This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

I have, for personal reasons, avoided this film for a long time. Part of my avoidance strategy has been to leave it in my queue, half-buried, but relying in part on the fact that it was marked "very long wait." It would come when it came, and so it did. So tonight, I took a deep breath and plunged in to a film named for ritual suicide, expecting the very worst. In the first, I dunno, ten, twenty minutes, there is a scene of such brutality that I felt physically ill, a transgression of violence depicted without excessive gore, without the sadistic glee of the worst transgressive films, but still among the most uncomfortable scenes I could name. But in that moment, I realized, my fears would not be met here. My triggers would not be pulled. This was a film that would not treat suicide lightly, and indeed, it can be argued, no one in this film commits suicide.

Instead, this is a compassionate and political film that attacks the complexities of a culture steeped in senseless death. While I am sure this film is directed toward the Japanese, its themes are easily universalized. After all, I live in a culture dominated by torturers, child killers, and public relations; nothing about the ancient culture of the samurai is better or worse than today. This film understands that what's wrong isn't harakiri or the hierarchy or other surface-level facets of the culture, but something ingrained in the attitudes and beliefs.

Honor, like so many other noble ideas (and I use such a word as "noble" intentionally to imply much more than the most common meaning here), is easily co-opted by... superficiality. It creates a trap. It's about seeming rather than being. This is not an uncommon idea in film or otherwise, but it is carefully depicted here with such rage that you can't help but feel it. More, though, this film acknowledges that this problem is pervasive, that it is not limited to the mighty. The film's finest moment is when Hanshiro learns that Motome had hocked his sword, and the sudden clarity it brings of how he never would have thought of that. He had clung to a tradition so much that potential salvation for those he loved had escaped him.

I mentioned above that I was reluctant to watch this film, and that reluctance remained as I watched up until Hanshiro's realization. I simply worried throughout that my own painful experiences would come rushing to the fore after some careless detail evoked them. Instead, the film repeatedly took turns that said everything I wanted it to say. It showed the initial seppuku as an act of violence. It showed the motivations of Motome to be an act of compassion. It showed the flaw in Hanshiro's reaction to the sickness, and it showed even that he sought revenge not as a killer but as an agent of dishonor. The violent climax is perhaps necessary to the narrative as it stood, a final condemnation of the dilution of actual honor and the desperation of image, but it was also the only flaw to the film: there's no hope left in the end.

December count: 37/100.

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