Masaki Kobayashi, 1962
Harakiri (or Seppuku as it is known in Japan) is my personal favourite film about samurai, and I would argue that from a certain perspective it might be the greatest example of the jidaigeki genre: the issues it raises are universal, and yet because of the social conventions the plot is arrayed around it is simultaneously uniquely Japanese.
The movie was relatively well-received in its time, winning the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1963. The director, Masaki Kobayashi, is less well known in the west than the triumvirate of 'great' Japanese directors - Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu - and from what I can tell his reputation in Japan is not much better. This is perhaps not surprising as Kobayashi is unusual not just as a Japanese director but as a Japanese person in that he is willing to openly criticize and question convention. It is a broad stereotype to be sure, but as a personal anecdote whilst preparing to write this article I watched the film again along with my wife who saw it for the first time. She is not an irrationally emotional woman, but the tone of the movie was so abnormal and uncomfortable to her that she had a bad dream about it that night.
Kobayashi himself was a pacifist in World War II, and though he was drafted into the army he stubbornly refused to accept promotion above the lowest rank in protest. His major work, The Human Condition trilogy (1959-61), is considered to have many autobiographical elements even though it is based on a novel written by another, as it tells a bleak and gruelling story of a soldier's experiences in the war. It is essentially about the individual's helplessness in the face of the state, and this theme is broadly what Harakiri is concerned with also.
Harakiri, thus, is not a happy or a heroic film. I would describe it almost as feverous; the camera angles are intensely close at times and at skewed angles others, the soundtrack hums with the rolling, frantic, never quite subsiding thrashing of what I believe to be a biwa lute, punctuated with sudden violent stabs of percussion. It is quite unique amongst the jidaigeki films I have seen. Yojimbo is prepared to satirize the samurai but no more. Harakiri is filled with a cold and humane loathing for them.
As mentioned above, the story abounds with idiosyncratic Japanese behaviour. The titular harakiri (the cruder, though more well-known to the west term for seppuku) is ritual self-disembowelment that the samurai performed either in acts of contrition, in devout loyalty to their lords, or in protest. It was and is regarded as an incredibly noble act of purity. The film Harakiri, however, takes precisely the opposite view, seeing it as the cruel and wasteful symbol of a perverted form of honour.
An impoverished samurai needs money to pay for medicine for his infant son. He has heard that should you threaten/request to perform seppuku at the gates of a local wealthy Lord, rather than risk accruing the spirits of dead men haunting his property the Lord will give a pittance to see the samurai on his way. Many others have apparently had this idea, and the Lord has become sick of beggars. He decides to make an example of this samurai, and forces him to go through with the act to discourage others. But he is a sadistic man, and because the poor samurai has sold his steel swords the Lord forces him to perform seppuku with the mock bamboo blades he brought with him. He dies in agony. Several months later, his father-in-law arrives, seeking revenge. How he does this is threaten/request to perform seppuku in the same manner.
Tatsuya Nakadai plays the vengeful father-in-law, Tsugomu, and for me in this movie he is the image of what I perceive to be the samurai. Toshiro Mifune is undoubtedly the most famous samurai actor in the west, and he plays the tough and rugged hero well. Nakadai is of far more slight build, unimposing, yet through the course of the movie he gradually summons, or rather reveals incrementally a terrifying fury. He starts off sardonic: others speak reverentially of the noble act of seppuku, Tsugomu in turn repeatedly makes a dismissive hand-across-stomach gesture and says something to the effect of "Oh, you mean this?" As the plot progresses and he slowly reveals to the gathered court the vengeance he has enacted his bearing changes, his back straightens, his eyes blaze above the thick beard he wears.
The film wells and wells along with him, burning slowly towards an explosion of violence at the end. One of the most striking things about the film is its modernity in its construction. Though it is filmed in black and white and the limiting technology of the time leads to occasional clumsy editing, it does not seem grossly outdated fifty years after its release. The camera work is creative, engaging, enhances the plot rather than simply portraying the actors saying the plot as is the tendency sometimes in the conservative Japanese cinema. Extreme close-ups are held to show the worry of the cruel Lord growing, seeing him pockmarked and all but slick with sweat. Tsugomu conversely is portrayed in long wide shots kneeling upon the ritual dais, and through the course of the film the courtyard around him slowly fills up with men of the Lord.
He, the individual, surrounded and engulfed by the state.
The allegory is not the subtlest in Harakiri, but the rare sense of anger in my opinion overrides criticism of it. Tsugomu, we learn, was a devoted master swordsman of a clan that was abolished on a whim by the Shogunate a decade prior. Twelve thousand innocent souls, as Tsugomu put it, cast adrift to perish by governmental decree. It is because of this abolition Tsugomu and his son-in-law find themselves in the dire straits that necessitate the son-in-law begging money of the cruel Lord that begins the film, and the same implacability of the whole that ultimately ends it.
Consider the iconic image of the film, when Tsugomu fights a swordsman of the clan on a windy moor. At the climax he assumes an odd stance with the sword, pictured here:
It is, as far as I can tell, no legitimate method or technique of wielding the weapon. It is instead a symbol, arms crossed over his heart, forming a barrier that marks him as separate and individual. But though he has made this definite, righteous choice, it is a frail defence. At the frenzied fight to the death that ends the film, where Tsugomu is slowly overwhelmed by numbers within the halls of the clan's estate, he tries to form the guard again but its frailty is quickly revealed. Breached, he is left helpless and then cut down pitilessly by a volley of musketfire.
His ultimate death is not particularly unusual; heroes rarely live in Japanese stories. Allow me the conceit of quoting myself from Child of Vengeance:
Though the protagonist might perish however, he is usually rewarded with posthumous esteem for his struggling. This is regarded as a worthy trade in a culture historically steeped in the sanctity of honour of the family name. Tsugomu however undergoes his decade of ordeal, and at the end he is instead utterly annihilated.
The blood is wiped up. The garden is raked anew. The Lord's ancestral suit of armour Tsugomu threw down in his last desperate moments is reset and revered. The Lord orders the swordsmen that failed to stop Tsugomu previously to commit seppuku, then orders the news spread that they died of a plague so that no outsider will discover Tsugomu's triumph. The final image is of an impartially written ledger of the clan's history closing shut, its author remarking that "[our clan] will continue to prosper throughout the ages."
Things go on.
In his very last moments, realizing his death is imminent, Tsugomu does in fact perform the seppuku he promised the Lord he would at the start of the film. It is desperate, done on his feet frantically just before the guns fire, and it is interesting to think of what exactly Kobayashi's intention was here. Is it a last piece of mocking defiance illustrating Tsugomu's disdain of the code of the samurai? Or the director's commentary on the inevitability of such a bitter end for an individual when pitted against such odds?
There is human anger in Tsugomu's eyes, but his grunts and growls of agony are demeaning and bestial; what he has been reduced to. It could be read either way. Watch yourself, have a think.
Harakiri was remade recently as Harakiri: Death of a Samurai by the infuriatingly inconsistent Takeshi Miike (Thirteen Assassins by him is well worth checking out if you like more action in your samurai movies). I have yet to see it, but I cannot imagine it will compare well to the original.