Harakiri – A powerful tale of life and morality
Shochiku Eiga, Japan
Black & White
Release: 14th August 1964 (US)
DIR Masaki Kobayashi
PROD Tatsuo Hosoya
SCR Shinobu Hashimoto
DP Yoshio Miyajima
CAST Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Ishihama, Shima Iwashita, Tetsurô Tamba, Masao Mishima
So powerful is this film that I nearly fainted in the scene where a samurai disembowels himself with a bamboo sword.
Harakiri is a film that reflects heavily upon the importance of Japanese codes of honor and situational ethics, in which the better you know a person the more deeply you’ll understand their motives. This film is strung on the motives of a ragged ronin (unemployed samurai) named Tsugumo Hanshiro who applies for an audience at the mansion of Lord Iyi to commit his Harakiri (the act of killing oneself via disembowelment). However, this old wandering samurai takes his time in the act, beseeching a great personal story, which creates an unanswerable dilemma for the elder of the powerful clan. The dilemma is caused by the backdrop of a previous cast-off samurai Chijiwa Motome who turned up for the same treatment – I don’t wish to give the story away but there is a substantial connection between Hanshiro and Motome that drives the narrative and morality this film.
The context to the film is 1630’s Japan, there is peace and ronin are free to wonder the lands. However, this has lead to unemployment, their minds and hearts are cast adrift, they are unable to feed and shelter their families. Harakiri is a way for the unemployed swordsman to give his life honorably; there is also hint at a mystical code that this act can prevent another from passing. There is an overwhelming sense of order and adherence to speech among the clans, these values hold greater than life itself. The tension created from the exchange of humanist values throughout the film continues to peak until the moment samurai fans will have been eagerly anticipating, happens.
The film is gracefully composed and photographed in black and white to represent the values it obtains. Yoshio Miyajima’s camera often holds a position of authority; a POV from Saito (the Iyi clans elder) is common as he looks down upon the shabby Tsugumo. However, this will then reverse to a low-angle shot of Tsugumo looking up to the man with power. Angular sweeping shots of the spectators incorporate their impassiveness and hearts of stone as they resist feeling any emotion by Tsugumo’s story. During a swordplay scene, the camera switches into handheld mode suggesting the breaking apart of the clan, the whitewash of the sacred codes. It’s worth mentioning in this scene, the stunning backdrop and atmosphere created by set designer Zenichi Tajiri and direction that is reminiscent of Sergio Leone’s set pieces (though Leone came later). It’s a staggeringly beautiful and highly captivating scene.
Harakiri is commonly viewed as Masaki Kobayashi’s masterpiece alongside Kwaidan – an assembly of ghost stories – or The Human Condition – a nine-hour epic! It is evident in Harakiri that Kobayashi’s own life is reflected through Tsugumo’s ideals. Kobayashi was renowned as a life long pacifist. He acted upon this belief by refusing promotion to the officer class, as to take his chances along with other conscripts. He therefore, wasn’t avoiding military service but becoming a bystander in the same vain that worn-out Japanese ronin couldn’t escape the Japanese codes and thus felt compelled to Harakiri.
Tatsuya Nakadai is relentless as Tsugumo. There are many pronounced close-up shots of Nakadai’s exquisite expression and despondency. The passion in his eyes is crushing, and by the end of the movie, you want to give the granddad a big hug – even if he is covered head to toe in spattered blood.
Watch the trailer below: