High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Friday, March 17, 2006

The Good, the Weird, and the Ugly

Four days, 6 samurai movies. Don't worry, gentle readers, you've already made it through (or wisely ignored) the first 25%. Oh, and if you think you're off the hook with regard to Der Rosenkavalier, which I saw the Saturday before last (to say nothing of penguin ecstasy just this last weekend), your naivete is charming.

Monday night was another Tatsuya Nakadai-fest, and there's nothing bad about that. Well, except for the fact that Sword of Doom seems to have been the outcome of many people who were very stoned. And not in a good way.

But let's start with Harakiri (aka, Seppuku. Because there's nothing like a little enlightening research on ritual suicide before dawn ), I've just googled to determine what the frilly heck the difference between harakiri and seppuku actually is. According to a "Glossary of all cultural Japanese words used in English or indispensable to understand Japanese lifestyle and traditions" (, there is none. Both are ritual disemboweling, although there are class differences. High-ranking samurai are permitted the luxury when sentenced to death. Low-ranking samurai opt for it when they lose their masters "as a sign of fidelity." There is a note that us dirty occidentals tend to use hara-kiri, whereas the Japanese prefer the term seppuku.

In terms of what Harakiri is motion picturally, it's a strange, dark, funny, fascinating, and horrifying 1962 movie by Kobayashi. It starts with Hanshiro Tsugumo (Nakadai) arriving at the House of Iyi, a local lordly household noted for its military might and economic survival in a time when the feudal estates of many of the surrounding lords have been dismantled, leaving samurai retainers with no means of livelihood. Tsugumo requests permission to use the House's courtyard to commit Harakiri rather than endure the shame of pennilessness (for the sake of immersion in the moment, we ignore the peasants who are wiping away their tears with their plastic hands at the hard, hard fate of the newly minted ronin).

The smug, comfortable Iyi retainers discuss Tsugumo's arrival with a mixture of apprehension and disdain. In the course of these conversations, it is revealed that shortly after the dissolution of several local houses, a lone samurai presented himself at the nearest still-existing house making the same request as Tsugumo. Impressed by his nobility, the lord took pity and made him a retainer. Since that time, all the houses found themselves overrun with supposedly suicidal samurai, many of whom were more than happy to accept cash offerings. Although some of the Iyi retainers are inclined to show mercy (or at least a kind of "landed guilt" condescension), a few scornful voices carry the day, insisting that Tsugumo be made an example of.

From there, the movie is part Scheherazade, part "Everybody Tells the Truth" (classic episode of "All in the Family," guest starring Ron Glass), part Hero. One of the retainers returns to Tsugumo and, with faux bonhomie, tells him the sad story of Motome Chijiiwa, a samurai hardly worthy of the name who came and made the now-familiar request with the hopes of scoring a hand out. Tsugumo assures him once, twice, thrice that he came to the house of Iyi with the full intention of disembowelling himself. With each assertion, a little more of Motome's truly horrifying story is revealed to Tsugumo.

Finally satisfied that Tsugumo is in earnest, the proceedings move to the courtyard. As he is about to reach for his sword, Tsugumo off-handedly asks who will be his second (the lucky party charged with decapitation once the self-disembowellment has been achieved). The chief retainer names someone, but Tsugumo humbly requests a substitution. His choice is supposedly out sick. In his sleepy, charming way, Tsugumo insists on his choice, and a messenger is dispatched to see if the illness is really all that serious. Meanwhile, he offers to entertain the retainers with his own stories. When the messenger returns, Tsugumo names his second choice, who is also mysteriously out sick. After another messenger and another round of stories, Tsugumo's third choice is also revealed to be ill.

By now, nonlinear narrative is so overused in lieu of any kind of depth, and I've seen as many versions of it as the next noncomatose American. Nonetheless, the structure and flow of Harakiri is gripping. It just keeps ramping up the pain and tension until the heartbreaking end. And if I'd had any doubt about Nakadai's dramatic chops, away they went. His rage and desperation build so naturally from his absent-minded arrival on the scene.

As a resident of the current unpleasantness, it's not just the gimmick of the movie that still burps for freshness. The message really resonates. At his most desperate, Tsugumo never hopes for change nor tries to excuse the dishonorable behavior of the opportunistic samurai. Instead, he pleads with the nobles to examine their actions and see their own wanton brutality. He asks for honesty and, maybe, a modicum of compassion, if not mercy, for those in his position.

It's not easy viewing. There's not only the traditional, somewhat stylized samurai hacking and slashing, but also a genuinely gruesome scene that is much more realistic and extended than is usual in such movies. But if you have the stomach for it, I highly recommend it.

Sword of Doom was on a double bill with Harakiri on Monday night. Uh, let's just say it doesn't exactly live up to its lead-in, despite the presence of both Toshiro and Tatsuya. The latter is just pointlessly evil and doesn't get to be funny or charming at all. The former shows up in about the last 30 minutes of the movie.

In his all-too-brief and highly bewildering appearance, Mifune is revealed (in the course of some really bad day-for-night footage) to have a really good "Doh" attack (after denying that he's got Doh [I'm really not making that up]). He is almost killed by the gang of thugs to which Tatsuya rather half-heartedly belongs (but it's a completely unexplained case of mistaken identity and near-Dickensian coincidence). He forces some poor schlub to endlessly practice some type of thrust (I've forgotten the name, but Tatsuya uses it to [pointlessly] kill said schulb's brother in the first 5 minutes of the movie, so it's unclear why Toshiro thinks that that this is an effective Tatsuya-defeating move). And then he disappears. It might seem that this would be one of the more distressing and displeasing elements of the film, but the last 15 minutes are such a giant "Dude, WTF?" that I only got to worrying about Toshi later.

Tuesday night had a rough go of it, trying to claw its way out of the trough carved by Sword of Doom. The first movie was Three Outlaw Samurai, which pretty much delivered what it promised. One ronin sort of accidentally falls in with peasants who have a master plan to climb up the food chain to protest its injustice. The second ronin is a self-admitted freeloader who has aligned with the local noble for the sake of convenience. I honestly can't remember what the third samurai's story is, but he's passionate about helping peasants, I tell ya. Except that the peasants then prove themselves to be scabby, unworthy cowards (certainly a genetic defect, rather than centuries of being beaten down). It was in no way a bad movie, but neither was it remarkable in anyway.

Plus, it is burdened with the absence of BOTH Mifune and Nakadai.

Things picked up at the second showing, though with Samurai Saga, which is a retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac with Toshiro Mifune in the (French) title role. I loved this one. Toshiro Mifune being funny, poetic, and ass-kicking all at the same time is pretty much pr0n tailor-made for me (and some other deities I know).

I do have to acknowledge that they might have overshot the vaguely moldy cardboard mark in casting Christian. Also, my spouse's repeated cries of "Hate her so much" remind me to remark that the Roxane stand-in is eardrum-burstingly shrill and shallow (and she's not even redeemed with a harrowing ride to the front lines). But oh, Toshi! The charisma! The sheer fucking talent of the man. Sigh.

Ok, that's put me in my happy samurai place, but I can't possibly do Yojimbo justice tonight, so that'll have to wait. And I swear, I'm going to inflict both Strauss and penguin!pr0n on y'all, so look away. Baby, look a. way.

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