Masaki Kobayashi’s Challenges Japan’s Idealized Notions of Its Feudal Past with ‘Harakiri’

Kobayashi’s ‘Harakiri’ is clear-eyed and unswerving in its focus, much like Tsugumo on the ritual mat.

Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai), a down-and-out ronin (a masterless samurai) appears at the gates of the prosperous Iyi clan with an unusual request: he wishes to commit ritual suicide in their courtyard. When Tsugumo is brought in, clan counselor Kageyu Saito (Rentaro Mikuni) tells him that ever since a ronin appeared at the gates of another house with the same request and was given a job, half-starved ronin have been coming out of the woodwork, asking for the dignity of seppuku but in reality wanting a job or a few coins in exchange for going away.

Tsugumo assures Saito that he truly means to die, at which point Saito tells him of Motome Chijiiwa (Akira Ishihama), a samurai who came to their gates not long before, and how his story did not turn out as he had hoped. The house, which prides itself on its stern martial tradition, had made a brutal example of Chijiiwa, to dissuade any other ronin from ever darkening their doors.

Still, Tsugumo is unswayed and he is led to the courtyard, where the clan’s samurai assemble to witness him perform an act of the highest honor. But this is where things start to unravel. Tsugumo reveals that he knew Chijiiwa quite well, despite earlier claims to the contrary. He also requests specific Iyi swordsmen to act as his second, but they all turn out to be ill and absent from the estate. Tsugumo remarks on the strange coincidence. The Iyi officials, on the other hand, quickly convene. Tsugumo is obviously playing them, but to what end?

They send one of their men to the homes of the sick samurai, to learn the extent of their illness. In the meantime, Tsugumo offers to tell the tale of how he became a ronin and how he ended up in the Iyi courtyard. It’s at this point that Harakiri turns into a chess match between Tsugumo and Saito, with Tsugumo lecturing the assembled Iyi samurai on the meaning of honor, and insulting the Iyi clan whenever he has the chance. Several times, Saito orders his men to kill the stalling Tsugumo, but Tsugumo repeatedly talks his way back to the ritual mat.

It’s during this extended verbal duel that Kobayashi’s film reveals its subversive heart as an anti-samurai film. Tsugumo openly questions not only the honor of the Iyi house but also of the daimyo and of the Bushido code itself. Tsugumo’s story is one of honor, surrounded by the self-sacrifice of others, and the low place that he finds himself has taught him quite a few things about the folly of the title he spent much of his life taking such pride in.

As Joan Mellen’s accompanying essay and a video interview with Japanese-film historian Donald Richie show, Kobayashi was part of a post-occupation vanguard of Japanese filmmakers who challenged their country’s idealized notions of its feudal past. Kobayashi, in particular, was an unflinching critic of the hypocrisy that he saw in his country, often using period films (from the 17th Century of Harakiri to the World War II setting of his nine-hour The Human Condition) to mask the criticisms he levelled against the current government.

As with any director, Kobayashi structures several elements of Harakiri for maximum symbolic effect to a Japanese audience, and this is where Mellen and Richie’s commentaries are invaluable. For example, by setting the film in 1630, rather than the much later period favored by other samurai films, Kobayashi implies that the corruption of honor existed at the very birth of the Tokugawa shogunate and was not the result of some inevitable and understandable fraying of the system at the end of the shogunate’s 250-year reign.

As with most Criterion releases, Harakiri boasts an embarrassment of bonus features, some of them ported over from the film’s 2005 release and some of it brand new. In addition to the Richie and Mellen contributions, there are also separate video interviews with Kobayashi, Nakadai, and screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto. The interviews are informative and entertaining, containing surprising tidbits like the fact that the action scenes were filmed with forbidden live blades (contributing to those scenes’ slower pace), and an anecdote about Kobayashi halting filming for three days while Nakadai and Mikuni debated over how to best project their lines across the courtyard set. The only flaw in this new Blu-Ray release is that it apparently preserves a cropping problem that existed in the previous release.

Harakiri is a magnificent film (it won the Special Jury Award at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival) that creates its own vivid sense of dignity as it slowly and deliberately spirals toward an inevitable violent climax. Nakadai displays impressive range as we see Tsugumo fall from a life of privilege to a hardscrabble existence to the dire straits that lead him to the Iyi courtyard. As his foil, Mikuni is perfect as the grim (and increasingly short-tempered) face of a system that is being challenged. It’s clear-eyed and unswerving in its focus, much like Tsugumo on the ritual mat, knowing that many people will not like its message, but insisting on delivering it, anyway.

RATING 9 / 10