Criterion Challenge #302
1962 // Japan // Masaki Kobayashi
Harakiri, or more precisely called in Japanese as Seppuku (切腹), came from the kanji of“hara’ (腹), means the belly or the abdomen, and“kiri”(切り) which means the cutting. This voluntary suicide ritual by disembowelment embodied the Bushido code of honor reserved to the samurai. The act of slicing the abdomen with a short blade is tremendously painful, normally a second swordsman would be chosen for the decapitation of the samurai, to shorten the agony upon fulfilling the act of seppuku.
In recent history, Yukio Mishima, the renowned Japanese author, performed the seppuku after a failed coup attempt on Nov 25, 1970. His final act was foretold in his self-directed novel-turned-short-film PATRIOTISM (1966); while the coup and the seppuku were depicted intensely in films like MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS (1985) by Paul Schrader and, economically done by Koji Wakamatsu in 11:25 THE DAY HE CHOSE HIS OWN FATE (2012). Mishima’s act was mostly a longing of the lost samurai values, as well as an obsession with a purifying and beautiful death, much like the perfection of a cherry blossom. Nonetheless, there is underlining political motivation behind Mishima’s action which I’m not going to indulge here. But it’s rightly served as a contemporary comparison to the seppuku depicted in the Jidaigeki (period film) like HARAKIRI. As the former one is the action of regaining the lost values, while the latter is the action motivated by the confinement of that particular value.
HARAKIRI is set in 1630, the epoch ruled by Tokugawa shogunate which was a relatively peaceful time then the preceding Sengoku Period. However, unemployed (clanless) samurai also faced the same kind of poverty. Akira Kurosawa has shown seven ronins protecting a horde of farmers in exchange of meals in SEVEN SAMURAI (1954), providing a glimpse of humanistic triumph. On the other hand, Masaki Kobayashi, the director of HARAKIRI, chose to illustrate the tragic and nihilistic fate of two wandering samurai, thus condemning the feudalistic values and reflecting a current social critique, a kind of cry out for the post-war American Occupation period.
As the film critic David Dresser points out that Kobayashi’s HARAKIRI and SAMURAI REBELLION (1967) rely “heavily upon the juxtaposition of a trapped individual existing within a rigid social structure.” So much so that, except the flashback scene, the remaining running time occurs inside the mansion and the samurai-bounded courtyard of the Iyi clan, creating a visual motif of entrapment from beginning to the end.
The screenplay is scripted by Shinobu Hashimoto, who is a frequent collaborator with Akira Kurosawa and has co-scripted films like RASHOMON (1950), IKIRU (1952), SEVEN SAMURAI and THRONE OF BLOOD (1957). The narrative is commenced in a straight-forward fashion, a ronin called Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai) visits upon the Iyi clan with a death wish of performing seppuku in the clan’s courtyard. But soon the Daimyo’s senior counselor Kageyu Saito (Rentaro Mikuni) retells a story of a young samurai Motome Chijiiwa (Akira Ishihama) having the same seppuku request not long ago, in a way to dissuading Tsugumo, things then start to turn ambiguously. Tsugumo’s mysterious motivation is slowly unfolded via his explanatory flashbacks. An act of honor is replaced with an avenging suicidal mission.
The spectators are firstly given the unbearable self-mutilated death scene of Motome by a bamboo sword, with a preceding hint that the original intention of Motome is not death but perhaps money or employment. Composer Toru Takemitsu made use of the sound of biwa during the seppuku scene, creating a melancholic eulogy. The sound of Biwa will be further adapted in the narrative of Kobayashi’s first color feature KWAIDAN (1965). The third story of KWAIDAN, “Hoichi the Earless”, would involve the playing of biwa by a blind monk in narrating the battle in the “Tale of the Heike” to the audience of samurai ghosts. In both cases, the biwa is symbolically linked to the senseless and unnecessary death of human beings confined within the “rigid social structure”. One may remind of the suicide attack from the Kamikaze of Japanese troops during WWII, a loss that gain nothing but a hollow honor.
Tsugumo’s recalling of his past with his daughter Miho (Shima Iwashita) and his son-in-law seems to be outstretched in narrative, but it is gradually revealed to be a confession, as well as a vengeance against the complacency of the self-contained ideology represented by the Iyi clan. HARAKIRI is more like a drama than an action film, the sword fights mainly occur in the last 30 minutes. The three duels of Tsugumo with three samurai in his flashback, as well as the climatic fight in the mansion, are all elegantly captured in black-and-white and articulated with precise camera work by Yoshio Miyajima. In particular, the duel between Tsugumo and Hikokuro Omodaka (Tetsuro Tamba), one of Saito’s retainer, in the wild plane consists of some intense editing and Dutch angle shots, contrasting a visual vastness with the later cornered fight in the hallway and chamber, thus enhancing the sense of doom in the end.
If the films of Akira Kurosawa embraced the regret of the loss of samurai code, then Kobayashi apparently aimed at the censure and contempt of the submission of individual to the authority. The film opens with multiple static empty shots of the interior of the mansion, including the courtyard and a set of amour of the clan’s ancestor. The film ends with the destruction of the amour in the hands of Tsugumo, representing the annihilation of the hierarchy and authoritarian social structure. Together with the striking performance by Tatsuya Nakadai, HARAKIRI is an allegory that is still stunning and applicable in the present time, and probably Kobayashi’s best work.
Including several informative and essential interviews with the director (in footage and booklet) and other cast (Tatsuya Nakadai) and crew (Shinobu Hashimoto), each is no longer than 20-30 minutes.In conclusion, I’m more than satisfied with the entire package, surely deserved the highest mark!