Harakiri and the Prison of the Mind



Harakiri !

Harakiri is the best movie you have never seen. It is so good. It’s a godsend. It’s manna. In the sterile sierra of dull mass-produced entertainment there is one secret garden of inspiration where every truly good film grows, and Harakiri is its finest flower. Harakiri is my all-time favorite movie. Never mind that I’m a huge snob about movies. This one is special to me.

(Spoilers for a movie older than the moon landing follow.)

It’s kind of a vengeful samurai courtroom drama where an old, poor, sorry, master-less ronin goes up against a castle full of samurai. These castle guys are arrogant, self-righteous, the embodiment of proper honor. They’re rich. Their shit doesn’t stink. Nobody in Japan has sexier swordplay, better bushido. But layer by layer, this angry old man peels away the lacquer on their beautiful wooden castle to expose the innocent bones holding up the walls. He shames and humiliates them, bests them in combat, reveals that behind the grand gestures and noble words of their house there is only Power, and that Power is gained by stepping on others, Power is gained through inherently ignoble means. Finally, after he kills half their retainers with a katana and sheer cunning, the nobles of the castle have to shoot him – he’s too dangerous to approach. Then they immediately deny he ever existed, burying the incident, one more insect killed in defending their untarnished greatness.

(End spoilers.)

It’s such a wonderful, masterful, well-expressed jewel of cinema. Every time I watch it I sit, stoic, and weep, completely absorbed, swallowed up by the drama of this vengeful old man and his righteous cause that justly champions humaneness over ideology, kindness over cruelty, strength of person over strength of institution. I become a vigilant stone before the screen, and the awe I feel must surely leak from my pores and infect the room.

But there’s the rub. You see, I actually don’t know anybody who enjoys this movie nearly as much as I do.

I’ve shown it to a dozen or so close friends, people who I like to think understand me, appreciate me, as I appreciate them. They say, “Meh.” They say, “How depressing.” They say, “It’s okay, kind of overblown, I think.” They don’t even cry. Why the hell not?

There are mundane explanations. I’ve been told that it’s a lack of appreciation for samurai films in general, that you have to know the genre to really get how the film deconstructs it. Another friend said that most people just hate subtitles, hate black-and-white footage, hate old stuff and so I’m wasting my time. But I don’t like mundane reasons for things happening. I prefer ghosts and psychology and evolutionary biology and secret cultural norms that wordlessly inhibit everything we do. So for me, of course, this is proof of a deeper disconnect.→

  • Laura

    This is great. I wouldn’t say communication is impossible though, because to me communication does not aim at understanding each other completely, but at conveying an idea or a feeling that will only truly make sense once received by another being. Communication is about the co-creation of meaning, I don’t think it is about having other people understand what you, as an individual, mean or feel. If you communicate something, the moment it takes the shape of a word, an image, a sound or whatever, it becomes distinct from the original feeling or idea that you wished to communicate in the first place.
    I agree completely with what you are saying though, I think we are fundamentally alone – as in real empathy is not possible, not even imaginable. You can never experience what another experiences, and vice versa. We are indeed definitely and constantly living through our own subjectivity. It is the difference between em-pathy (feeling what another person feels, feeling in their place in some way) and sym-pathy (feeling WITH someone, which leads to some form of understanding but surely as you said, it can never be absolute).
    So yeah, we are alone and that’s where all the mystery comes from, so let’s keep it that way.

  • Ras Jiro

    Fantastic article, Fantastic film.

  • Well, I disagree with parts 2, 3, and 4, but I will agree that Harakiri is one of the most perfect samurai movies, possibly one of the best movies ever.

  • siquisiri

    Great film! Its also my favorite of the genre and without a doubt one of those films that should be on everyone’s bucket list.

  • mannyfurious

    One of the greatest movies ever. You don’t have to understand the samurai genre, just the superficial artifice of most human beings.

  • Shawn Deats

    You had me until 2, 3 or 4. It’s not that I necessarily disagree with your premise. It’s just that I FINALLY found a like mind and was desperately looking forward to reading a four page hagiography of Harakiri. And then I didn’t get it.