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Archive for October, 2009

Bushido: The Soul of Fanaticism

Hara-kiri’s Juxtaposition of Sensationalism and Reality

Anyone vaguely familiar with Japan has no doubt heard of samurai, the fiercely disciplined and loyal warriors who ruled over Japan for centuries. In the West, we like to believe that every samurai lived according to the philosophy of bushido, the Way of the Samurai. According to Japanese works, such as Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure and Yukio Mishima’s Patriotism, this belief is quite accurate. However, what many fail to realize is that these works are a misrepresentation of the samurai beliefs common during the Edo period (roughly 1600-1868) and exaggerate the historical and social significance of bushido. In reality, bushido is an artificial philosophy, written and followed by a fanatic minority who wished to cling to a bloody, militant past and was never accepted or followed by the majority of the samurai class. In Death, Honor, and Loyalty: The Bushido Ideal, G. Cameron Hurst states, “The few Tokugawa works which explicitly use the term bushido turn out, in fact, to be a very narrow stream of thought essentially out of touch with the broader spectrum of Neo-Confucian ideas to which most of the samurai class adhered” (515). However, the principles of bushido – and samurai philosophy in general – are unclear and poorly defined because they were never codified into a written ethical code. For the sake of clarity, this essay will concentrate on the interpretation of bushido found in Masaki Kobayashi’s 1963 film Hara-kiri, which artfully juxtaposes the fanatic bushido followed by the Iyi clan and the more moderate and rational actions of the ronin Tsugumo Hanshiro. While Tsugumo’s actions seem to conflict with the principles of samurai ethics according to bushido, they are actually a more realistic representation of the principles upheld by the samurai of that time. The ‘philosophy’ of bushido misinterprets these values in several ways; it completely disregards compassion as the key element in the virtues of honor, loyalty, and duty, has a rabid philosophy of ‘pure action,’ and has perverted an ‘acceptance of death’ into an obsessive cult of ritual mutilation and suicide.

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