The first shot of Harakiri is not of a human face but an empty suit of ancestral armor—a perfect visual metaphor for the emptiness and inhumanity of the codes of honor upheld by feudal Japan’s ruling classes. The camera moves down corridors and through antechambers, all equally devoid of people: there are no human lives here, just symbols. In such an environment it is all too easy for tyranny and cruelty to flourish, and only a matter of course that the codes of the samurai would become mere façades.
Harakiri (or Seppuku) takes its title, as some of you have probably determined by now, from the name of the suicide ritual used by samurai to save face when defeated or disgraced. It was not, as has been mistakenly believed, something that had its roots in Japan’s pre-feudal history. Seppuku was devised by the samurai to keep their own people in line, and to provide a spectacular way of death so that the condemned could be exemplified. A condemned man who was given the opportunity to kill himself in this fashion could be redeemed in the eyes of others, and since feudal Japan didn’t believe in second chances, that was about as good as you could expect to get.
If it sounds cruel to us now in the year 2006, Harakiri argues that the real cruelty of seppuku was even worse than the fact that someone was made to tear open their own stomach with a sword. Even grimmer was how seppuku was used to ruthlessly maintain the all-important status quo, to protect the powerful from the consequences of their own incompetence and bias, and ostensibly to silence men who simply wanted to assert their dignity when none was to be found.
The hero of Harakiri is one such man, Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai), one of the many former samurai now left masterless and destitute by the great peace that descended across the country in the 17th century. With no more wars to fight, he and legions of other samurai turned to menial labor, to selling their weapons to the highest bidder, or simply to abject poverty and eventual starvation. Hanshiro appears at the gate of a feudal lord’s mansion and asks the acting clan leader there, Kageyu Saito (Rentaro Mikuni), for permission to commit suicide on their grounds. To do this in front of witnesses, and with a second to aid his passage into the next world, would be better than to stumble through the world hungry and disenfranchised.
That’s what most people would be led to believe, but Saito is canny and skeptical of Hanshiro’s real motives. As he explains—with more than a little smug cruelty in his voice—there have been many incidents where a ronin would turn up on some lord’s doorstep, make a fuss about committing seppuku, and then accept a token bribe to stop bothering them and go kill themselves someplace else. Not a bad little racket for a scruffy ex-samurai, especially when there were plenty of lords who didn’t want to seem like total ingrates for not allowing those men to leave the world properly. Such people do not deserve to be coddled.
To underscore his point, Saito tells his guest about someone who came by not long ago to do just that: Motome Chijiwa (Akira Ishihama). Motome’s wording was almost exactly the same, too. What caught Saito’s eye, and convinced him that he needed to be ruthless, was how the young man suddenly begged for a reprieve and promised that he would return in a few days to finish what he started. Insulting all by itself, but doubly insulting when they found out that Motome had pawned off his swords for bamboo fakes. If it’s seppuku he wants, they reason, then it is seppuku he shall have.
This leads to one of the most ghastly scenes in any samurai film, lingered over and made almost intolerable to watch, but central to the movie’s points. Motome is forced to kill himself with his own weapons—his bamboo blades, which are so blunt and flimsy “they won’t even cut tofu” (as one of Saito’s retainers sneers). They will also not cut skin, and certainly not pierce muscle, but Motome tries in vain to get them to do just that. Bent double in agony, Motome begs one of the witnesses to cut off his head and end it all. They refuse, as a properly-performed seppuku demands that you not cut off the man’s head until he’s slit his stomach all the way open. In total despair, Motome leans on the weapon and tries to impale himself on it—and when that will not work either, he bites off his own tongue. Noble deaths always seem better when they are described in terms of ideals and not in terms of torn and mangled flesh.
Hanshiro then counters with a story of his own, one which works to frame everything that has happened (and is about to happen), and shows up Saito’s posturing for what it is. For one, Motome was no stranger to him; in fact, the younger man was his daughter’s husband. After Hanshiro’s wife died, he raised his daughter on his own, much as his friend (a clan fellow) raised Motome on his own when his wife passed away. Then their clan was abolished and its holdings dispersed, and Motome’s father killed himself—seppuku, naturally—to avoid the disgrace of being the master of nothing. Hanshiro did his best to see that husband and wife (and soon their son) were taken care of, but it was not enough—and soon Motome had gone to pawn his weapons so that his sick child and sicker wife might not die in vain.
