Harakiri (1962) movie poster

(1962) dir. Masaki Kobayashi
viewed: 08/02/09

I’ve developed quite a liking for Samurai films over the last couple of years, and though I’ve seen several, there a lot of interesting and important films of the genre that I still have to see.  And I think that the choices I’ve made in selecting films to watch has been skewed toward the masterpieces, the high points.  But this is both good and bad.  The good, clearly, is watching excellent films that stand out, impress, wow, draw you in, but also often work as either archetypes of the genre or in interesting subversion of the genre.  As is the film Harakiri.

The film has an interesting structure, but centered on an event unique to the Samurai culture, the act of seppuku or harakiri, the ritual suicide by disembowelment, which was considered a noble end for a fallen or shamed samurai.  A wandering ronin, a samurai without a master, who has fallen on hard times, comes to the noble house of another clan and asks to use their porch for harakiri, a request that must be accepted socially, since it is considered part of the samurai code and so this must be respected.  However, due to the breakup of a large clan’s house, hundreds of ronin flood the Edo area and a spate of such requests have come due.

Initially, the nobility of the requests were appreciated by some of the clans and the samurai who was ready to take such a noble step as ritual suicide rather than waste away in poverty was brought in and added to the staff.  As word got around that this was possible, more and more ronin showed up, hoping to be taken in, but largely they were given money to go away.  This spate of semi-blackmail begging is noted by the house master to the samurai who has presented himself for harakiri, and he agrees that it is shameful that samurai have taken this path, but that he is truly there for seppuku.  The master then relates a story to him about what happened the last time that this particular house had such a visitor, how they led him to believe that he might receive assistance, but then told him that they would instead respect his wishes and allow him to die.

The man, who was evidently not prepared for this outcome, begged for two days release before returning to commit harakiri, but is denied.  And then is forced to kill himself with his own bamboo sword, which is shameful enough in itself, but woefully inadequate for the act of seppuku.  And yet, he does, agonizingly gut himself.

The structure of the narrative unfolds in the flashback telling of stories, interwoven in such a way that it’s not simply a cheap device, but a very formal one.  Director Masaki Kobayashi frames many of the shots within the formal confines of the Japanese architecture, symmetrical framings of the buildings, which reflect the criticism that his film offers, which is a flat-out condemning of the hypocrisy of the samurai code, of the implied honor of their rules, while behind these structures hide normal human need and life.  And just as the samurai who has come to commit ritual suicide condemns the house for its hypocrisy and inhumanity, Kobayashi burst the formal space, thrashing the scenery, in the one true “fight” sequence.

The film is set at the onset of the samurai era, and so, as noted by a film historian on the disc, Kobayashi’s critique is meant to blast the entirety of the supposed nobility and righteousness of the structures of creed and society, not merely the late period of the samurai era (which is most often the setting for these films), to demonstrate that this is not the “crumbling” of a once proud system, but a flawed, false system from the very get-go.  This is further emphasized by the fact that as the story is written for history, it is whitewashed, erased, eradicated, any critique or failure, hiding again behind the empty armor that symbolizes the hollow shell that is the samurai ethic.

It’s funny in that sense to watch a notable samurai film that debunks the samurai myth.  But that is the case when gaining knowledge of genre films, that sometimes the most interesting ones are the ones that challenge the norms of the form, perhaps even the rules and ideology therein.  I’m sure that you could find such things in the American Western, too.

However emblematic or alternatively unique this film is in the samurai filmography, it’s truly a remarkable and excellent film.  Interesting, powerful, and well worth seeing.

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