Kobayashi’s Harakiri – the sword’s reason / the samurai’s irrationality


The last few nights’ film was Kobayashi’s Harakiri, and perhaps you shouldn’t read further (or click through to that Wikipedia link) if you don’t want spoilers.

Here’s our early 17th-century ronin, Tsugumo Hanshirō, and behind him, the body of his son-in-law, Chijiiwa Motome. Desperate to raise money to get a doctor for his wife and infant son, Motome had asked a feudal lord for permission to commit harakiri in his courtyard, hoping the lord would instead have paid him just to go away. No such luck: pour encourager les autres, the lord insists Motome go through with it, even after discovering that Motome has nothing left to kill himself with but a pair of bamboo swords. He dies horribly (imagine disemboweling yourself with a chopstick), and a fever will kill his wife and child a few days later.

In the gif, Hanshirō’s wishing he had sold his own swords. He had never imagined it could be possible. Why?

Not because of his merely human limitations, and not because he had lost his humanity and his freedom. That’s too easy. Instead:

With any system, any seemingly irrational action can point us, not towards the fundamental irrationality of everything, whether human motivation or the extra-human world, but rather towards another reason for which humans–for example–are being made to act. We have tended to be, as Levi Bryant observes:
“fascinated with the question of whether there’s nonhuman intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. But we’ve already encountered it here on Earth. It goes by names like ‘corporation,’ ‘government,’ ‘institution,’ etc. The terrifying thing is that these beings have very different aims than our own.”
Even if the aims are only not quite harmonious with ours, we should feel, if not terror, than at least disequilibrium, a loosening of the certainties that would either defend the lonely uniqueness of human agency or reduce everything to mechanical effects. At least, through “a touch of anthropomorphism” (99), we can recognize that there are other reasons that use us, themselves shot through with unreason, and, through this recognition abandon the arrogance of assuming that we are the only rational game in town, or that if we are irrational, the nothing else is.

I take this from an essay that will appear in the first, giant issue of Ozone.

Now, the humanist temptation would be to take Hanshirō’s swords as just a Lacanian quilting point holding a human system together.

Ideological space is made of non-bound, non-tied elements, ‘floating signifiers’, whose very identity is ‘open’, overdetermined by their articulation in a chain with other elements – that is, their ‘literal’ signification depends on their metaphorical surplus-signification. Ecologism, for example: its connection with other ideological elements is not determined in advance; one can be a state-orientated ecologist (if one believes that only the intervention of a strong state can save us from catastrophe), a socialist ecologist (if one locates the source of merciless exploitation of nature in the capitalist system), a conservative ecologist [if one preaches that man must again become deeply rooted in his native soil), and so on; feminism can be socialist, apolitical; even racism could be elitist or populist… The ‘quilting’ performs the totalization by means of which this free floating of ideological elements is halted, fixed — that is to say by means of which they become parts of the structured network of meaning. (95-96)

The quilting point, the sword, is the “honor” or “soul” (terms the film itself uses) that holds together the whole samurai system, even while the film attacks the system as a “farce” (its term). Like any quilting point, the sword means nothing in itself. It’s an empty signifier, and all-powerful because of this emptiness.

The question is who put it there? And who can pull it out? Not humans, not alone.

The system of this certain machine will end up looking like this because of system’s own logic. Having a sword means having honor, which means inventing a soul and calling it honor. It means knowing the sword as at once materialized effect of that honor and yourself as incarnated effect (and even incarnated affect) of that sword.

Anyone who’s seen the film knows how it ends, and what the looming suit of Red Armor means in this logic. Its reason is horrendous, anxious, desperate to sustain itself, and full of love for those who defend it. Like any other reason. And by existing at all, though empty, it produces a world of its own making through its human tools. As he dies, Hanshirō is exactly right to attack the armor: he knows what the true enemy is.

For more on this, then, think of the inevitability of the NSA’s reach (to defend our liberty! with the constitution as the empty master signifier), or how owning a gun compels its use, on whatever target. Think of the logical failure of any film in which hackers destroy a surveillance state, because we have to know that the tools will make the same surveillance world again. Or, more obviously, think of any heroic gunslinger hunting the bad guys to end their (gun) violence.

In all of this, there’s a reason at work, originated by us perhaps, but far bigger than we could ever be. These systems are our cathedrals, existing on a scale of time and space we could hardly have imagined when we first built them, we thought, for our use.