The why of the samurai. How to rediscover your passion for storytelling.
That person to the right is Dom. He's what we here at Story & Heart call a Connector.
Dom works in the spaces between the people and places of our community. Be it through our social media outlets, this Blog, or in person, he links the many pieces of Story & Heart—our talent, our voices, our passion—together.
Dom's a pretty big samurai movie buff, so we asked him to write about one of his favorite films—and more importantly, help us understand how that film, a quiet flick about feudal Japan, rekindled his love for telling stories.
Dom bowed geekily to our request.
How a film about a samurai’s death brought new life to my storytelling.
An ordinary American kid, my parents weaned me on big-budget action flicks. Typically those with explosions. Pace mattered little unless it was chaotic. Characters needed no more development than a strong fist for holding a gun and a stronger jaw for spewing expletives.
But as I began to figure out how to tell my own stories—as I recognized this was something I needed to do—I found myself seeking motivation behind all the on-screen violence. I wanted to see the why.
Masaki Kobayashi released Harakiri in 1962. Almost immediately it was recognized as both a highlight of the chambara (Japanese for "sword-fighting") action film, as well as something drastically different. It went on to win the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, and decades later was recognized by Roger Ebert as one of his all-time Great Movies.
A lot of praise for an old, weird, heartbreaking Japanese movie mostly about a young guy whose cultural traditions drive him to take his own life with a bamboo sword. But it made sense that it would resonate with so many storytellers at the time, because underneath the literal plot were stories of incredible might.
HARAKIRI IS BOTH A LITERAL EXAMPLE AND A BEAMING CELEBRATION OF THE POWER OF STORYTELLING.
I saw this film at a time when I thought I had nothing left in me to pursue something—writing, storytelling, any sort of artistic expression—that I once adored. I was freelancing, having recently moved to Portland, and doubting every single related endeavor I attempted.
It's no stretch of the imagination to assume that many of us could look up from our pile of work one day, no matter the medium of our creative choosing, and find the life drained from it.
BE THEY FINANCIAL, CRITICAL, OR PHYSICAL, THE REASONS FOR DOUBTING OUR CREATIVE DRIVE CAN BECOME STRONGER EACH DAY.
Then I saw Harakiri. At first it seemed like yet another samurai movie. But the more I watched it, the more it felt in touch with a very human spirit of telling stories.
I felt refreshed, excited again. It seemed like the stories that I wanted to create, as well as the ways to tell them as I knew they should have been told, were once more within my reach.
It's probably too much to believe that one film will affect all storytellers facing similar doubt, or wrestling with the same kind of burn-out, in the way that Harakiri did for me (which is, after all, one of the beautiful things about film anyway).
But I do believe that Harakiri taps into and sustains itself on a passion for storytelling that we've all felt, at some point, as we've attempted to tell our own...even if that point has passed.
HERE ARE 3 PIECES OF WISDOM THAT WILL REVITALIZE YOUR WHOLE ATTITUDE TOWARD TELLING STORIES.
1. The story is only a container.
"Harakiri", a ritualistic suicide, comes with a laundry list of actions and honorifics that make the life of those with swords in their stomachs pale in comparison to the power of the beliefs that put the swords there in the first place.
THE BODY OF THE SAMURAI, AFTER ALL, WAS CONSIDERED JUST A VESSEL: FOR HONOR, AND FOR SERVICE. WHEN THESE PURPOSES WERE NO LONGER VALID, THE VESSEL WAS EMPTIED.
Harakiri's structure is similarly organic. It too is a container: for stories wrapped with stories, and for truths obscuring truths. Just as you are connecting with the film, so are the stories connecting to each other, and so are the film's characters connecting with the stories other characters are telling.
We move from a bird’s-eye historical overview to a single graphic image—a young man in fathomless pain, stabbing his stomach open with a blunt piece of wood. Within big historical action is a quiet, touching drama, and within that a tale of horror. Each layer is a complete story leading us to the next, like we’re holding hands with Dante as he’s walking us step by step, down into Hell.
STORYTELLING IS MOST ENGAGING WHEN IT LAYS OUT OUR SHARED NARRATIVE: THAT WE ARE ALL ENGAGED IN THE ACT OF STORYTELLING ITSELF.
As Kobayashi contains these stories, one inside of another, he’s compelling us deeper, showing us a path we can follow from one story to the next, toward a meaning and truth beneath all the violence and pain. He taps into the basest impulses in us as instinctive storytellers.
And we follow the path willingly, because the stories each have a beginning, middle, and end; they each have conflict and resolution; they have villains and heroes: in fact, many of these pieces they share. These are the basic roadmaps we use to tell our own stories every day.
I think sometimes we struggle to tell meaningful stories because we’re too concerned with making each story different, making each unique, that we often lose track of how integrally all of our stories are connected. We make islands out of our creativity.
WHEN A STORY IS A CONTAINER, IT CAN SERVE US: BY SHOWING THAT EACH OF OUR STORIES IS REALLY PART OF SOMETHING GREATER, THAT WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER.
If you realize that you’re sharing your creative process with a community, it’s so much easier to find the spirit to see your process through.
