Reading Edward Frankel’s bestseller “Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality” (a wonderful book about the beauty of Mathematics and the passion with which those who study it immerse themselves in its world, of which I’d like to say some words some other time) I found out about a 1966 short film titled “Yukoku (Patriotism): The Rite of Love and Death”; directed, produced, written and starred by the japanese author, playwright and political activist Yukio Mishima. It is based on an homonymous short story by the same Mishima, which was published in 1961. Frankel’s description of the movie left a vivid impression on me and I decided to watch as soon as I could.
A silent, black and white 28 minutes film, it has both the beautiful photography of Kimio Watanabe in the style of the japanese Noh theater, and the bewitching charm of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde as its score. It tells the story of the death Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama and Reiko, husband and wife.
The plot goes as follows: Lt. Takeyama’s friends get involved in a failed coup d’etat in early 1936 and he is ordered to execute them. Torn between his love of the Emperor and of his friends, he decides that the only course of action that allows him to keep his honor is to do harakiri (“cutting the belly”), the japanese ritual suicide. His beautiful wife Reiko decides to follow him in this last journey, lifting the only shadow that weighted upon his departure from this world: the young couple would be together in the afterlife.
In their final moments they strip themselves of both inhibitions and clothes and make passionate love. The scene is plainly erotic, its beauty and the underlying sadness that this last encounter has make it also extremely moving. After their caresses are over, the Lieutenant prepares himself to die. The kanji for “sincerity” observes the scene hanging from a wall.
Assisted by Reiko, Lt. Takeyama kills himself. Blood and guts fall on the house’s floor and stain Reiko’s white dress, but she remains calm and brave. It is her turn. Always faithful, Reiko cuts hear throat, her lifeless body falling over the lieutenant’s, in a sort of final embrace.
Everything in the film tells us we’re in the presence of something sacred. Sacred is Takeyama’s honor, sacred his love for Emperor, friends and wife; sacred the burning desire that consumes the couple and that finds such a beautiful alleviation, sacred his suicide and that of his beloved.
But I can’t help to ask: which rite is which? Is the Rite of Love truly the obvious answer, their passionate self-giving? Or is it Takeyama’s death, out of love for his country and his friends; and Reiko’s, out of love for her husband? Is the Rite of Death really their suicide, as evident as it might look with all its gory detail? Or is it their last caresses, the joyous fire with its something of melancholy, with its “petite mort”, its “little death” as the french call the orgasm? Or perhaps there is only one Rite, as the title suggests, one continuous coming from Life to Death or from Death to Life, a single, indivisible, ephemeral event, a sigh of desire and of a dying breath? Watch it and decide for yourself.