What Makes Harakiri One Of The Best Samurai Films Ever Made

Masaki Kobayashi's historical films, known as jidai-geki, were more about his contemporary society than about feudal Japan
What Makes Harakiri One Of The Best Samurai Films Ever Made

Trigger warning: mentions of suicide

A masterless samurai, whose eyes seem to stare past this life and into the next, arrives at the house of the Iyi clan. His name is Tsugumo Hanshiro and he has come seeking permission to use the forecourt of the palace to commit seppuku or ritual suicide. Upon hearing the plea, the senior counsel of the clan has one response, "again?" For you see this has become something of a regular occurrence.

It is the year 1630, and feudal Japan has entered an unprecedented era of peace under the newly established Tokugawa Shogunate. The last battle of the Warring States Period is but a distant memory for veteran samurai. The younger ones know swordsmanship the way one who has never set foot in water knows the art of swimming. Peacetime needs no warriors, after all, and the bushido code of honour of the samurai prevents them from seeking "lesser" employment. It also prevents others in society from giving such jobs to samurai, no matter how impoverished they maybe. As once great martial houses fall, unable to cope with the sudden shift to a prosperous peacetime society, their samurai become ronin — masterless wanderers forced by their code of honour to choose between dishonourable death by starvation or take their own lives with honour by seppuku.

Seppuku requires two people — the samurai about to commit suicide by disemboweling himself with a short sword, and a second to behead him. The place and witnesses are also important. When the first ronin to ask for a place to commit seppuku came to the Iyi clan, they noted the samurai's determination and sense of honour and instead took him into their fold, saving his life. But once this tale spread, other samurai came claiming to want a place to perform seppuku, but in reality all they wanted was pity. They had no intention of committing suicide, rather they hoped the clan would give them a job too, or failing that send them on their way with some gold.

Now the situation was getting out of hand. The counsel and retainers of the clan had to find a way to discourage these opportunistic samurai from leeching off their resources. So when Tsugumo Hanshiro arrives, the senior counsel tries to dissuade him with the story of the last samurai who came with the same request.

The young samurai Chijiiwa Motome had come asking for a place to commit seppuku, but rather than send him off with some gold, the senior counsel not only made all the arrangements for the ritual, but forced the young ronin to commit the act. He tells the story of the dishonourable samurai's death in gruesome detail to dissuade Hanshiro from taking his request too far.

But Tsugumo Hanshiro really has come to die. He does not intend to return from the palace of the Iyi clan alive. And there is more to the story of the young samurai who came earlier than the senior counsel knows. By the end of the day, the Iyi clan will have to confront their idea of honour and the foundation of their way of life.

Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri, released in 1962, is considered a masterpiece in Samurai cinema for good reason. It won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1963. The black and white cinematography is visually stunning, and the camera work is simply arresting. He, along with his cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima, uses the Dutch Angle like a well placed adjective to accentuate the unease and despair of these characters. Hisashi Sagara's editing can take us from a shot of objective storytelling to a shot of subjective horror so seamlessly that we feel the internal state of these characters. The sequence where the young samurai is forced to commit suicide is a masterclass in suspense precisely because of this masterful blend of cinematography and editing. The beautiful black and white cinematography help the actors use light and shadow in their performances in breathtaking ways.

The action in this film is also notable. Kobayashi somehow manages to make them at once stylized and realistic. The sword fights are messy affairs interspersed with long pauses where the combatants duel with their eyes and body language. They swing too close or not close enough, because Kobayashi stages the fights in the way real people with deadly weapons and no desire to be cut down would fight. But they're still exciting and the tension is palpable. The clear staging, dynamic camera angles, and well thought out camera movement make these "realistic" fights edge-of-your-seat affairs. There are sword fights in modern movies with the wizardry of special effects that wouldn't hold a candle to the simple yet well-choreographed fights in this film.

But, of course, everything rests on the performances of its small cast who are called upon to bleed their hearts on screen, to portray characters forced to confront what lies beneath the foundation stones of their legacy. Tatsuya Nakadai was only 30 when he played the aging, broken Hanshiro. Chijiiwa Motome, dead before the start of the story, is its emotional and thematic anchor and Akira Ishihama plays it without a single false note. Rentaro Mikuni as the Senior Counselor elevates what would have been a gutless villain in lesser hands to a tortured soul who is unable to accept his mistake, for doing so would mean the end of his identity.

The director Masaki Kobayashi, though a pacifist and a socialist, was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second World War. He considered the war itself "culmination of human evil." He rejected promotions past the rank of private as a form of protest. And this protest carried over into his films which often challenged authority and traditional hierarchical thinking in his society. In fact, his first major film after the war ran into trouble because of its suggestion that the atrocities committed by the Japanese Army began at the very top. He saw a direct line from historical inequalities to modern injustices. In this way, his historical films, known as jidai-geki, were more about his contemporary society than about feudal Japan.

As the film's explosive climax comes to pass and the last page is turned, it's not hard to see what Masaki Kobayashi is trying to say with this deconstructionist Samurai film set in 1630: those in power will always choose self-preservation over the ideology that they espouse and impose on others. A lesson well worth remembering for any period, historical or otherwise.

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