Tuesday, March 06, 2007

160. The Way of the Samurai

I'm lucky that I'm not always thinking of Masaki Kobayashi--because if I were, I'd be always either impatient to see his next movie or angry and sad that he has been dead for a decade and will not be making any more. It's the same reason I try not to think of Stanley Kubrick. Both seem filled with beauty and coldness, sorrow and dismissal, curiosity and resignation--all pinning me beneath the weight of an insistent, ravishing (if I may seriously use that word) formalism that makes me watch almost too closely. These are Stendhal Syndrome artists for sure, maestri of mesmerism, forcing me every time into false cinematic chastity, just so I can allow them to show me the movies for the first time.

I'll calm down now.

I saw Kobayashi's Kwaidan (1964) many years ago--when, I can't say; lately I've wanted everything to happen in childhood and adolescence--and who's to say I didn't first see it on PBS in the '70s, when Janus Films offered us the glistening cream scooped off cinema's surface--sorry; once again, I'll calm down now--and gave me my first taste of Japanese cinematic fabulism? I never thought of it as a "directed" movie; Kwaidan simply seemed spun out, like thread from the wheel, falling into my hands with unavoidable grace. And then, thank Netflix, I followed that thread, and it led me to The Human Condition (1959-61), Kobayashi's trilogy of the War, nine-plus hours of hope-turned-horror-turned-resignation, a true epic of morality hammered like a sword turned against the self.

Which leads me to Harakiri (1962), which I watched last night, almost twice, a film as sharp as that sword, and as strong--and so, of course, dangerous. And I kept thinking of Kubrick, especially The Shining (1980)--and not just because of the films' soundtracks, unsettlingly similar, both scraping at a golden veneer, methodically stripping away the illusion of measure--oh, I give up; I'll never calm down--until, like the bamboo sword with which Motome (Akira Ishihama) must commit seppuku, the films draw irrefutable blood--either in black rivulets or red rivers, pouring along the blade or down the corridor.

It is there, at the moment when the blood spills, that Kobayashi and Kubrick seem most alike. They both have kept watch over our transgressions, and lean forward with a careful light in a meticulous frame that displays the essential virtues of human hopes and the inevitable sin of human denial. When Hanshiro Tsugumo* considers his hope--that those in power would realize, now at the end of his tale, that "the suspicious mind conjures its own demons," and would repent, just a little, just enough that he could go to the Other World and tell Motome of their regret--he lowers his head in understanding that no remorse is forthcoming, that the "facade of the Samurai code" is as unbreakable as it is shameful, and that all he has left is his rage and his swords. Together, they explode, terrible and swift, and doomed. Only the moviegoer is left to pass along the truth, as the Great House is set aright and the false code sustained. Hanshiro, driven by that code but unprotected by its facade, stands alone. He is magnificent, like Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas) in Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957)--and equally ineffectual, as he makes a personal gesture in a public arena where the game was fixed before it began.

Despite such a bitter end, what draws me to Harakiri is its insistence that we can take a secret with us, the truth of the individual soul, desperate in enemy territory, but unwavering. It is tragic heroism drawn inward to a private space, tender and loving--watch the master Samurai cuddle and coo at his grandson, and wipe his fevered brow--"good deeds in a naughty world"--while the gangsters who run things tidy up as if the good were never there, and no one will ever know. But the good know--and Kobayashi allows us to watch them.

Played like nuanced thunderclaps by Tatsuya Nakadai--still acting, according to the Internet Movie Database. Watch him in Kagemusha (1980), The Sword of Doom (1966), Sanjuro (1962), Yojimbo (1961), Seven Samurai (1954)--and, of course, Kwaidan and The Human Condition.

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