Tag Archives: Tatsuya Nakadai

My thoughts on: Harakiri (1962)

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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.

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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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My thoughts on: Yojimbo (1961)

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Ever since I first saw Throne of Blood on Hulu (back when the Criterion Collection streamed their films on that site), there has been a special place in my heart for Kurosawa’s jidaigeki films (a jidaigeki film is literally a “period drama” usually set during the Edo period of Japan from 1603-1868, though some can be set earlier). And one of my favorite jidaigeki films is Yojimbo (1961), a film that may sound familiar to fans of Western films. Why would that be? Well, listen to the brief summary first:

A nameless samurai (Toshiro Mifune) comes to a small town that is the center of a feud between two families, both engaged in underworld crime. The nameless samurai plots to save the town by pitting the two families against one another by pretending to be a bodyguard (yojimbo) for each side until they destroy each other.

If that sounds like the plot of A Fistful of Dollars (1964) starring Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name then you would be correct. What I never knew until I saw Yojimbo is that director Sergio Leone “borrowed” the plot of this film from Kurosawa’s work and repeated it wholesale for his spaghetti Western. Kurosawa filed a lawsuit when the film came to his attention, stating that while Leone had made “a fine movie, but it was my movie!” Ultimately the lawsuit was settled out of court for a certain percentage of the profits made from A Fistful of Dollars.

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As stated in the brief summary, the nameless samurai comes to a rural town that is slowly being suffocated by two families. It was originally ruled (more or less) by Seibei    (Seizaburo Kawazu) and his gang. But when Seibei sought to retire and announced that he would be giving all of his territory to his inexperienced son, his right-hand man Ushitora (Kyū Sazanka) balked and started his own gang in retaliation. The two have been trying to eliminate each other for quite some time but remain locked in a stalemate. Seeing how the town is suffering from the two gangs, the nameless samurai (who later gives himself the name Sanjuro Kuwabatake) determines to eliminate them.


Ushitora (left) and his brothers: Unosuke (center) and Inokichi (right)

Part of what makes Yojimbo such an excellent film is that it turns the traditional depiction of a samurai on its head. As a general rule, samurai were depicted as these noble beings, not a hair out of place and they wouldn’t dream of killing anyone for something as base as money. Sanjuro is the complete opposite of all of these ideals: he’s visibly scruffy; his clothes have seen better days; and his whole world apparently revolves around profit (though this is later tempered when he secretly gives his ill-gotten gains to a peasant family to help them start a new life). Toshiro Mifune completely owns this role for certain. In fact, this film did so well that Mifune reprised the role the following year in Sanjuro (1962).

My favorite part of this film is the middle act where Sanjuro plays each gang off of the other, with both sides completely oblivious to the manipulation. For example, Sanjuro overhears one of Ushitora’s men drunkenly spouting off to a friend about how they murdered a government official. After capturing them and taking the pair to Seibei, Sanjuro goes back to Ushitora and tells them that Seibei’s men captured the pair (leaving out the fact that he made the capture himself).


Seibei (left) begs Sanjuro to work for him

The plan nearly goes off without a hitch but there are some complications: right in the middle of Sanjuro’s scheming, Ushitora’s younger brother Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai) returns after a trip abroad. And the semi-deranged Unosuke brought back a present: a pistol (that he knows how to use very well thank you very much). On top of this, Sanjuro’s good deed of helping a peasant family escape (including the wife who had been forcibly given to one of Ushitora’s associates as a concubine) is found out by Unosuke, who drags him back to his brother’s gang to be beaten unmercifully until he gives up where the family went. Sanjuro manages to escape, naturally, and he makes sure his only friend in the town, Gonji (Eijirō Tōno) the tavern owner, tells Ushitora’s men that the samurai went back to Seibei’s place to hide.


This proves to be the final straw: Ushitora and his men set fire to the rival gang’s base (a brothel) and slaughter them all as they come running out to fight, though they do spare the brothel girls as they run for their lives. After killing Seibei’s son and his scheming wife, Unosuke shoots Seibei and the war for the town is seemingly over. Gonji sneaks Sanjuro out of town to help him recover, but is caught taking supplies to him and is captured. Sanjuro won’t stand to see his friend hurt, so he returns to town to dispatch Ushitora and his gang. In relatively short order he kills them all, only sparing a young farm boy that he saw at the beginning of the story running away from the family farm, ordering him to go back to his parents and enjoy “a long life sipping gruel.”

With the gangs eliminated, Sanjuro frees Gonji and with a simple “See you around!” heads off for the road.

The film is made even better by Masaru Sato’s excellent, almost jazz-like score for this film. It doesn’t seem like the kind of music you should hear in a period film like Yojimbo, but it absolutely works. One of my favorite musical moments is, when Sanjuro is stalking Ushitora’s gang for the last time, all you really hear for a minute is a soft tap on a high-hat cymbal.

Have you seen Yojimbo or Sanjuro the sequel? If so, what did you think about them? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below! Thank you so much for coming by and checking out the blog, your support means everything to me!

For more of my thoughts on Kurosawa, see also: My Thoughts on Throne of Blood (1957)

And also see: Live-Action Films/TV for the rest of my film reviews 🙂

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