainers to act as his second (the one who will strike his head off) and all three are sick that day.  To pass the time while waiting to find out where the sick retainers are Hanshiro volunteers to tell his life story.  Turns out he knew this prior ronin, Motome, and was his father’s best friend–and was commanded by the father to look after him–and his daughter married him and they had a son! The story that Hanshiro tells fleshes out the character of Motome who, to save his family had acted in ways that offended the House of Iyi.  Hanshiro then accuses the House of Iyi of hypocrisy–that their vaunted allegiance to the samurai code of bushido is hollow–and he displays the top-knots of their three finest warriors–who are now feigning illness as proof.  A climactic fight scene ensues (as many as 4 killed, 8 wounded and the orders that the three who lost their top-knots die from “illness”), and before he can be shot (yes, shot!) Hanshiro kills himself in the room where the hollow suit of armor has stood guard.  The movie closes with a montage of the remaining clan members cleaning blood off of the walls, raking the courtyard, and dutifully recording  the official history which is that this ronin delivered a peculiar speech and then killed himself.  The viewer’s outrage at this cover-up is white-hot.

One of the things I love about this movie is its use of “framing.” Doorways, courtyards, rooms, the mat where the seppuku will be committed, are all used to extraordinary effect by Kobayashi who is continuously reminding us of the way we “frame” our stories.  I have had students who cannot quite get over Saito’s version (and vision) of Motome because of how well he frames that part of it.  The way we get to the truth of stories is important and Kobayashi has a passion for the truth but a pessimistic view that “the truth” will ever get out.  He also believes that truth is always the enemy of power and that power will suppress the truth.

In Samurai Rebellion (I make my students come in on a Saturday or stay after one day to watch with me and thereby save a bunch of class time), an undistinguished samurai, Isaburo (the great Toshiro Mifune) endures a loveless marriage to a status seeking shrew.  Her father arranged the marriage only because Isaburo is the finest swordsman in the Aizu clan.  The daimyo “orders” Isaburo’s son, Yogoro, to marry a former concubine who has “rebelled” against him (he can’t punish her further because he has a son with her and that son could end up being the heir).  The family unwillingly takes the beautiful and sweet Ichi in and, mirabile dictu, she and Yogoro fall in love and have a daughter, Tomi. At this point the daimyo, his older son having died, now needs Ichi back to be mother of the heir.  Ichi, Yogoro and Isaburo say enough is enough and they refuse to knuckle under to enormous pressure from the family and then the clan. All sorts of despicable tricks including the kidnapping of Ichi happen and finally in the first of two climactic scenes, Ichi kills herself rather than betray her husband and father-in-law and her husband, Yogoro, is killed trying to defend her.  Isaburo then kills all 20 samurai sent to kill them. (If frames and framing are a key artistic element in Hara-kiri, then walls, borders, doorways, and paths are all critical to “reading” Samurai Rebellion.  At a critical juncture Isaburo walks off the stone path on to the raked sand as he flagrantly disobeys orders.)

After Isaburo buries his daughter-in-law and son, he takes his granddaughter, Tomi, and determines to leave the province and tell the shogun of the daimyo’s cruelty.  He is confronted at the gate by his best friend who will not let him leave–he has no official orders to pass.  The two fight–as we have known they will from the opening scene–and Isaburo kills his best friend who tells him that he had no chance since Isaburo was fighting for three people: Yogoro, Ichi, and Tomi.  After killing his best friend, Isaburo is murdered by numerous samurai with rifles (a motif that Kobayashi has exploited in Hara-kiri)! He crawls to Tomi’s side and implores her to grow up to be a woman like her mother and to marry a man like her father.  The wet-nurse (pressed into service when Ichi was kidnapped) has secretly followed Isaburo and rescues the child Tomi–and presumably tells her the story that we have just seen.

Kobayashi’s artistic vision is bleak and uncompromising–power is not only corrupting it is ineluctable and when you stand up against it you will be destroyed and then the victor will lie about it.  Still, there is tremendous encouragement to stand up for one’s self.  Isaburo says twice, “Each must live his own life.” I can’t really do justice to these movies in such a space but they are available through the Criterion Collection and are quite lovely.  I’m guessing that virtually no other high schools in the country are teaching them but they illuminate so well a theme that I want to cover and present obligations in conflict so intelligently and reveal Japanese culture so thoroughly that I include them in my teaching.

They are great “teaching”  movies.  Next week a reflection on Yukio Mishima and Frank O’Connor, I think.


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Filed under books and learning, critical thinking, japanese literature, Japanese Short Stories, movies, pedagogy, popular culture, teaching, Uncategorized

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