Have you ever done a comparison of “kung fu movie philosophy” and real Chinese philosophy?
Sun Tzu and The Art of Troll Baiting
Oliver “Shiny” Blakemore

Chambara Supreez: “Seppuku” (1962) and The Fascination of How Hierarchy, Shame and Manipulation of History Work in Society

Tatsuya Nakadai as Hanshiro Tsugumo in “Seppuku” (1962): The quietest, most organized badass ever!

Your question, Oliver Shiny , puts me in mind of my fascination with the old jidai geki (period piece) and chambara or chanbara (samurai action, however it is spelled) films of the Japanese cinema, mainly those in the golden age of samurai films, the 1950's-1970's. The postwar attitude in Japan slowly came around to its own distinctive version of the anti-war movement in the US, at least as it was shown in many popular period films in this era. Historically based movies added a modern element of self-examination to the old stories. The basic conflict was that of giri (duty) vs. ninjo (humanity). For a society so steeped in the expectations of hierarchical interactions, having experienced the horrendous consequences of the blind allegiance to a manipulated ideal that led them to the brink of destruction in World War II, it was time to reflect on the values of the past and how identity and integrity can be maintained into the modern era. So the modern samurai film often set the duty of a samurai against the considerations of his humanity.

Background: The Edo Period and Setting of “Seppuku”

One of my absolute favorite films of this genre is the 1962 film “Seppuku” (or “Hara-Kiri” for western audiences), directed by Masaki Kobayashi (a pacifist during WWII who protested by refusing promotion). It stars perhaps the last surviving great golden age samurai star Tatsuya Nakadai (the guy Toshiro Mifune’s Sanjuro always gets to kill in the old Kurosawa films-check out the most amazing and short samurai duel EVER!). Anyway, back to my point. The setting of “Seppuku” is right around the 1630’s, an era in which the power of the Tokugawa Shogunate was just about solidified after the battles of 1600 and 1615. The end of the Warring States era (Sengoku) meant that a whole lot of fighting men were out of a job. The defeated lords were made to retire to smaller domains with fewer men, and many men were cast adrift as ronin (literally “wave men” or masterless samurai).

As samurai, they were REQUIRED to maintain habits appropriate to their status, but as ronin, they had no lord to serve and thus, no income. In their restricted world of postwar job searching, they could not, for instance, make straw sandals, as these are worn on the feet and are thus a lowering of the samurai’s status in the eyes of others. In order to take up shoemaking as a living, a samurai would have to renounce his samurai status and become a commoner. Many ronin swallowed their pride and did this, and some prospered. But many samurai tried to keep to the ideals and strictures becoming their station. And many of them starved and died in the process.

The Tragedy of “Seppuku”

“Seppuku” is the story of the family of Hanshiro Tsugumo, who was cast adrift from the domain of Hiroshima, after the daimyo (lord) had dared to effect repairs to Hiroshima Castle without asking the Shogun first. The lord was forced to commit seppuku, and his retainers were out of a job. So Hanshiro, his daughter and his son-in-law (the son of his best friend, who also committed seppuku in loyalty to his lord, and who is now under Hanshiro’s protection) come to Edo (the Shogun’s capitol, now Tokyo) to find work. Because Hanshiro is samurai, he does piecework for umbrella makers (as an umbrella goes over the head and is thus appropriate work for a samurai). It is the old-time equivalent of factory work. He never has enough for rent, and thus he and his daughter are always hungry and struggling. The would-be son-in-law teaches (but we all know how much teaching pays).

The movie opens with Hanshiro appearing at the courtyard of the powerful Ii clan’s residence in Edo, asking for an honorable place in which to commit seppuku. At the time, many impoverished samurai had been making this request at the houses of the powerful lords who now enjoyed higher status and well-being for their alignment with the victorious Tokugawa. The con was that some of these houses did not wish to involve themselves in the stickiness of being responsible for the “honorable” death of these unfortunates. Also, the impoverished samurai reminded them uncomfortably of how tenuous a high position could be. So the samurai in question was often paid off with either a sum of money or given the prize of a small position with the lord’s household and thus a regular stipend. When Hanshiro came to the Ii house, they were wise to this trick, so they were adamant about forcing him to actually go through with the whole seppuku ceremony.

