Japan’s secret storytelling weapon
Seppuku is the secret narrative weapon of Japanese storytelling. Unique to Japan and their culture of honor, seppuku (or hara-kiri as it is also known) is the ritual self-disemboweling of a samurai with a sharp knife. Sometimes it happened when a samurai was disgraced through his own actions. Sometimes it was demanded by their lord for political reasons. Sometimes it occurred to save the samurai’s family. But whatever the reason: it is an evocative, excruciating, captivating dramatic experience that has virtually no parallel in western cinema.
Seppuku is emphatically a ritual. It is no mean suicide, unannounced and in private quarters. It’s an observed event filled with specific motions and acts. The samurai dresses in white (white being the color of death in Japan) and kneels on the ground. Before him is a small table carrying a short blade wrapped in cloth. The sentenced man unfolds his kimono, exposing the belly, and takes the knife. Behind him his second stands ready with a katana in position. The objective for the samurai is to plunge the knife into his stomach, twisting it sideways, so that his innards can fall out. Depending on the samurai’s stamina or willpower, the second will decapitate him either immediately after the knife is in, after the cutting is done, or when the victim gives a signal. For the samurai’s sake, the second’s aim had better be true. One can scarcely imagine a more horrendous ordeal to endure.
To understand why it has such an enormous impact in Japanese stories, beyond simply the grotesque image, it is vital to realize how seppuku is used in films and series. It is rarely a simple matter of a samurai choosing to end his life to make up for a mistake. Rather, seppuku is embroiled in political ploys, dramatic irony, molar-grinding flukes of destiny. Take Masaki Kobayashi’s famous feature Harakiri from 1962 (remade in 2011 as Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai by Takashi Miike). The basic premise is that in a time of great poverty, samurai who were down on their luck would visit their rich daimyo lord and request to commit seppuku in his courtyard. Their hope was that the lord would rather pay them a sum of money to send them packing, instead of dealing with the annoyance of the ritual. One such samurai, Motome Chijiiwa, is essentially much too honorable to indulge in such a scheme, but is forced by circumstance (a sick wife) to take the risk. Unfortunately, the lord is that day fed up with the extortion and decides to take up Motome’s insincere plea for suicide. This is a classic seppuku setup: where no party truly desires it, but both are bound by ceremony to commit to it. A western king would say to hell with it, but that is not how feudal Japan functioned. Perhaps this is another reason the act is so irresistible to us: we get a glimpse into a system of morality completely contrary to our common, moral sense.
In the 2004 NHK costume drama series Shinsengumi!, soft-spoken intellectual Yamanami Keisuke finds himself at odds with the rules of the group of warriors he himself helped create. Yamanami is loved throughout, he is friends with everyone. Yet when his philosophy no longer matches with the rest, he deserts, is captured and must pay the ultimate price. Once again, all participants in the seppuku would rather not see it through. Yamanami is offered many clandestine escapes: doors are surreptitiously left open at night. But these men are bound by honor and the harsh rules they created themselves. All of them eventually enforce those laws, ensuing in one death and many insuperable emotions. Yamanami’s demise is not the only time in Shinsengumi! the ritual rears its gut-wrenching head.
The closest analogy I have seen to seppuku in western cinema was in a documentary Terry Pratchett made about Alzheimer in 2011: Choosing to Die. He followed an older gentleman diagnosed with the disease. This brave man had chosen to travel to Switzerland for an assisted suicide rather than wither away slowly and become a chamber plant. As the literal cup of poison was downed, the scene evoked the same sensation hara-kiri rouses. A person dying before his time, while he is still hale and good, for a greater purpose. No one wants it, but it must be done. Reason before emotion. Mind over body. It goes beyond sadness. It has a marvelous quality that chokes one up every time.
Seppuku is one of the unique aspects of Japanese cinema. It’s a powerful element that will always remain irresistibly, horribly fascinating.