Dir: Masaki Kobayashi


Rediscover is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that have flown under the radar and now deserve a second look.

Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri begins as a wandering samurai, bearded and disheveled, enters the manor of Lord Iyi and begs for the privilege to commit ritual suicide there. The year is 1630 and Japan is still in the opening decades of the Tokugawa shogunate. The civil war has abated and the need for samurai has diminished, leaving these warriors without work. Rumor floats amongst the ronin that if they go to a prospering manor and offer to commit hara-kiri that the lords will be so impressed with their courage that they will offer employment, or at least a few coins before they turn them away. But as the ragged samurai begs to commit suicide, Lord Iyi’s retainers soon learn that he isn’t there to simply off himself. Instead, Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai) has come to avenge the death of his son-in-law, a ronin who arrived at the Iyi court months before in a similar manner, setting off a tragic chain of events that destroyed Tsugumo’s family.

Released in a particularly fecund epoch of Japanese filmmaking, Harakiri is more than a simple period piece about honor and revenge. Instead, Kobayashi created a cautionary tale for a modern Japan where he saw the takeover of corporations as the reintroduction of the feudal principles he condemns in his film. Coming off the nearly 10 hour epic The Human Condition (also starring Nakadai) where he attacked militarism, Kobayashi trains his lens in Harikiri on the Japanese penchant for shunning individualism and its well-known proverb: “the nail which sticks out will get hammered.”

The film begins with close-up shots of a suit of armor, set up in reverie in a spartan tatami room. We soon learn this armor represents the Iyi clan, a proud reminder of their warrior days. Unlike many other fiefdoms that lost their land during the consolidation of power following the civil war, the Iyi clan curried favor with the Tokugawa shogunate and retained their authority. When we first meet Tsugumo, we learn that he is from a fallen clan near Hiroshima. The Iyi retainers, unaware of his connection to the previous supplicant Motome Chijiiwa (Akira Ishihama), are haughty in their power and scornful of the poor ronin. In the film’s first flashback, we learn that Chijiiwa is forced to killing himself out of malice, despite his clear intention of simply finding work. Not only that, the Iyi clan make him use his bamboo sword (he pawned his true one), to disembowel himself in a scene that is still difficult to watch nearly 50 years after the film’s release.

Tsugumo, however, arrives with the full knowledge that he will die in the Iyi manor, but not before bringing dishonor to the house. Much of Harakiri is flashback as we follow Tsugumo’s path from trusted vassal to a man with only his ideals left to keep him alive. Punctuated with bursts of shocking violence, Harakiri is a talky film, but it’s also one in which Kobayashi’s camera zooms around the pristine court and disarming sound effects disrupt the calm that pervades many of the scenes.

Nakadai, who would later appear in Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low and Ran, displays an amazing range as Tsugumo. Appearing haunted in the present day scenes, Nakadai shifts from a fierce warrior to caring father to grief-stricken grandfather in the flashbacks. Tsugumo’s tale is a story of loss and when we finally learn of his travails, we can understand the eerie stillness that permeates his character, a man who has nothing to lose.

Although Tsugumo does succeed in shaming the Iyi clan, Kobayashi indicts those in power at the film’s end for having the clout to re-write history. The director sees a world where the victor soon forgets the battle after it has been won and is unwilling to recognize just how tenuous and finite their rule can be. In his dying moments, Tsugumo throws down the revered Iyi armor in a final act of defiance. Kobayashi isn’t saying that you can win, but to die trying is better than selling out your principles.

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One Comment

  1. murtaza ali

    June 20, 2012 at 8:11 am

    Excellent review! Had I not watched it already, your review would have definitely convinced me to watch it. Harakiri was the movie that, in my personal opinion, presented the dark side of Samurai way of life for the first time on the celluloid. The movie’s finale sequence is blood-cuddling and it’s sheer power can make a cold-blooded appear jittery. In fact the same can be said about the movie as a whole. You review has helped me get a deeper insight into Harakiri. I look forward to reading more of your reviews.

    Also, please do check out my review of Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri.



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