Cast & Crew
In the 17th century samurai who have been left without a livelihood as a result of the centralization of political power roam the countryside, appealing at clan estates for permission to commit harakiri, hoping that the clans will give them employment or alms rather than see them die. Hanshiro Tsugumo visits the Iyi estate in Edo and asks for such permission. As a warning Kageyu Saito, the clan's chief retainer, tells Hanshiro of Motome Chijiiwa, a young samurai who earlier came there with an identical request. To prevent the debasement of the samurai code, the young man's bluff was called and he was forced to go through the harakiri ritual, though he carried only a bamboo sword. Hanshiro, undeterred, asks in turn for each of the clan's three principal swordsmen to act as his second in the harakiri ritual, but none dares appear. Hanshiro reveals that he was Motome's guardian and father-in-law. He explains that Motome had sold his sword, desperately trying to provide for his wife and child, who have since died. In his plan for revenge Hanshiro has waylaid the three swordsmen--who were responsible for forcing Motome's suicide--and has dishonored them by cutting off their topknots. Kageyu orders his men to kill Hanshiro, but the old samurai, in a furious battle, kills and wounds many of Kageyu's men before he dies. Kageyu orders his three retainers to commit harakiri and decrees that what has occurred must remain a clan secret.
Kobayashi had served in World War II, which he later called "the culmination of human evil," but he expressed his opposition to the war by refusing to accept promotions in rank. He also spent time as a POW. After the war, he resumed the film career which his military service had interrupted, and his films began to express his pacificist views. He commented on the Japanese warrior code of honor in The Thick-Walled Room (1953), and in The Human Condition trilogy (1959-61). But while those films were set in modern times and actually dealt with the war and its consequences, Harakiri was an allegory with a feudal setting. "In any era, I am critical of authoritarian power," Kobayashi said. "I think it was one of my weightiest films, and also crystallized my aesthetic consciousness."
Shinobu Hashimoto, who had written several scripts for Akira Kurosawa, including Rashomon (1950) and The Seven Samurai (1954), both period dramas, wrote the screenplay for Harakiri. "It is about the solitary demeanor of the masterless samurai," Hashimoto said in an interview, and added that he wrote the film quickly, in just eleven days. But while the story and setting of Harakiri are historic, the style of the film is resolutely modern. Kobayashi employs elegant, formalist compositions, but also modern innovative techniques such as zooms and unusual framing, using the film's striking visual style to comment on the rigid, outmoded codes of behavior by which feudal society lived.
Also modern was the film's star, Tatsuya Nakadai, a theater actor who was discovered by Kobayashi in the 1950s and worked with him frequently, as well as with Kurosawa. Nakadai was only thirty when he appeared in Harakiri, and the character is about fifty, but Nakadai's intensity and his haunted, mournful eyes speak of years of pain and sorrow, as well as steely resolve. The actor recalled that Kobayashi stopped filming for three days to carefully choreograph the climactic fight scene with him. Kobayashi insisted on real blades in the scene, and when Nakadai expressed concern, the director dismissed his fears, saying "Just duck, and you'll be fine."
Harakiri was nominated for a Palme d'Or at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival, but lost to the Italian epic The Leopard. However Harakiri took home a Special Jury Prize, and was a huge hit in Japan, launching Kobayashi into the pantheon of Japanese directors of historical epics. Even the fusty, traditional New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, who found the film "curiously obfuscated...and inevitably tedious," admired Kobayashi's "exquisitely stark photography....Mr. Kobayashi does superb things with architectural compositions, moving forms and occasionally turbulent gyrations of struggling figures in the CinemaScope-size screen. He achieves a sort of visual mesmerization that is suitable to the curious nightmare mood."
In the decades since they were made, critical appreciation for Kobayashi's best films has grown, and Harakiri is acknowledged as much more than just a samurai movie. As Michael Sragow wrote in the Baltimore Sun in 2006, "Kobayashi was Kurosawa's peer, not just in style, but in iconoclastic potency. Harakiri upends all expectations...Kobayashi derives as much drama out of facial twitches as he does out of sword fights. And Nakadai delivers a performance that sweeps through the story like a lava flow."
by Margarita Landazuri
Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri on DVD
Honored at the Cannes film festival, Harakiri is considered one of the best Japanese films ever made.
Synopsis: Penniless and starving, the Ronin Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nadakai) presents himself at the gates of the Iyi clan asking for permission to commit ritual suicide - seppuku - in their courtyard. Although he seems sincere the Iyi retainers are suspicious, as many penniless Ronin are approaching clans under the same pretext, when what they actually desire is a menial job or charity. The clan leader tells Tsugumo the story of Motome Chijiwa (Akira Ishihama), who had come not long before. Chijiwa had acted erratically but once his request was made the Iwi samurai compelled him to go through with the suicide. They also forced him to use his own dull bamboo knife, making his act twice as difficult. Tsugumo insists that his knife is not bamboo and he will not shirk, and all the Iwi retainers gather for the ritual. Tsugumo asks for one of three particular Iwi swordsmen to be his aiding executioner, but none can attend, offering excuses of illness. The Iwi leader demands that Tsugumo proceed anyway, but the wily Ronin has his own surprises to reveal.