2. The norm is meant to be broken.
Many Japanese filmmakers were at a commercial crossroads in the '50s and '60s. The studios paying for their projects were built on the bread and butter of genre expectations—particularly of the jidai-geki, or "period piece", of which the chambara is a sub-set—which could no longer provide the emotional and political bandwidth for the kinds of deeply felt stories they were trying to tell.
MASAKI KOBAYASHI DID NOT SETTLE FOR THE STANDARD OF HIS INDUSTRY, AND INSTEAD ELEVATED PULP STORYTELLING INTO SOMETHING SPECTACULARLY MOVING.
A few of his contemporaries became icons. Seijun Suzuki, Yosujiro Ozu, and Akira Kurosawa all broke free from their expectations as studio filmmakers to exercise a new creative freedom apart from tradition.
Suzuki turned cheap crime thrillers into art house splashes of sharp color and surreal super-cool, making Japanese gangster culture seem like an elaborately staged play.
Ozu resisted the melodrama of popular soap operas to give voice to a silent post-war populace attempting to rebuild connection and meaning from the rubble of nuclear attack.
And then there was Kurosawa, a master of pacing, light, and composition.
From samurai films to Shakespeare, from noir to scenes seemingly about nothing, Kurosawa imbued every single story with a humor and humanity that reached across genres.
They created their own traditions. They built myths from the ruins of their reality.
Harakiri perfectly translates this attitude: toward politics, toward social justice, and toward the grace of filmmaking. Even the techniques Kobayashi uses in the film—zooms, elliptical editing, canted angles, stomach-wrenching realism—were practically in bad taste for a typical filmgoer.
But experimental techniques alone will not inspire others to tell ambitious stories, to believe that what they create will change their world.
STORYTELLING SHOULD TEACH BY EXAMPLE: BALKING AT THE NORM TO NOT SIMPLY PUSH THE MEDIUM FORWARD, BUT TO INSTILL IN OUR STORIES AN AMAZING SENSE OF PURPOSE.
Like the filmmakers listed above, Kobayashi changed what everyone thought they knew about the jai-deki and got to something darker, something sadder, but something that more closely resembled how the Japanese public felt at the time. They probably weren’t expecting it, but it rang true with them in ways most samurai films hadn’t been able to.
It’s not easy to take risks, I know, but storytellers who are willing to follow their ideas in fundamentally new directions will find that storytelling itself will feel so much more alive.
3. The stories you save will save you.
Kobayashi knew the power behind the jidai-geki: the historical past it depicts became a surrogate for modern Japan.
So when Hanshirō is fighting the clan of samurai that killed his son-in-law, he's fighting the hierarchical structures that drove massive wedges between Japanese political and social groups in the '50s and '60s. He's fighting the zaibatsus, or corporations that set up their own kind of modern feudalism. He's fighting the film industry that takes a singular vision and stamps it beneath consumerism. He's fighting the hypocrisy of codes and systems that do anything but foster community.
He’s basically a comic book superhero for 15th century Japan.
STORYTELLING IS AT ITS MOST POWERFUL WHEN IT REPRESENTS NOT ONLY WHAT WE ARE WILLING TO BELIEVE, BUT WHAT WE ARE WILLING TO FIGHT FOR—AND SHOW US THAT MAYBE THOSE ARE THE SAME THINGS.
When we tell stories we are saving them. We’re preserving their truths, passing them on far beyond our reach, our community, our lives—or at least we hope we are. And in that sense, stories save us too: from losing our passion, our wonder, what makes us human. These are the kinds of things we’d probably risk our lives for...even if we only mean that hypothetically.
This is, I think, the ultimate success of Harakiri's storytelling: the narrative of its hero is the narrative of a whole community, from form, to function, to resolution.
For me, Harakiri was and still is a call to arms.
STORYTELLING IS VITAL TO CHANGING OUR LIVES, TO SHAPING OUR WORLD INTO WHAT WE KNOW IT MUST BE.
Which doesn’t mean that every story you create will be a resounding triumph, or that it even needs to be.
What it does mean is that if you treat storytelling as a way to keep something truly important to you from being lost, you’ll see that your passion for it—and for filmmaking, and for art—will never be hard to find.
After all, that’s what I saw in Harakiri.
And from there, storytelling became more natural, because it was more essential to everything I did. The creative process was no longer something I struggled to overcome. It was, and still is, a piece of who I am.
I finally saw the why: to get to know myself that much better with every single story I tell.
Harakiri is available as the 302nd title in the Criterion Collection, newly restored as a high-definition digital transfer, and accompanied by a nerd's dream of interviews, trailers, poster galleries, and essays diving full-body into the film's endless layers. This, as is maybe not a surprise to many reading this, is what Criterion does better than anyone: giving new life to our most important films by helping us remember why these stories are so timeless.
Additionally, if you have a Hulu Plus account, you can watch Harakiri through Criterion's collaboration with the streaming service.
Takashi Miike, who is a modern master of genre in the same spirit as the early Japanese greats, also loyally remade Harakiri in 2011—in 3D. Which is way better than I make it sound. It's available now on Netflix, where you don't actually have to watch it in 3D.
Have any film recommendations that have relit the fire in your storytelling? Share them below, or just go ahead and geek out about your favorite samurai movie. We'll be sure to chime in.