Death of Samurai (2011) – A storytelling masterclass

This movie review will focus on the storytelling effects and qualities. First, I‘ll explain the concept of seppuku. In Japanese culture, a warrior class has an idea called seppuku, in which an ashamed samurai commits suicide to save his honor. Throughout history, when a master dies, and the clan is disassembled, the samurai become ronins, a masterless warriors turned mercenaries. The master‘s death is often considered a samurai’s failure to protect their lord, and thus, this demotion is found shameful. When the burden of ronin-hood becomes too great to bear, ronins travel to the nearby temple or fortress where they perform a ritual suicide, following their lord in the afterlife as they would in battle. The movie, directed by Takashi Miike, orbiters the concept of seppuku ritual, the meaning of honor, and the class system that glorifies the act.

The story begins with an old ronin arriving in the fortress and requesting to see the lord commit seppuku on the fortress grounds with all honors. His request is met with a suspicion of fainting intent that hides the true purpose of the ronin to beg for money. The lord has two options to choose from. One is to allow the ronin to dispatch himself with honor, and the second is to plead him not to perform the ritual and join the ranks, continuing to serve as a warrior. However, when the word spreads out that ronins have a safe haven within the fortress with an option of military life, more and more ronins will find their way to the fort with the exact expectations. The clan doesn‘t usually pick up the stray dogs, so this procedure carries some sort of repercussions. Taking ronins into service might shame and weaken the clan.

The lord tells a story to the newly arrived veteran ronin about a similar situation where one of the younger ronins fainted his intentions of seppuku, hoping the clan samurai would prevent him from suicide and offer money instead, just to get him on his way. This time, clan samurai saw through the ruse and decided to allow ceremonial dispatching. As this option presented itself and ronin realized he would have to honor his word, the story becomes heavier. In the end, the young ronin takes his wakizashi (short katana) with a blade made from bamboo, revealing his fakeness, and the gruesome scene follows where the ronin troubles to cut through his own guts with, what appears to be, a wooden stick.

This opening is a story for itself, a plot that shines a light on the world of clan, samurai, and ronin life, where honor can be faked, and the classes beneath the warriors struggle. The subsequent development builds upon what is said, and the viewer follows the life of an old ronin, dubious if he is true to his word or he too wishes to be stopped and sent away with a bag of gold in his hands. From here on out, the movie takes place in the courtyard with samurai sitting in a circle, while ronin kneels in pebbles, ready to strike himself dead. But, the ronin has one last wish. He requests that the same man who finished the fake ronin also decapitate him, as to be bested by a renowned warrior would bring honor to ronin. However, on a mission away from the fortress, the requested samurai is absent, nowhere to be found. The ronin asks the second and a third samurai to assist, and soon after, we find that only those three warriors are conveniently absent. Therefore, the seppuku can‘t occur since the last wishes can‘t be honored. The clan is dishonored, unable to grant a dying wish to someone they consider beneath them. This is an ultimate slap in the face to the lord. But, mind you, this is how you build mystery and suspense. Where are those warriors, and how did this ronin know their names and know they will be absent? We have an intruder in our lair.

I am taken by the visuals, slow camera panning across the courtyard, elements of the castle, motifs, and red oyoroi (heavy samurai armor shaped like a demon). The colors, structure of old huts covered with moss, and the sounds of birds and forest in the background bring out the genuine perfection of Japanese culture and medieval lifestyle in rural country. It‘s a unique opportunity to learn that ronins, even pressed with the shameful burden of losing their lord, were a family people in contrast to being presented as a rowdy drunken crowd of misfits. Framing and editing quality capture the story flow where the movie looks reasonably similar to Kurosawa’s work. Plot twits are on point, with tension building each time another element is added. I‘ll have to praise the lighting and setting, where every detail is in service of telling the story.

Actors and one actress crucial to the story are professionals who elevate the movie from excellent storytelling to a storytelling masterclass. If you take something away, you risk ruining the movie. Their expressions while committing the act are realistic. With the addition of sound effects and a shortage of visuals to avoid gruesomeness, the several minutes’ long scenes of suicides evoke disturbing feelings. I am mesmerized by the concept, a slow-burning story that keeps delivering powerful punches with a dramatic family story of loss and meaning of honor. More than the lord, the family is more worthy of protection. This message comes out clean within the movie and presents what provoked the young ronin to trade his blades for gold and use a bamboo stick as a steel replacement. Sheeted in the holsters, the katana appears complete, sturdy, and brings honor, even if it‘s just for show and no blade is inside. The pride, the warrior culture that dictates the rules, and going against the rules threatens to summon the curse of shameful conduct, thus sentencing the respected family name to fall to ruins.

I will not tell you how this movie ends and what happened to an old ronin that stumbled inside the fortress with a rare seppuku request. Still, I will tell you that the dialogues, epicness, and storytelling surpass the Holywood movies of today. Writers can learn from this movie mainly how to set up the tension, sequence the build-up in tempo, and evolve the story from what is said in the beginning to how it flourishes in the end.

I enjoyed this movie more than I thought I would, same as Irezumi (1966), which left a mark on me and taught me how to observe the characters and build their personal arc. Therefore, I highly recommend everyone to look for the Hara-Kiri: Death of Samurai (2011) and watch it. Until the next time, take care and see you next time.

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