Samurai films come with a number of stock themes, but director Kobayashi chooses instead to use the genre to criticize authoritarian hypocrisy. His Samurai hero has lost everything by no fault of his own. His clan leader is deposed over a political mishap, throwing 1200 vassals into limbo. Sworn to serve their master to the death, the many Ronin Samurai turned out into the streets have limited ways of making a living. Hanshiro Tsugumo holds onto the honor of his caste, refusing to let his daughter become a concubine and declining work not worthy of his rank.
The story of Harakiri could easily be told on a stage, yet the film is in no way stage-bound. The present action takes place in the course of one afternoon, with several stories told in flashback form. Each flashback is a major narrative surprise, subverting what we've seen before while adding a new level of complexity. The devious Iwa clan is moved by Tsugumo's sincerity but also suspects that his presence is a ruse, that he may have an agenda beyond a simple request to kill himself. Both conclusions turn out to be 100% true.
Run-of-the-mill Samurai fare expects us to routinely accept swordfighters with near-superhuman skills as resolutely steadfast and ruthless in their beliefs. The Samurai hero's stoicism and noble worship of death is frequently contrasted against corrupt bureaucrats, craven bandits or scheming turncoats. Hanshiro Tsugumo at first appears to be just this kind of impenetrable icon, insisting that he wants to die and challenging his Samurai peers to do little more than hear him out before he does himself in.
But Tsugumo's flashback narrative reveals him to be an ordinary man betrayed by his noble values. Desperate to save the life of his adored grandson, it never occurs to him to sell his valuable swords to pay for a doctor. Tsugumo's son-in-law appears to have skipped out on the family when he's most needed, until his horrible self-sacrifice is revealed. Tsugumo's mission at the Iwa compound is a suicide gesture that becomes a protest against the self-important Samurai who dwell within.
Kobayashi's film is fluid and animated, expertly directed to raise viewer interest to the maximum. It has several excellent action scenes, including one grossly difficult act of seppuku that we can almost feel - it's like trying to gut one's self with a butter knife. The action is realistically bloody but doesn't exploit its mayhem. One classic duel on a windswept hill features star Tetsuro Tamba of the Bond film You Only Live Twice.
Tatsuya Nadakai is a solid actor capable of projecting both rigid authority and strong depths of emotion; his best scenes involve his unrestrained affection for his daughter and grandson. That emotional bond makes us all the more concerned for his fate. We want very badly for the ragged Tsugumo to reach the conclusion of his mysterious mission.
The film's cynical conclusion compares the hypocrisy of the Iyi Samurai with the corrupt corporate leaders in Akira Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well. The urge toward a cover-up of misdeeds and crimes also invites comparison with the conclusion of John Ford's Western Fort Apache. Cavalry officer John Wayne officially whitewashes the bad policies of his predecessor in the interest of maintaining the honor of the corps, and the audience is meant to approve. Harakiri takes a more jaundiced view of official lies in the name of so-called honor.
Criterion's DVD of Harakiri is the expected beautiful enhanced B&W presentation. The excellent audio showcases Toru Takemitsu's spare score, highlighting the raw sounds of ancient instruments that would become the backbone of his horror omnibus Kwaidan. Donald Richie provides an introduction for the feature that should by no means be seen first. There is an original trailer as well.
The second disc has a poster gallery and new interviews with Tatsuya Nadakai and writer Shinobu Hashimoto. The Directors Guild of Japan provides a 1993 interview with Kobayashi excerpted from a longer show; director Masahiro Shinoda hosts. Disc producer Curtis Tsui fills a thick pamphlet insert with an essay by scholar Joan Mellen, accompanied by her revealing 1972 interview with Kobayashi, a sharp-minded and outspoken man.
For more information about Harakiri, visit the Criterion Collection. To order Harakiri, go to TCM Shopping.
By Glenn Erickson
Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri on DVD
Swordsmanship untested in battle is like swimming on land.- Hanshiro Tsugumo
Released in Japan in 1962 as Seppuku.
Winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival.
Released in United States 1962
Released in United States August 1963
Released in United States May 1963
Released in United States September 12, 1963
Shown at Cannes Film Festival May 1963.
Shown at Montreal World Film Festival August 1963.
Shown at New York Film Festival September 12, 1963.
Released in United States 1962
Released in United States May 1963 (Shown at Cannes Film Festival May 1963.)
Released in United States August 1963 (Shown at Montreal World Film Festival August 1963.)
Released in United States September 12, 1963 (Shown at New York Film Festival September 12, 1963.)