Monday, August 13, 2018

Another sort of "honour killing"

[In my “moments” column for The Hindu, a look back at the great 1962 film Harakiri, scripted by a writer who died just last month]

When I heard about the passing of the Japanese screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto – all of one hundred years old – my mind replayed vignettes from the Kurosawa classics Rashomon, Ikiru, Throne of Blood and The Seven Samurai, which Hashimoto co-wrote. Donald Richie’s book The Films of Akira Kurosawa has an anecdote about the great director and his writers sitting at a long table, each individually coming up with ways to execute a scene, then gathering the ideas and rewriting each other’s scenarios (there’s something so Rashomon-like about this!) before reaching a final decision.

But the Hashimoto-scripted scene I remember best is from a film that he got sole writing credit for: Masaki Kobayashi’s magnificent 1962 Harakiri. This is a placid, elegiac and beautifully composed (in both senses of that word) film – and perhaps for this very reason, the scene in question is one of the most harrowing things I have watched.

It involves a young Samurai named Chijiwa trying to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) in a palace courtyard, but struggling to pierce himself with the only available weapon, a bamboo sword. He writhes and groans, twists the inadequate blade this way and that; finally, he ends his agony by biting off his own tongue.

That description makes the scene sound gory, but it isn’t. It is in crisp black-and-white, and discreetly shot; we see only a few traces of blood. The horror comes from the close-ups of Chijiwa’s sweating face, the impassivity of the people watching him, and the narrative context: the impoverished Samurai had come to a royal house asking permission to commit seppuku on their grounds, but he was secretly hoping they would give him employment. To his shock, his stated request is granted and he is forced to carry through with a painful suicide in the name of the warrior’s code of honour.

What I have described above occurs within the film’s first 30 minutes. But to fully appreciate Harakiri, you must experience its many twists and turns, processing new information as it comes, so I won’t reveal more except to say: at first we are led to think of Chijiwa as a mildly comic figure – a wide-eyed, cowardly pretender – and it is only later that the tragedy of his situation is revealed. Over the course of its narrative, the film dismantles many grand-sounding conceits about honour and tradition.

Harakiri is full of quiet, still sequences. Even its fight scenes have a detached, fatalistic tone – none of the kinetically exciting action associated with Samurai films. In the seppuku scene and elsewhere, one senses a scream of anguish trapped just below the film’s restrained surface (much like the characters are trapped by tradition), trying to break through and make itself heard. Perhaps this is why a late scene, where the film’s protagonist Tsugumo laughs coarsely in the face of the palace retainers, has such raw, subversive power.

Though the story is set in a specific place and period, I see it as linked to other sorts of heroism myths – such as the schoolboy fantasy that there’s something dashing and glamorous about the whole project of dying for an ideal, or facing death with a smile. It reminds me of other cinematic moments such as the scene in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory where a soldier, about to be executed, begins to wail and blubber. Or the ending of the gangster film Angels with Dirty Faces where Rocky (played by the brilliant James Cagney) “turns yellow” as he is led to the gas chamber – a development that takes the wind out of the sails of the young boys who were hero-worshipping him.

From a screenplay-writing perspective, Harakiri’s structure also follows the tradition of artful misdirection. It leads us down a garden path, we become just a little complacent, and then a bucket of cold water is thrown into our gasping faces. You can see this in many other sorts of films – for instance, in the shocking, much-discussed ending of Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat (recently remade in Hindi as Dhadak). First we are lulled by a scene where the heroine’s relatives, visiting her for an apparent reconciliation, sit about in her room looking uncomfortable and out of place, glancing through an album of photos. The initially tense mood is diluted with the mild humour of social awkwardness… but then comes the knockout punch.

Come to think of it, the “honour killing” scene in Sairat (and in other recent Hindi films like LSD and NH10) are – like the Harakiri scene – built around the idea that death, or murder, is preferable to the violation of a rigid social code. Details of place and period apart, there isn’t so much of a gulf between a terrified Samurai being led to a meaningless death and young lovers being savagely “punished” for defying tradition.

[My earlier Hindu columns are here. Other related posts: Sairat; Paths of Glory; The Seven Samurai; more about Harakiri]

No comments:

Post a Comment