#2 in my ranking of Masaki Kobayashi’s films.
Masaki Kobayashi had shown great talent for a long time before this, and he’d even made the engrossing epic The Human Condition which seems like it could have been the pinnacle of any man’s career, and then he goes and makes Harakiri. In the year following his completion of his humanist epic, he made two films rather quickly. The first, The Inheritance, is an entertaining little noir, but Harakiri feels like something that has been agonized over for years before completion. The precision of the visuals, the exacting nature of the dialogue, and the complex structure that only heightens the experience all come together to create one of the great samurai movies that, because it was made by Masaki Kobayashi, is only out to demonstrate the flaws of the entire samurai system and Bushido, Kobayashi’s first work in jidaigeki.
A middle-aged ronin, Hanshiro (Tatsuya Nakadai) comes to the gates of the House if Iyi in Edo, asking them access to their courtyard to commit seppuku instead of leaving himself to starve in the streets in this time of great peace in Japan where unattached samurai have no hope for employment. However, the Clan of Iyi’s senior counselor Saito (Rentaro Mikuni) tries to dissuade him. There have been a rash of ronin approaching great houses in Edo, begging for the same opportunity, after one ronin had been granted a position in another clan’s house. Most ronin who do this now are simply deterred by a simple offering of a few coins and told to go on their way, but the Iyi Clan has decided on a different tact. Saito tells him the story of another ronin, Chijiiwa (Akira Ishihama) who came begging, and, persuaded by one of the senior samurai, Hikokuro (Tetsuro Tamba), they forced the young ronin to go through with the ceremony. Saito explains in explicit and exacting detail the torture they forced Chijiiwa to go through, including the use of his own bamboo sword to disembowel himself, despite Chijiiwa’s begging for one day’s respite.
Hanshiro hears this tale quietly, assuring the counselor that he has never heard of Chijiiwa, that his sword is not made of bamboo, and that he has every intention of dying in the Iyi’s courtyard. Saito lets him go forward, and that’s where the movie gets really interesting.
Hanshiro lied to Saito when he said he didn’t know Chijiiwa. Waiting there for his chosen second to appear, Hikokuro, he begins to tell his tale of how he showed up at that door. He was Chijiiwa’s father-in-law, brought together under the lordship of their own lord who committed seppuku ten years before at the order of the Shogun. He raised the boy along with his own, younger daughter for years in the peace of Edo where he could find no work other than the creation by hand of umbrellas. In order to save his daughter Miho (Shima Iwashita) the fate of becoming a courtesan, he begged Chijiiwa to marry her instead.
I’ve often wondered if this movie would work as well as it does if it was just told chronologically. It would need a rewrite (there would be no need for most of the dialogue in the first thirty minutes), but it obviously could be told that way. Would it lose something? I think it really would. Most of the backstory of the film, the loss of a position for Hanshiro, his friend’s seppuku, his adoption of Chijiiwa, his doting on Miho, and the hardships they all suffered together under the unfeeling, feudal system are told in a concentrated twenty-minute dose at the center of the film. By that point, we already have an understanding of Hanshiro’s resignation towards death as well as having witnessed the wanton cruelty Iyi showed towards Chijiiwa. If the point of the film were the emotional character journeys, I might say that the rearrangement would be necessary, but that’s not the point.
Kobayashi was trying to say something very specific about the feudal system Japan had just emerged from and still lingered in a modified form. He used his characters to tell this point, that Bushido was a lie used by those in power to maintain themselves. This becomes extremely explicit later in the film, but it ends up working because of the emotional journey we follow with Hanshiro. This isn’t a lecture (though Hanshiro and Saito do end up lecturing each other at one point), this is a father’s final act of vengeance against a system that sent him into poverty with no way to support his daughter’s virtue other than to marry her to another ronin.
Probably the most affecting emotional moment is when, in flashback, Hikokuro and two others bring Chijiiwa’s body back to Hanshiro, and Hanshiro discovers that Chijiiwa had sold his swords, replacing them with the bamboo weapons. Hanshiro had never even considered the selling of his own sword, for, to a samurai, his sword is his soul, but he could have sold it for the money to help save them from the desperation of poverty that had sent Chijiiwa to the doors of the House of Iyi. In not selling his own blades, he had doomed Chijiiwa to death as much as anyone.
The film takes a surprisingly fun ironic twist in the fates of Hikokuro and the two other samurai, providing our first concentrated dose of samurai action in the film up to this point, but the real battle is yet to come: Hanshiro’s final blow against the Iyi clan and the whole system that they abused to torture his son-in-law. He knows he’s going to die, as we heard from his early dialogue with Saito, and he goes out making a blow, but there’s one final bit of irony. Saito, untouched by the violence, has the entire affair swept under the rug because it would reflect badly on Iyi and their lord. Their official account makes only a small mention of Hanshiro as having committed hara-kiri in the clan’s courtyard.
I’ve praised Kobayashi’s visuals before, but the way he composes his frame in Harakiri is on another level. The precision and depth of his images, especially in the beginning where he has group conversations between a dozen people of the Iyi clan in a single room, where each is completely in frame and at different distances to the camera, feels incredibly natural and allows each speaking part their ability to stand out without relying on a series of closeups that would lose the geography of the scene. The courtyard itself is filmed cleanly and mostly from afar, to keep that same clarity, but there’s also an emphasis on distance that underlines the point that the system is dehumanizing.
I have to take a moment to talk about Nakadai as well. For the longest time, having seen this film years ago and only relying on my memories, I was convinced that this movie starred Toshiro Mifune, but it was Mifune’s costar from Yojimbo and Kurosawa’s choice of his replacement in Kagemusha and Ran that took the central role of Hanshiro. He holds himself extremely well, seemingly almost dead in the beginning, barely hearing what Saito is telling him, but becoming increasingly ferocious as the film goes on. He was a strong actor, and it’s interesting to note that while his performances in both Yojimbo and Black River are of the same, insane variety, he’d never really approached it again in any other work with Kobayashi, choosing to go more subtle and human, reaching his apex here.
This is one of the crowning jewels of Masaki Kobayashi’s body of work. It is an amazing combination of storytelling with purpose, told with incredible skill in his assured hands. This movie is great.