Today: February 29, 2024


A passionate attack on authoritarian power and a defence of the rights of the individual, Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri remains, nearly 50 years after its fi

A passionate attack on authoritarian power and a defence of the
rights of the individual, Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri remains, nearly 50 years
after its first release, one of the masterpieces of Japanese cinemas.

Kobayashi, like other Japanese
directors in the post- World War Two period, was known for expressing his
political dissent through allegory. Known for his relentless critique of
tradition and authority, Kobayashi expressed, through his films, his view that
individual freedoms were no more guaranteed in democratic Japan than they had
been under feudalism or military rule.

Harakiri was Kobayashi’s first
‘jidai-geki’ or period film, a popular post war genre that typically focused on
Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868). It tells the story Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai), a ronin, or
masterless samurai. During the early years of Tokugawa shogunate, many clans
were disbanded as fortunes changed, and large numbers of ronin walked the
country searching for a way to survive. For some ronin, the dishonour of this
life was too great to bear, and they chose to carry out harakiri (also called
seppuku), or ritual disembowelment. We find out, however, that there is a
popular trend of ronin turning up at the remaining clan’s buildings, and requesting
permission to commit suicide with the hope that the clan will take pity on them
and give them a job, or at the very least, some money.

For the Iyi clan, however, this is
unacceptable, and so when Tsugumo arrives at their gate, requesting permission
to commit harakiri, using one of their swordsman as his second (the second cuts
off the head of the samarai to bring immediate death after the disembowelment
has been carried out), they warn him that they do not take such requests

We learn the story of another samurai,
Motome Chijiwa (Akira Ishihama) who
requested the same thing. Outraged by his presumed lack of honour, and
desperate to retain the militaristic image of the Iyi clan, the clan members
decide to grant his request. Motome, we find out, had no intention of carrying
out such an act, and upon hearing the clan’s decision, begs for postponement.
After looking at his sword blades, which he had sold in an act of desperation
and replaced with bamboo, the clan leaders decide that to teach other ronin a
lesson: Motome would be denied a postponement, and furthermore, forced to carry
out harakiri with his flimsy, bamboo blades.

The idea of disemboweling yourself is
unpleasant at the best of times, but the horror of having to gouge oneself on a
flexible bamboo stick is truly horrific, and Kobayashi does not spare his
viewers the gore.

Clan elder Saito tells this story to
Tsugumo, illustrated through flashbacks, encouraging him to withdraw his
request. Undeterred, Tsugomo reiterates his desire to carry out the ritual, and
once again, the Iyi clan courtyard is prepared for harakiri.

When it turns out that none of
Tsugomo’s preferred seconds are present, the ritual gets delayed as the men’s
absence is investigated. At this point, Tsugomo tells the story of how he came
to the point of engaging in such an act, and the vindication and revenge he
hopes to achieve against the Iyi clan.

For a movie that mostly involves
people sitting around, it has a rich story line and is well paced. Most of the
action happens through flashback, which gives the viewer snapshots of the
series of events that led to the current situation. Kobayashi handles the
tension beautifully, feeding us snippets of information, but keeping us in the
dark about much until the very end. The acting is superb, and Tatusuya Nakadai
is particularly outstanding, alternating seamlessly between warm-hearted,
grieving family man and war-hardened, revenge-seeking warrior.

We come to empathise with the
down-and-out ronin, who are victims of a political situation not of their
making, and come to despise the remaining clans’ devotion to empty ritual, and
their clinging to power to such a degree that they lose the ability to see
their fellow humans as individuals, not just as symbols, representatives of
their class or position. In this way, Kobashi is criticising the authoritarian
nature of postwar Japanese politics and society, which restricts people’s
ability to act freely and form true relationships with each other.

Jidai-geki films are well known for
their fight scenes, and while I found this one unconvincing and overly long,
the end of the film is a poignant reminder of the fate of those who dare
question those in power.

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