Harakiri (1962)
Directed by Masaki Kobayashi

Starring Tatsuya Nakadai (Hanshiro Tsugumo), Rentaro Mikuni (Saito), Shima Iwashita (Miho), Akira Ishihama (Motome), Tetsuro Tamba (Omodaka), Yoshio Inaba (Jinai)
Screenplay by Shinobu Hashimoto
Cinematography by Yoshio Miyajima

Shochiku, 135 minutes
B&W, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray: Criterion


That's the best word to describe Harakiri. Every aspect of it is just right and could not be reasonably improved upon. After directing about a dozen films with present day and World War II settings, Masaki Kobayashi decided to make his jidai-geki debut and completely owned the genre in his first try. It's difficult to talk about another filmmaker outmatching Kurosawa in this arena, but this is probably the best samurai film I've ever seen – or maybe more appropriately, the best "anti-samurai" film (a.k.a. cruel jidai-geki). Harakiri shares some common threads with Kurosawa's classics, having a screenplay by the great Shinobu Hashimoto, whose writing credits also include Rashomon and Seven Samurai, as well a magnificent lead performance by Tatsuya Nakadai.

The first thing that makes Harakiri so great is its simplicity and its intensity. Anyone could understand this movie without being a foreign film buff or scholar of Japanese history. It's very elemental and gives you all the exposition you need. Another thing is the structure and the pacing. Harakiri is a textbook example on the proper use of flashbacks to heighten the effect of the narrative by revealing information one piece at a time in an unconventional sequence that's not a gimmick but essential. The story metamorphosizes as it unfolds and nothing is what you initially believed.

As the title indicates, this movie is about the well-known samurai ritual of self-disembowellment to atone for dishonor. The story takes us beyond our cavalier preconceptions shaped by cultural references to John Belushi threatening suicide over botched dry cleaning and such, and makes us meditate deeply on what such an unthinkable act would mean in harsh reality.

The premise of the story is that a ronin named Hanshiro Tsugomo arrived unannounced at the castle of the Iyi clan and requests permission to commit seppuku at their gate. Tsugomo explains that his clan has been abolished and he has been unable to find employment. Rather than go on in poverty and disgrace, he wishes to die the honorable way. An Iyi clan official named Saito agrees to meet with Tsugomo and informs him that his request is not unprecedented.

Saito tells Tsugomo the story, shown in flashbacks, of a young ronin named Motome Chijiiwa who came there some months earlier under the same circumstances. The Iyi officials met to talk it over and concluded that Motome was bluffing. After word had circulated about a ronin asking to commit seppuku at a clan's gate and being offered a position in recognition of his valor, there was a trend of others trying for the same reward. Even if the ronin didn't get a job offer, the clan was likely to give him some money to get rid of him and sidestep the attention that a ronin's suicide would draw. The Iyi resolve to be hardliners instead of starting a reputation as an easy target for extortionists. So they grant young Motome's request and prepare a full ceremonial seppuku setting for him.

Motome seems stunned by their accommodating response and begs for a postponement. To further support their suspicions, it turns out that Motome's swords are made of bamboo. Instead of giving him a steel blade for the ceremony, the Iyi officials insist that Motome must use his own, scornfully noting that the sword of a samurai is his soul.

This is one of the film's many brilliant touches. It forces us to re-assess the horror of cutting one's belly open with a knife by presenting an alternative that's even worse: gouging oneself to death using a dull and flexible stick of bamboo. Kobayashi vividly gets that across in a brutally unflinching sequence whose cruel novelty amplifies its intensity.

We cut back to the present as Saito concludes the tale of Motome. Undeterred, Tsugomo reaffirms his intention to "disembowel myself in grand form." The Iyi clan gathers its retainers in a courtyard to witness the ronin's valiant final act. At this point, barely half an hour into the film, you get the feeling that everything is coming to a head and the story is going to have to come to an immediate end. And yet the movie is two hours long, and you find yourself having absolutely no idea what else can happen. The answer turns out to be more flashbacks, as Tsugomo is permitted to tell his story before killing himself. Bit by bit we come to learn who Tsugomo is, how he ended up as a ronin, and most crucially, his close relationship to the ill-fated Motome with the swords of bamboo.

As each new revelation is skillfully unfolded, the tension mounts to levels that become almost unbearable. Harakiri is perhaps the most suspenseful movie I've ever seen, which is quite an accomplishment considering that the story mostly consists of people sitting around talking.

But make no mistake, this isn't strictly a cerebral art film with no action. All the fighting is strategically reserved for the third act and the climax, where some major chambara excitement breaks loose. I would have to name the flashback duel between Tsugomo and Tetsuro Tamba's Iyi clansman as my all-time favorite swordfight without lightsabers in it. I love that scene some much I honored it with the header graphic for The Jidai-Geki Knights. Th – e gusts of wind and mist tossing the tall grass, the painterly clouds of gloom, the temple monuments in the background, the restrained score of tense biwa strumming, the sword choreography and the stunningly balanced compositions... everything about it is perfection.

Just like the rest of this grand and towering masterpiece.

The Jidai-Geki Knights