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Thursday, May 26, 2011


Robert Ryman, Untitled, 1958

Today foreign movie, a Japanese film made in 1962 by Masaki Kobayashi, HARAKIRI. That's right, harry carry, suicide by running a sharp knife through the guts. I think that it was made in 1962 is what caught my interest to want to see it. That was the year I saw my first foreign film, La Dolce Vita by Federico Fellini. That was the year I became aware that there was something going on in film beyond Hollywood. From then to now, almost 50 years, I've seen so many films with subtitles that I even play movies in English with subtitles, because especially if they're American there will be long periods of whispering and much muttering throughout. After the whispering comes the obligatory Hollywood explosion. It goes from turn the volume up, then turn it way down in a hurry. With subtitles I know what they're saying though I can't hear it, and don't have to endure the shock of the explosion that invariably comes next.

I've come to prefer subtitles for the clarity of what is being said. I'm so used to subtitles after half a century, 72% of my lifetime and all of my adult life. No more restricted to public school, baptist religion and parents making my decisions. By the time I saw my first Indian movie in early childhood, I already knew white man speaks with forked tongue. When I heard an Indian in a movie say that, I thought: he still does. In my world as a child, I was lied to from every direction, the way adults lie to kids and think nothing of it, do it so much they don't even notice, but the kids notice. Anyway, I did. I've known white man throughout my adult life too, to speak with forked tongue. I've noticed that Obama, a black man, is having a difficult time keeping in step with government policy that is made by white minds that live denial. Obama doesn't appear to play the denial game.

The film Harakiri was a very powerful story and it was just as powerful visually. The scenes were all made inside Japanese classic interiors, like a big room with black vertical posts, black trim and white walls. Fairly high contrast black and white film, made even greater by the use of stark white framed in stark black. Several beautiful wall-sized screens covered with gold leaf and amazing pictures of pine trees and other designs. After a swordfight a calligraphy painting of black on white will have a splash of red blood slung across it. Though the film was not in color, those blood splashes appeared red to the mind's eye. In a Kitano film last week I saw him doing the same thing with color film. A black and white painting with a splash of blood across it in a manner that looks like it could be part of the painting. The architecture of black vertical and horizontal lines and the spaces between them white was the landscape the story happened in.

Though made in 1962, it feels contemporary. The time period was the 1500s, a time of peace when samurai were out of work and some were killing themselves. I'm sure someone with a PhD in Japanese films would be able to date the film, but for someone like me to see it, I find nothing about it that could give an idea of the time period it was filmed in. It's a flawless gem of a film, like Kurosawa's Rashomon, every scene is of dynamic beauty. The characters function in this classic architectural beauty that is specifically Japanese. While it's a very simple story, it's also complex at the same time. The talk about Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, that it's the greatest black and white ever, has always bored me. A film like this one, Harakiri, in black & white takes b&w to a new level. It would be worth keeping another day to see it again tomorrow.

The story was around what a man about to die has to say. Due to a series of circumstances, our man is about to be sliced into hamburger by 20 something samurai with swords trying to kill him. He killed 4 and severely wounded 8 before they got him. Before all that broke loose, he was telling his story on the block where he was sentenced to kill himself. The man in charge told everyone to listen, because this man sentenced to die had something to say. He told them it would be something they must listen to and learn something from what he had to say. He got a bit more than he was expecting, as the story ultimately turned into present action, a swordfight between the samurai set to die and the rest of the samurai. At the end of the story, which occurred in private, a conspiracy of lies arranged it so nothing had ever happened.


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