The List: Samurai and Spartans

So, about a month back, I shared a couple of lists of movies I intended to watch this year. There was a list of 30 Quality Movies and a list of 30 Movies of the Type I Usually Watch (but have been putting off for one reason or another). The first list, I want to have 15 watched by the arrival of Summer. I am pleased I have finally knocked one off that list; and it was Harakiri (1962).

Harakiri was recommended to me years ago by a movie buff (and compared to this guy’s encyclopedic knowledge, I was an infant) while we were discussing Kurosawa. I was lucky enough to have seen The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo at the impressionable age of 13 or 14 during one of PBS’s World Cinema series. This was back around 1972 or so; for many years, that was it for samurai cinema for me. It wasn’t until the VHS revolution – and my move to Houston – that I was able to see Sanjuro and Rashomon. I was aware there were other Samurai movies out there, but where to start?

Well, one day I brought home a rental tape called Shogun Assassin and holy shit, to put it succinctly. So action-packed and kinetic, it literally ruined me for samurai flicks for many years. I was aware that Assassin was two movies mashed together, but I was still unable to shake the feeling that any other chanbara I saw in this time was slow and plodding.

Well, I’m older now, and am myself slow and plodding. I can now appreciate a movie with more deliberate pacing, and stories that slowly unfold themselves, which is a fair statement about Harakiri. It is also ironic that I go from that set-up to what is unarguably an anti-samurai film.

Harakiri begins with a ronin – a masterless samurai – presenting himself at the house of the Iyi clan, asking permission to use their courtyard to commit harakiri – ritual suicide – in honorable surroundings. The counselor of the house, in charge while the Lord is away, attempts to dissuade the ronin by telling him the tale of another ronin who, earlier that year, made the same request. At the start of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the houses of many provincial lords were summarily dissolved under a number of pretexts, suddenly casting thousands of samurai into unemployment. A current trend of ronin asking to commit harakiri has become a very real problem among the daimyo, who usually just give the ronin a few coins and send them on their way.

The House of Iyi, however, feels itself above such extortion, and forced the young ronin to go ahead with his threat and disembowel himself. In an extra piece of unfeeling cruelty, when the Iyi retainers found the ronin had pawned his swords and was carrying bamboo replicas, they force him to use his blunt wooden wakizashi to kill himself.

The older ronin is unimpressed by the story and emphasizes his desire to die rather than continue his life of abject poverty. The Counselor grants his wish, and once in the courtyard, the ronin asks for a specific Iyi retainer to act as his second, to strike off his head after he has cut his guts out – in fact, the same samurai who acted as the second for the younger ronin, and who ramrodded that unfortunate man’s punishment. He is found to be absent, at his own home, claiming illness. Two more seconds are requested, each of which played a major part in that earlier humiliation and death; each is also absent.

The ronin then reveals that he did indeed know that younger man, that he was, in fact, his son-in-law – and proceeds to tell the tale of their fall from grace with the dissolution of their clan, their attempts to eke out a living in the capital city. Disaster strikes in slow motion: first, his daughter contracts tuberculosis, then his infant grandson is striken with fever. There is no money for a doctor, and the son-in-law desperately tries the one course he can see open to him – the harakiri scam, which might at least garner him the few coins needed for a doctor, or at best – as is rumored to have happened – offered a place in the clan. Unfortunately, he chose the wrong clan.

The story is teased out in flashbacks over the course of two hours; the older ronin’s revenge is spelled out, and is at once most satisfying and appropriate, as well as devious, making his point to the assembled retainers, that samurai honor – bushido – is a thin facade which diminishes life, when life is really all that counts. The storytelling is masterful and often harrowing; the suicide with a bamboo sword is equally as brutal and painful as the scene where the older ronin realizes his adopted son sold his swords to get medicine for his ailing wife – a solution that had never even occurred to the older samurai.

One can’t truly call Harakirichanbara – a sword-fighting film. There are two major fights, both at the end, one magnificently artistic and satisfying, the other messy and desperate. The overall feeling left the viewer is a sense of desperate futility, as the clan efficiently engineers a cover-up, rendering all the courage and suffering we’ve just seen superfluous and useless. Like all classics – and undeniably, Harakiri is one – the story is timeless, though set in the past. Thousands of people suddenly rendered unemployed by thoughtless, unfeeling Powers That Be – that doesn’t sound at all familiar, does it? And good lord, the scenes with the family realizing the baby boy is getting sicker and there is absolutely nothing they can do because they are poor – that hits way, way too close to home.

Yeah, it’s a classic. Don’t think I’ll be re-watching it on a whim anytime soon, though.

