See this movie before you die – “Harakiri” (1962)

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“This thing we call samurai honour is ultimately nothing but a facade”. So says Hanshiro Tsugumo in the mansion of the Iyi Clan one afternoon in the year 1630. And it’s this facade that forms the groundwork of Masaki Kobayashi’s “Harakiri” (1962), based on the novel by Yasuhiko Takiguchi.

Similar to “Rashomon” (1950) and “Seven Samurai” (1954), two of iconic director Akira Kurosawa’s most acclaimed works (If you haven’t seen these movies, do yourself a favour and designate about six hours of your life to watching them. Hey, if you can binge-watch a full 10-episode season of “Game of Thrones”, then you can survive watching both movies back-to-back), “Harakiri” uses the historical past of the jidai-kegi, or period film, to address social and political themes that affected post-WWII Japan. Masaki Kobayashi, like other Japanese directors in the 1950s and 1960s, used film to express their dissidence with the state of postwar Japan, as well as challenge institutions that held on to archaic beliefs of the feudal past. A lifelong pacifist, Kobayashi spent the majority of his film career defying tradition and authority with the postwar drama “The Thick-Walled Room” (1956), the three-part, NINE-HOUR (for those keeping score, that’s roughly one hour short of that “Game of Thrones” binge session that I just mentioned) anti-war epic “The Human Condition” (1959 – 1961), the visually striking ghost story anthology film “Kwaidan” (1964), and the jidai-kegi drama “Samurai Rebellion” (1967), which starred the legendary actor Toshiro Mifune of “Rashomon” and “Seven Samurai” fame.

The story: One afternoon, a shabby, starved ronin (or unemployed samurai) by the name of Hanshiro Tsugumo arrives at the mansion of Lord Iyi in Edo (Tokyo). A former retainer of the Fukushima Clan, Hanshiro (like many other former samurai who, according to the code of Bushido, dedicated their hearts, souls and swords to serving their masters) was cast aside and forced to seek employment elsewhere. With no purpose in a time of peace, and little to no reason to live, he requests permission from Lord Iyi’s senior counselor, Saito Kayegu (Rentaro Mikuni), to perform harakiri in the forecourt of the mansion. Harakiri, or seppuku (the film’s Japanese title), is a ritualistic act of suicide which begins with self-disembowelment with a short blade – either a knife (tanto) or short sword (wakizashi) – and concludes with the decapitation of the samurai in one stroke (kaishaku) by a swordsman (kaishakunin) selected by the samurai himself.

Though it was common at that time for ronin to request permission to commit harakiri in the courtyards of Clan residences, Saito is somewhat suspicious of Hanshiro’s request. There have been recent cases where ronin used their harakiri requests to swindle the Clan leaders into giving them money. In an attempt to test Hanshiro’s resolve, Saito tells him a story of a young ronin named Chijiwa Motome (Akira Ishihama), another former Fukushima Clan retainer who came to the Iyi mansion a few months earlier with the same request. Already aware of the “harakiri scam”, Saito grants Chijiwa his request, provided that he performs harakiri immediately. Problem was, Motome had recently pawned the blades of his swords and had them replaced with bamboo. The Iyi Clan is angered that a samurai would do this, since a sword is considered to be a “samurai’s soul”. With no chance of escape, and no choice but to uphold his honour as a samurai, Motome slowly and PAINFULLY disembowels himself with his bamboo blade before having his head lopped off by the kaishakunin.

After completing his story, Saito sternly questions Hanshiro’s sincerity. Hanshiro assures him that he is indeed sincere in performing harakiri. But before doing so, he requests an audience with Saito and the Iyi retainers to tell a story of his own: a story that will challenge the belief system of the entire Iyi Clan and the fatalistic code of Bushido that they continue to adhere to.

In a video interview recorded for the Criterion Collection DVD of “Harakiri”, film critic Donald Richie called the film an ‘anti-samurai movie’. Unlike other jidai-kegi films, “Harakiri” is set in the early years of the Edo / Tokugawa era, specifically between the years 1619 and 1630. There are samurai in the movie, but they are not the gallant, horse-riding, armor-wearing, enemy-slashing, war cry-yelling badasses that you’d expect to find in a chambara, or samurai action movie. Instead, they are presented as complex individuals who wrestle between willingly adapting to the changing times or refusing to let go of traditional ideologies. Additionally, – and this may disappoint the action junkie or gore hound reading this – there aren’t that many fight sequences or scenes with blood that occur in this movie. Yes, there is blood (more focused on the gut-wrenching – and I mean that in EVERY sense of the term – disembowelment scene with Motome) and there is combat, but “Harakiri” is more concerned about the emotional, psychological and political aspects of its story than the visceral, action-packed elements one expects in a samurai flick.

