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There was a time when the West’s understanding of Japan wasn’t yet anchored to the soft power-wielding holy trinity of sushi, anime, and tech. Limited by its geographical binarism, the (Western) world of the second half of the 19th century spoke a rusty language of objectification and arrogance, discovering the Orient simply as an artistic influence, a beautiful ornament to embellish a decadent and luxurious fin de siècle European apartment. When Japan was forced to end its isolationist foreign policy in the 1850s, the term Japonisme slowly but surely slithered into the vocabulary. Along with goods of all sorts, aesthetic tokens of Japanism were imported too and promptly created a sensation amongst Western artists. Reduced to a fetishised postcard of colonised exoticism, visions of Japan popped up in art, literature, opera, and ultimately, in cinema. It’s in this artistic milieu that Fritz Lang eventually inscribed his own personal interpretation.
Harakiri (1919), Lang’s fourth feature, cropped up in a Dutch vault in 1987 and to this day remains one of his lesser-known films. Despite its ominous title, which draws morbid attention to a very specific practice of ritual suicide mostly performed by samurai, the story of Harakiri is essentially the one of Madame Butterfly. Brought to international fame by Giacomo Puccini’s Orientalist opera in 1904, the first iteration of this tale dates back to 1898 when John Luther Long’s short story of the same title was first published. Based on the recollections of Long’s sister, who visited Japan with her husband — a Methodist missionary — his Madame Butterfly was also inspired by another Orientalist fable of colonial sexploitation, Pierre Loti’s Madame Chrysanthème (1887). Both stories reflect the fantasy of the Western white man who takes a liking to what he sees as an innocent, modest and inexperienced young Japanese woman, whom he decides to marry and later abandons once he returns to his home country. Lang’s Harakiri (script by Max Jungk) mostly follows the source material with just a few name changes; however, it also displays a problematic depiction of Buddhism, which reflects the political, racist stance of Imperial Germany.
After travelling throughout Europe as an ambassador, the daimyo Tokujawa (Paul Biensfeldt) — a rather anachronistic title as the era of these feudal lords ended soon after the Meiji restoration (1868) — returns to his daughter in Japan, the lovely O-Take-San (Lil Dagover), who has been receiving the unwanted attentions of a vicious Buddhist monk (Georg John). To have O-Take-San completely in his power, the monk wants her to become a priestess of Buddha and sends the Mikado (the Emperor of Japan) a letter accusing Tokujawa of conspiring against him. Tokujawa is promptly ordered to take his own life — his suicide foreshadowing O-Take-San’s own death — and O-Take-San is abducted by the monk. A servant of the temple lets her escape only to sell her to a tea-house where she is forced to become a geisha. Interspersed throughout, it’s the traditional plot of the fatal encounter between O-Take-San and Olaf Anderson (Niels Prien), a European naval officer stationed in Japan, which results in their marriage lasting 999 days, as was customary in the country. The second half of the film is a more faithful adaptation of Madame Butterfly as we see Anderson leaving Japan and a heartbroken O-Take-San, who is expecting his child. Upon his return a few years later, O-Take-San learns that Anderson is married to a European woman and in the face of her tragic, and impossible, love she takes her own life.
Harakiri’s menacing image of Buddhism isn’t simply a peculiar yet effective narrative feat. On the contrary, it reinforces the othering representation of the Orient as a dangerous rising power that was perpetrated by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany’s anti-Asian narrative. Through expressionist lighting techniques, Bonze (as he is introduced in the film) is visually framed as the story’s villain. Low-key, strongly contrastive lights underline Bonze’s intimidating presence when he makes his ominous appearance casting — pun intended — a racialist shadow on his character. By insisting on Bonze’s malicious intent, the misdeed committed by Anderson is, by contrast, lessened, almost condoned. In light of the vile schemes and predatory behaviour of the corrupt monk, what should we make of the exotic, romantic escapade of Anderson that is so often normalised in a heteronormative narrative? Parading their “boys will be boys” banner, onlookers will surely commend and covet this fine example of white machismo.
However, in Harakiri, things are complicated by the ongoing discourse on race and colonialism. No matter Lang’s maniacal strive for ethnographic authenticity — clearly a material adynaton — reflected in the rich set design curated by Heinrich Umlauff of the Ethnological Museum in Hamburg, his entire white cast naturally depends on the suspension of disbelief. Clad in fine kimono and often surrounded by flowers, the figure of O-Take-San exudes purity, discretion, beauty, and meekness. These qualities are insidiously ascribed to a gendered and racialised stereotype of Oriental womanhood. Quiet and submissive, the Oriental woman exists in her pre-modern community waiting to give herself to a strong, white man visiting from an imperialist nation and eventually take her own life before the inevitable tragedy that awaits her. This exotic fantasy conceived by the Western man is at the core of Madame Butterfly in all its iterations and Harakiri cannot help but be yet another vector. In this sense, the most striking scene comes somewhere half-way in. After moving into their new home, one day O-Take San shows Anderson her keepsakes. Among them is a little Sanzaru carving, a wooden sculpture of the three monkeys embodying the proverbial principle “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”. In an astonishing reversal, O-Take-San explains that the monkeys represent “the three virtues of Japanese women. They hear nothing, say nothing, and see nothing”. No longer merely implied by a sexist text, the retrograde and colonialist construction of the Oriental woman is now spelt out in all its horrifying glory.
It took less than a century to finally subvert this stereotype. Loosely based on real events, M. Butterfly took flight for the first time in 1988 when the play premiered on Broadway, before being adapted into a film directed by David Cronenberg (M. Butterfly, 1993). Written by Asian-American playwright David Henry Hwang, M. Butterfly follows the intoxicating love story between René Gallimard, a civil servant of the French Embassy in China, and the Peking opera singer Song Liling. Unaware that all the female roles in the traditional Chinese opera are played by men, Gallimard never fully realises — or does he? — that his 20 year-long relationship with what he describes as his perfect woman was, in fact, a romantic involvement with a man. The truth will be revealed in the play’s last act — and the film’s denouement — when the gender and racial issues the play is imbued with will further collide.
That Hwang challenges our notion of unitary identity is manifest right in the play’s title. The cunningly ambiguous prefix of M. Butterfly is — in an extremely welcomed and freeing way — shrank to a singular capital m, all its anachronistic connotations of a surpassed dichotomy of genders accordingly erased. The oppositional couples of East/West and male/female serve to entrap Gallimard’s Orientalist mind, which is unable to overcome the tight apparatus of male bravado, diplomatic constraints, and compulsory heterosexuality he has been immersed in for so long. Re-enacting while deconstructing the story of Cho-Cho-San and Lieutenant Pinkerton, M. Butterfly takes a step further when it eventually reverses the power dynamics that have dominated the scene so far. Confronted with the naked truth, and asked to reconceptualise their relationship, Gallimard refuses to discard the categories of “man” and “woman” — and with them all the attached connotations of Western dominance and Oriental submission — that are not only too narrow descriptors of their changing and layered identities but also the only fixed reference points he can hold on to. Victim of his self-imposed Orientalist cultural clichés, Gallimard is destined to annihilation by his own hand. Taking on the role of Madame Butterfly himself, both his racial and gender identities have been inherently subverted and yet death befall on the forlorn lover.
In writing this essay, I was profoundly indebted to Daisuke Miyao’s paper “The Hand of Buddha: Madame Butterfly and the Yellow Peril in Fritz Lang’s Harakiri (1919)” (Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 33:8) and to Dorinne K. Kondo’s “M. Butterfly: Orientalism, Gender, and a Critique of Essentialist Identity” (Cultural Critique, 16).