Small wonder, then, that I felt the need for somewhat lighter fare the next day, and what did I have to hand but Criterion’s new Blu-Ray of Three Outlaw Samurai (1964). I’m still in the beginning stages of my tour through chanbara, and Three Outlaw Samurai is the first movie of director Hideo Gosha, a name to be reckoned with in that field.

This movie is a sort of prequel for a popular TV series, an origin story of how the three title characters first meet. The first surprise is that the main ronin of the three, Shiba, is played by Tetsuro Tanba, who was also Omodaka, the samurai douchebag of Harakiri. Tanba had a pretty fine career stretching from the 50s to the 20-aughts, apparently acting up until his death in 2006, at the age of 84. Seeing the contrast between, at the very least, these two characters gives you some clue to his longevity.

The second surprise – okay not really a surprise, the Criterion Collection put it out, after all – is just how damned good this movie is, though good in an entirely different way than Harakiri. This is fine entertainment, with echoes of a good Western. At times I felt like I was watching another Sanjuro movie, and that is a really, really good feeling.

Three Outlaw Samurai starts – like Yojimbo – with Shiba wandering aimlessly, and happening upon an abandoned mill where three peasants have taken the local Magistrate’s daughter hostage to force the corrupt official to address the crushing taxes that are slowly starving the villagers in the area. Shiba acts disinterested in the whole matter – he only wants a place to sleep – until the Magistrate’s thugs arrive and assume he is a part of the plot, and Shiba has to administer a samurai butt-kicking to protect the roof over his head. Finding the peasant’s cause to be righteous, he wholeheartedly casts his lot with them. Meantime, the Magistrate is cleaning out his jail cells and offering amnesty and cash rewards to the criminals to go to the mill, kill everyone, and get his daughter back.

One of the jailed is Sakura, our second samurai, who switches sides once he finds out the peasant’s complaint; the third is Kikyo, a mercenary more interested in the money the Magistrate doles out than any moral issues (don’t worry, he’ll eventually come around, thanks to Shiba’s sterling example). It’s a lightning fast story of betrayals, double crosses and ultimate tragedy that ends with our three outlaw samurai, united in friendship, tossing a hairpin into the air at a crossroads to decide where they’ll go next. I can only assume that the series was like Route 66, except with samurai, which sounds like the Best Idea Ever.

So despite the fact that I have these two lists of movies I have sworn to see, the next night I was still in a martial mood, so I finally pulled out that DVD of The 300 Spartans (1962).

I love the story of the Battle of Thermopylae. I loved Frank Miller’s graphic novel, 300, even with its flaws and disregard for history. I did not like Zack Snyder’s movie version, which amplified those flaws a thousandfold by dressing them in a tenuous version of reality.

In the first fifteen minutes of The 300 Spartans, we have acknowledgement of the Battle of Marathon and the Athenian Fleet, which already makes it a thousand times better than 300. Unsurprisingly, Sir Ralph Richardson makes a great Themistocles and Richard Egan a rugged, honorable Leonidas (made even better by not being directed to shout all his lines).

Sure, the speech is elevated and florid, but I expect that from the Ancients. David Farrar brings more than a little comic book pulp to his Xerxes, but then, he’s the bad guy. I found the battle scenes and tactics realistic enough (I did a lot of tooth-gnashing at the Spartans breaking ranks to do individual slow-motion combat in 300. The Spartans were known for their close-quarter formations, not for their grandstanding) And… oh my God! ARMOR! Weren’t the Spartans supposed to lug something like 100 pounds of armor into battle? Not so much armor in evidence here, but at least they’re wearing some, which is more than I can say about 300. Frank Miller wanted to emulate the paintings on Greek urns. That’s a fine artist’s conceit, but translated into film, that just means a lot of oiled musclemen prancing about.

I will admit when I first saw the DVD cover art, my first question was “Why are these guys wearing Roman helmets?” Well, likely because they’re the leaders, and the Roman style was more open in the front, so we could see their faces. So I can’t really crow about the historical accuracy of this version either… but hey, dat’s da movies for ya.

So in effect, my weekend viewing was quite the gratifying affair; three good movies, movies I can recommend whole-heartedly, and without falling back on the cautionary phrases I usually have to employ for movies like Things or Darktown Strutters.  If you want excellent drama, go for Harakiri; epic historical fiction, The 300 Spartans; entertaining action with intriguing characters, Three Outlaw Samurai.

It’s rare that I get three movies of such quality in a row.  Hopefully, this is, as they say in Ancient Greece, a good omen.

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