Unlike the film’s 2011 3D remake (Yes, ladies and gents….3-D….REMAKE!!) “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai” directed by Takashi Miike (who made the incredibly AWESOME chambara “13 Assassins” one year prior), “Harakiri” maintains a dark, haunting and bitter tone. The first few opening shots set this tone brilliantly. An empty suit of armour is shot from different angles inside a room enveloped in darkness and mist. Even when the back wall of the room is illuminated slightly by a back light, the armour still appears dark. This suit is the symbol of the Iyi Clan and represents their martial valour, and yet in these opening shots (and sporadically throughout the film) it’s presented as hollow, ghost-like and lifeless, a remnant of olden, obsolete rules and traditions.

This brief opening sequence is further enhanced by the hypnotic black-and-white cinematography by Yoshio Miyajima (who collaborated with Kobayashi on “The Human Condition”), and the evocative, minimalist musical score by Toru Takemitsu (who provided the music for “Kwaidan”). Miyajima’s cinematography is atmospheric and expressive in its parallels with light and dark, old and new, life and death. The courtyard, for example, where both Motome and Hanshiro sit in front of the Iyi retainers, is brightly lit, while the buildings and the interiors where the retainers sit and observe the proceedings (and hold the fate of both Motome and Hanshiro in their hands) are shrouded in shadow. Takemitsu’s score also parallels old and new, as well as slow and fast tempo, with its use of traditional Japanese musical instruments (like the biwa – played in an intense, erratic rhythm in the opening credit sequence) and orchestral violin music (played to a crescendo-building and SPINE-CHILLING degree in some of the film’s bleaker moments).

The story by Yasuhiko Takiguchi and Shinobu Hashimoto is well-constructed and exceptionally written. First-time viewers may be turned off by the slow pace (visualized by the static shots and slow, smooth camera movements utilized throughout most of the film), but believe me, the tension (and believe me, there’s LOTS of it) that slowly builds throughout “Harakiri” will keep you engaged throughout its runtime. It has a similar approach to “Rashomon”, where one story is told from different points of view, and the viewer is left to figure out which one is correct. One can argue that the courtroom-like setting of the film is similar to one memorable scene in “Rashomon” where a medium channels the spirit of a murdered samurai to tell the Court the story of how that samurai was killed. But what makes “Harakiri” so immensely powerful is the fact that you understand both the points of view of Saito and Hanshiro (even if Saito’s POV is conceited), which makes it really difficult to say that one’s point of view is more wrong than the other. Saito comes from a group that believes in the traditions of Japan’s old era and respects those who still hold on to them (i.e. the request to commit harakiri). Hanshiro wanted nothing more but to live and have a great life in this new era, even with its hardships and difficulties. The story that he tells Saito and the others – which I won’t reveal any details on – is so achingly heartbreaking that you can’t help but sympathize with the poor guy. But Saito’s rebuttal, which led to the aforementioned statement that I used to start this review, is understandable (even though you shouldn’t agree with it) when placed in the context of the reputation, pride and honour that the Iyi Clan has fought, bled and died over for generations.

And what’s a review about “Harakiri” without mentioning Tatsuya Nakadai? I haven’t the foggiest idea, since every review you’ll read about this movie will make mention of its lead actor. Nakadai, who also appeared in “The Human Condition”, “Kwaidan” and “Samurai Rebellion”, brings a MAGNIFICENT, extraordinary performance as Hanshiro Tsugumo. As one of Japan’s greatest actors, Nakadai brings a heightened sense of emotional volatility to his character. Sure, the supporting cast deliver great performances as well (especially Rentaro Mikuni as Saito), but it’s the range of emotions that Nakadai brings to the table – from fiercely intense to immensely sorrowful –  that truly makes his character stand out in every scene he’s in. And he has a great singing voice. Seriously, he does. Check out the film and you’ll see what I mean.

In the end, Masaki Kobayashi used this film to make a bold statement (one that’s still relevant to this day) about the backwardness, irrelevance and hypocrisy of the Samurai code in modern times, and how a corrupt system can use that code to keep themselves in power, whilst bringing misery and death to the powerless. While it is grim and uncompromising at times, “Harakiri” is a powerful, gripping and unforgettable masterpiece of Japanese filmmaking. Regardless of whether you like samurai films or not, if you like foreign language films or not, if you like black-and-white films or not, if you’re a cinephile or not, if you know what the word “cinephile” means or not, or if you like “Game of Thrones” (which is completely unrelated to this movie. I know!) or not, this is a DEFINITE must-see! It’s one of the best samurai movies ever made, it’s one of the best Japanese movies ever made – and yes, it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen in my life. But y’all knew that, ’cause why else would I say in the title to this write-up that you should “see this movie before you die”? Because you really should, that’s why!

MY RATING: 5 out of 5 stars (“See this movie before you die”)

– Matthew