It’s no secret that Japanese movies are sometimes a tough sell for me, though I have to admit that’s starting to turn around. Someday soon I may have to stop using that excuse. This isn’t the MOST affecting classic-era Japanese film I’ve seen (that would be Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff), but it’s definitely one of the more emotionally raw ones, and I appreciated that greatly about it.
Harakiri is the Japanese custom of suicide for the sake of honor. In this case, a ronin, Tsuguma, whose master has died, leaving him no one to serve, comes to a nearby noble’s estate and requests to perform harakiri in his courtyard. The noble stops him and tells him the story of another ronin, Chijiiwa, who recently made the same request…as you might guess, these stories are connected.
What the film does so well is subtly shift the audience’s point of view as we gradually gain more knowledge and understanding of what’s really going on. At first the suggestion is that harakiri is a noble act, performed when a samurai’s master is killed thus depriving the samurai of his purpose in life. The noble at the estate tells of how some ronin are going around the country, requesting to perform harakiri at various estates and then accepting a few coins in exchange for leaving without bloodying up the courtyards. This is seen, and perceived by the audience, as very dishonorable, and it’s tempting to side with the nobleman when he forces Chijiiwa to follow through on his request – honorably.
But then we see the other half of the story as Tsuguma tells us of the events leading Chijiiwa to request harakiri, and by the end, layers upon layers of this idea of honor have been unraveled. Instead we see the complete lack of prospects for masterless ronin. I guess they can’t go to a new master? Or else there were none Chijiiwa and Tsuguma could go to. And they can’t work as day laborers or get any other sort of “regular” job. It was an act of desperation that sent Chijiiwa on his path to tragedy, and the revenge Tsuguma desires feels justified, especially after the devastating scene when the noble’s men bring Chijiiwa’s body back to his already-ill wife, who mourns him loudly and heart-wrenchingly.
The sense of family is strong in this movie, even stronger than abstract honor, and that’s what gives it its strength. In fact, in its treatment of the noble clan’s ancestor statue (images of which both close and open the film), Harakiri both interrogates the samurai code, revealing it as ultimately empty, and also reluctantly acknowledges how difficult it is to move away from it in such a society.
It’s great to see a wider variety of Japanese film, as adding Ozu, Mizoguchi, and now Kobayashi to my repertoire has definitely given me a greater appreciation than I was getting from just Kurosawa. It’s a beautiful film, too, full of striking compositions and high-contrast lighting. Definitely ready to follow this trail further and see what else I’ve been missing.
Stats and stuff…
directed by Masaki Kobayashi, written by Shinobu Hashimoto
starring Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Ishihama, Shima Iwashita, Tetsurô Tanba
I’m ranking all my Challenge films on Flickchart (as I do all the films I see), a movie-ranking website that asks you to choose your favorite between two movies until it builds a ranked list of your favorites. Just for fun, I will average out the rankings and keep a running tally of whose recommendations rank the highest. When you add a film to Flickchart, it pits it against films already on your chart to see where it should fall. Here’s how Harakiri entered my chart:
Harakiri > Leave Her to Heaven
Harakiri > The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
Harakiri > Hail, Caesar!
Harakiri < Wings of Desire
Harakiri < Red River
Harakiri < Shoot the Piano Player
Harakiri > Now, Voyager
Harakiri < House of Flying Daggers
Harakiri < Good Night, and Good Luck.
Harakiri < El Dorado
Harakiri > Day & Night
Harakiri > Kiki’s Delivery Service
Final #428 out of 3686 (88%)
It is now my #1 Masaki Kobayashi film, my #42 Mystery, my #10 Revenge film, my #1 Samurai film, my #2 Social Problem Film, and my #8 film of 1962.
Harakiri was recommended by David Brook, a friend and cowriter at Row Three.
A few more screenshots…