While browsing through Criterion films at the bookstore, I came across a copy of Harakiri (1962) (directed by Masaki Kobayashi) and realized this was a film I’d neither seen nor heard of before (and it sounded really good). Fortunately, my library had a copy I could borrow and last night I dove in headfirst and discovered a tragedy in every sense of the word.
Harakiri is set in 1630 during the Edo period (the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate). It starts simply enough with a ronin named Tsugumo Hanshirō (Tatsuya Nakadai) approaching the Iyi Clan to formally ask permission to perform harakiri (ritual suicide) in their forecourt as he is tired of living in abject poverty. As it turns out, he is not the first ronin to have approached with this request. Some months prior, another ronin, Chijiiwa Motome had come with the same request. The problem is, at this time, many ronin were approaching various lords to make this request in order to receive alms to make them go away. Fed up with this practice, the Iyi Clan forces Motome to perform harakiri, even though it’s revealed his swords are only made of bamboo.
The scene where Motome slowly kills himself is incredibly painful to watch. The way it’s put together, you literally feel every thrust of that dull bamboo blade as he thrusts it into himself. To compound the nightmare, the clan has determined that his suffering will not end by beheading until he has thoroughly ripped himself open (it’s made clear that they could have beheaded him straight off, so they’re choosing to make him suffer).
All of this is related to Hanshirō in an attempt to make him reconsider his request, but the ronin will not be denied. Once he’s settled for the ritual, then the full tragedy comes out.
It turns out that Motome was Hanshirō’s son-in-law, married to his only daughter Miho. They had a son named Kingo and lived happily for a while, even though they were very poor (Hanshirō lost his master and thus his living to harakiri some years prior). Then, in quick succession, Miho becomes ill and not long after so is Kingo (both die not long after Motome’s body is brought back). Motome is unable to find work as his status as a samurai makes him ineligible for common labor but none of the clans are hiring ronin since there have been no wars for many years. Desperate (and having already pawned his blades for money to help his wife and son), Motome departs one day saying he knows of a way to get more money to pay for a doctor, but he never comes back alive.
Your heart will break watching Motome struggle to find ways to support his family. If I understand correctly, samurai are considered to be “above” manual labor, which is why Motome is stopped every time he approaches a work site. He also can’t openly beg for money because that’s considered shameful as well. In effect, this family is completely screwed over by the system, small wonder that Motome resorted to asking to commit harakiri in the courtyard as a means to get alms (a practice that he had previously, in better times, said was shameful and only done by the worst kind of person).
Hanshirō’s point in relating all of this is to point out that no one should criticize another for doing something out of desperation. After all, what would you do if you were in their place? Unfortunately, Hanshirō’s lesson falls on deaf ears as the clan firmly believes they did nothing wrong. In fact, they’re so insulted by the ronin’s words that it’s decided they’ll kill him and not let him commit harakiri after all. This leads to an amazing sequence where Hanshiro fends off dozens of samurai as he moves through the building. There’s one or two strikes and then everyone freezes, but you can see them analyzing each and every move. It’s almost like watching a Mexican stand-off: at various points, though they outnumber him, the clan’s samurai stand frozen because Hanshiro has them in such a way that if any of them make a move, he can kill them. Tatsuya Nakadai is mesmerizing in this scene: you can tell he truly wants to die, but since the clan wants to make it difficult, he’ll take as many of them as he can with them.
Though Hanshirō is brutally killed at the end (with guns no less, they couldn’t even kill him with swords), I do think one person learned something from this, even if he won’t admit it. Saitō Kageyu, the senior counselor for the clan, is seen with a very ponderous look on his face while Hanshirō is being pursued and killed. I believe that Hanshirō’s words did have an effect on him, and maybe he is starting to believe that the system is broken. In fact, after learning that one of the samurai who participated in forcing Motome to kill himself has also committed harakiri, he instructs a messenger to order the other two participants to kill themselves also, adding: “Send a squad of men to make sure it is done.”
Ultimately (and this may be the greatest tragedy of all) nothing seems to change as a result of Hanshirō’s actions. The courtyard is cleaned, all signs of the fight are removed, what was the point of all of this? Maybe the point is there IS no point, sometimes sacrificing yourself to prove a point accomplishes nothing. That, at least, is my thought as I consider the ending of a very moving film.
If you’ve seen Harakiri, what did you think about it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below and have a great day!
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One of my all-time favorite films, certainly my favorite Tatsuya Nakadai film (even more than RAN or SWORD OF DOOM). Remade recently by the prolific Takashi Miike, nothing touches all the beautiful, poignant bitterness of the original work by Masaki Kobayashi. Wonderful review.
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