What the Ii did not know was that Hanshiro had no intention of gaming the system. He had every intention of carrying out his seppuku honorably. But the difference is that he made careful arrangements before he even appeared in the Ii courtyard that would force the powerful lord’s house to look at itself in a not-very-flattering mirror. If you don’t want it spoiled, don’t read further, eh?


It is revealed that Hanshiro’s son-in-law Motome had appeared at the Ii’s courtyard with this same request earlier as a desperation measure to obtain the money to treat his ailing infant son and wife. The Ii forced him to take his own life in a travesty of the ritual of seppuku. They force Motome to use his own sword, which is bamboo, not metal (he had already pawned his real sword for basic necessities). The Ii use Motome’s desperation and his desperate measures as a bludgeon to shame him for failing to uphold the honor of his position as a samurai. So, next comes the revenge of Hanshiro, in the most apt and beautiful way possible.

Basically, before Hanshiro appears in the Ii courtyard, he contrived to meet three of the Ii’s top samurai in private duels. He did NOT kill them; he shamed them in a very visible way, a way that would be instantly evident to any of their compatriots. He then sent them back home to the Ii house and determined to call them out at his ceremony to point out the hypocrisy of the high-level retainers of this privileged house. He asks for each of the three samurai by name as is his right, to choose his preferred Kaishakunin (or second, the guy who cuts off the head at the end of the seppuku ceremony). After each request, he is told the samurai in question is “sick.” At the very end, Hanshiro reveals the secret in what I like to call the “hair-tossing scene.” He has shorn the topknot from each man and tosses them out in front of him, revealing (in front of the entire assembled formal retinue of the House) the hypocrisy of the men who serve Lord Ii.

An Empty Shell, An Empty Ritual, An Absent Lord, Ideals Not Upheld

At the beginning and end, the visual symbol is the empty battle armor of the Lord Ii, an elegant and polished art object that bespeaks a privilege won through war. But in the Tokugawa peace, in which the rituals have no purpose beyond the structuring of society to benefit the aristocracy and to keep everyone else in line, the empty armor symbolizes privileges not earned and not deserved. It is the privilege of the aristocracy that defines the “honor” of samurai in the Tokugawa Peace, not their basic virtues as your modern wannabe bushido enthusiast might believe if he only read Hagakure (which was, incidentally, written by a clerk of Saga domain in the 18th century, bemoaning the weakening of the samurai after the transition to an era of peace).

“The way of the samurai is in death…” Don’t get me started! (sorry, back to your regularly scheduled ramble!)

The House of Ii is deeply hypocritical and is able, through its position, to hide its shortcomings and still appear pristine. It is the veneer of the flourishing, ordered Tokugawa society that does not suffer its castoffs to show up and expose the emptiness of all they hold in honor. Like the absent lord (who never makes an appearance in the film) and his empty disused armor, the ideals of the samurai are shown to be hollow and useless when one is starving and trying to live under insane restrictions of an artificial system.

The Final Indignity and Why I Don’t Trust History

The ending of “Seppuku” is pure chambara (the exciting and bloodthirsty art of looking like you’re really having a swordfight). After Hanshiro has shamed the entire House of Ii, they cry “enough!” and sic their best fighters against Hanshiro, who kills many of them. In fact, he is so good at killing the soft Ii retainers that the head retainer finally orders in men with long guns who dispatch Hanshiro offscreen with a hail of gunshots. Not a typical samurai death is it? Not seppuku, with its honorable, slow and precisely prescribed motions, but a messy, bloody, modern death, a sign that history is never the clean, monolithic narrative we read in books. It is messy, and it has an underclass who still retain privilege in name only, but who do not get to enjoy the perks and hard-won privileges according to the majority narrative. Life is messy, and death is often even messier, exposing all our shortcomings.

The final indignity that reinforces that majority narrative of the respectable monolithic veneer of the House of Ii as an honorable house at peace with all is the epilogue, in which the chronicler of the days of the House leaves out all the gory, shaming details of the hypocritical acts of the retainers of Ii and merely recounts that a samurai named Hanshiro Tsugumo appeared in the courtyard and honorably committed seppuku on that date in question. And, incidentally, about 20 people in the House died of “illness.” The history so carefully laid bare by Hanshiro Tsugumo is erased in the official history. It showed me that history will always be shaped by those whose voice is listened to by virtue of their being in the right place at the right station at the right time.

Forgive the mere tangential relationship to trolls and the Art of War, but this rant would not allow me to fail to write it down. Thanks to all of you who made it to the end!

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