Have you had the experience of reading two novels at once, so that the two storylines seem to intersect, overlap, or otherwise bear much stronger similarity than they would if you had read them separately?

This also happens to me between films and books: in the present case, between Homer’s Odyssey and the Japanese film Harakiri (1962, dir. Masaki Kobayashi; starring Tatsuya Nakadai), which I just watched for the second time. I recommend it most highly. (See footnote* after all the spoilers.) In fact, go watch the movie immediately so that the point of my rambling will not be lost on you. And besides, SPOILERS FOLLOW!


Harakiri ends (see? SPOILERS! I wasn’t kidding) with its hero, Hanshiro Tsugumo, dealing out a hearty dose of death to the members of House Iyi. Singlehanded against a good thirty or forty swordsmen, he kills four and mortally wounds eight, then plunges his sword into his belly just as riflemen arrive to gun him down.

I think it is only because I just finished reading the Odyssey that I noticed the resemblence to the end of Homer’s poem. Odysseus arrives at his house in disguise and, upon the moment at which he reveals himself–most conveniently with a test involving his own bow, thus ensuring that he is armed–he sets to work slaughtering the two hundred insolent suitors to his wife, Penelope, who has waited twenty years for his return. Odysseus’s fight is not quite singlehanded; he has his son Telemakhos, two hardy servants, and Athena on his side, with the added advantage of being armed, while all the suitors’ gear has been covertly locked away by Telemakhos beforehand.

I don’t imagine that the writers of Harakiri would cite Homer’s Odyssey as one of the sources of inspiration, but even so, look how similar: in the poem, the suitors make a pretense of following custom, courting Odysseus’s wife, while exploiting every opportunity to shame the true heir to the house, Telemakhos, and his lost father, Odysseus. In the film, House Iyi brags of its rigorous adherence to samurai honor, while its highest members act out of cruelty, hypocrisy, and cowardice to maintain the semblence of that honor–which Tsugumo exposes as a facade.

These respective scenes end in a polar opposite fashion: Tsugumo goes down and the whole incident is covered up; House Iyi’s “facade” remains intact. Godlike Odysseus triumphs easily with his son and servants, takes his wife to bed, and lives to die at a ripe old age according to the prophecies of Teiresias.

But in the final implications of these endings, each one leaves me with a very different taste on my tongue than I’d expect. In the most chilling moment of the film, Bennosuke, the lord of house Iyi, sits alone in a wide, empty hall of his house listening to the sounds of his men dying under Tsuguro’s blade. His horror is palpable. Maybe some ghost of his inner samurai is nagging at him to commit harakiri himself and redeem some shred of honor from this debacle he has orchestrated, but then hears the victorious rifles and his cowardly schemer’s instinct kicks in. No one, except the audience, will ever be wise to the corruption of honor in House Iyi. And yet, Bennosuke’s horror is reward in itself. From the first moment of the film we couldn’t hope for any better than we get from Tsuguro–he never had any intention other than to die in House Iyi. Thus, all the heartbreaking tragedy of his young family aside, the end of the film feels like a win for the good guys.

As for Odysseus, I laughed out loud with excited glee when, after watching all of the suitors have no more success stringing his bow than Telemakhos, he strings it effortlessly and immediately puts an arrow in Antinoos’s neck. His entire victory is grand, swift, and complete. In fact, with Athena on his side, he couldn’t lose.

It’s incredible to me that the subtlety of those slow, spare, nearly silent shots of Bennosuke sweating alone in an empty hall are so much more rewarding than the grand heroic victory of Odysseus over his many foes. Maybe it’s because Odysseus’s victory is guaranteed by Athena, whereas Bennosuke’s turmoil comes to him as a horribly unpleasant surprise–he could never in his wildest dreams have been outwitted by a half-starved ronin. Tsuguro gets a bit of bloody satisfaction against all odds. Odysseus gets the same satisfaction, but all odds are on his side–where’s his challenge?

Enough of me! Go watch some samurai films and read epic poems, and see for yourself.

END OF SPOILERS! (just in time for a footnote:)

*It occurs to me that if you’re new to the samurai genre, Harakiri may not be the best film to start with. Many of these films are FUN, featuring large-hearted samurai or ronin with a mean streak, gangs of scumbags being put in their place, violent swordplay, and so on. I would not say that Harakiri is fun–it is a tragedy of poverty, false honor, hypocrisy, and revenge. Although it has a small dose of brilliant swordplay, the film’s true virtues lie in its stunning, crisp camerawork, its complex arrangement of slowly unfolding flashbacks, and a complete set of brilliant performances by its cast (particularly Nakadai–see also Ran [1985, dir. Kurosawa] and The Sword of Doom [1966, dir. Kihachi Okamoto]). The first classic samurai film I ever saw was Kurosawa’s epic Seven Samurai (1954), upon which The Magnificent Seven starring Steve McQueen is based. This still seems to me the baseline of all samurai films–even at three and a half hours long, it is one of the most entertaining action films I’ve ever seen. But, if you are daunted by the length, try Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) or Yojimbo (1961). If you’re into heavier fare, try Throne of Blood (1957, dir. Kurosawa), which is based on Macbeth.