All of these scenes, by the way, are dominated completely by Tatsuya Nakadai. I have written before (Ran, Kagemusha, Samurai Rebellion, Sword of Doom, Kill!, etc.) about how he was probably Japan’s finest actor of his time aside from Toshiro Mifune. Unlike Mifune, however, he never seemed to be same actor twice—Mifune was always instantly identifiable, while Nakadai mutated so much from film to film that sometimes proper recognition and praise eluded him. The one thing of him that never changes are his endlessly haunted eyes—the only American actor I can think of who even comes close to what I see there is Harry Dean Stanton—and in Harakiri he uses them to summon not terror but pathos.
There is even more to the plot, which I will not reveal here, but which comes in a way that is both poetically appropriate and redolent of the savage double-crosses of film noir. If you looked at the film as nothing more than a samurai revenge story it would still work wonderfully (and does), but the bare details of the plot come already steeped in such significance that it works as tragedy, too. Hanshiro clings to his dignity as a samurai even when it will give him nothing back, and then finds a way to use that to expose the arrogance of the men who will do nothing for him. If it is seppuku they want, then it is seppuku they shall get—but on his terms, not theirs.
This was director Masaki Kobayashi’s first period film, but when I saw it for the first time over a decade ago on VHS I did not know this was the case, and there was nothing in it to make me think otherwise. The camerawork—especially the way the camera glides sideways to show cross-sections of rooms—is faultless, and like the storytelling used in the film, immensely patient. The same stoic timing can be seen at work in Kwaidan (made two years later) and Samurai Rebellion (five years later), but of the three Harakiri is the best, and makes the best use of its imagery to convey both its story and its mood. Kobayashi worked with Nakadai in both other films, and also grandmaster Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, whose spare and clangorous score is used more as highly effective punctuation than as running commentary.
The last twenty or so minutes of the film contain three swordfights, two short ones and a very long one, and they are among the best of their kind. Not because of the choreography of the fighting—most swordfights in samurai movies are realistically short bang-and-you’re-dead affairs, anyway—but the way the action is seen and even participated in by Kobayashi’s camera. In one two-man duel he places the camera low and moves in close to look up at the participants, framing them against an angry dusk sky. When Hanshiro faces off against a whole household full of guards, Kobayashi pulls back at first to show us everything, then gradually closes in to give us little else but Nakadai’s frenzied face.
What I find most fascinating about Harakiri, and most of the samurai productions of the Sixties in Japan, is how it esposes a world-view that has all but vanished from Japanese filmmaking today except maybe in the most avant-garde and underground productions. Kobayashi, Kurosawa, and many other directors of the time used the samurai genre to make pungent critical statements about modern Japanese society—its heedless conformity, its materialism, its willingness to excuse corruption and privately-kept disgrace in the name of national progress and the good of the whole. Before Harakiri, Kobayashi directed the three-film cycle The Human Condition, which took critical aim at Japan’s urge towards war through the eyes of a conscientious objector who is eventually drafted into combat in Manchuria. Small surprise that the screenwriter for Harakiri was repeated Kurosawa collaborator Shinobu Hashimoto, who helped write some of the best and most socially conscious films from both directors: Seven Samurai, The Bad Sleep Well, Sword of Doom, Ikiru, Rashomon, The Hidden Fortress, Samurai Rebellion, and on and on.
Now all of that critical force has simply evaporated, or at least gone hiding. Today directors like Yôji Yamada (of Hidden Blade, When The Last Sword Is Drawn and Twilight Samurai) are more in favor. Granted, I liked both of those films (Twilight Samurai is certainly the less sentimental and more emotionally honest of the two), but Kobayashi unquestionably aims higher and achieves more. The last commercially successful director of note to confront Japanese audiences with their own demons was Kinji Fukasaku—and how frustrating it was see the primal scream of Battle Royale turned into a confused whimper by its wholly unneeded sequel.
Kobayashi, however, was quite aware of how angry and pointed Harakiri was in every respect, and let it serve his intentions. The one shot of cherry blossoms falling is used not to heart-warming effect, but to bookend the beginning of the endless decline in Hanshiro’s life. When Motome’s death sentence is spelled out, they won’t allow him a reprieve to tell his family, but they take the greatest pains to ensure that he’s dressed properly for death—not for his sake, of course, but so that they can absolve themselves of any accusations of not following protocol. And then there are the sobering closing shots, where the same empty corridors and rooms we saw in the beginning are now littered with corpses and smeared with blood, and the same empty suit of armor watches sightlessly over all.