Opening Up a Treasure: Harakiri
Japan / Shochiku / 1962 / Black and White / 133 Minutes / Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Harakiri is a truly remarkable achievement, particularly in the way the filmmakers brilliantly present and develop their “story within a story” to provide viewers with a supremely immersive intellectual and emotionally visceral involvement quite unlike any other in the history of motion pictures.
Japan’s 17th-century peacetime environment causes the Tokugawa shogunate to dissolve the warrior clans forcing many masterless samurai, or ronin, out of work and into destitution. Under the samurai code, an honourable end to such direness is ritual suicide, aka seppuku or hara-kiri (self-inflicted disembowelment). At the time, many desperate samurai would present themselves at the gates of various well-established clans requesting the ceremonial act. Since the time consuming ritual would first require various house members’ conferral and subsequent presence, not to mention a “second” top swordsman to complete the violent deed by swiftly and proficiently removing the soon-to-be decedent’s head, quite often the samurai requesting the ceremony would instead be the welcome recipient of almsgiving or even better, offered remedial employment.
An elder warrior, Hanshirō Tsugumo seeks admittance to the Iyi house of a feudal lord to commit the act in the palace’s courtyard. He is told of a young rōnin, Motome Chijiiwa who preceded him, also requesting the ritual take place but was discovered to really want some work at the house instead. As the clan hierarchy decided to "call his bluff" and set an example to deter other samurai from following in the young applicant's footsteps, a decision was made to force the poor ronin to commit traditional hara-kiri in an excruciatingly barbaric, humiliating and painfully prolonged manner: with his dull bamboo blade. (We learn that Chijiiwa had to sell his sword to provide for his sick family). This is told to the elderly samurai in order to scare him off, but Tsugumo seems undaunted by this revelation and insists on his willingness to go through with the act, unlike his young predecessor who begged to take leave and return, but was denied.
So once again, the ceremony precedes. While a few Iyi personnel are scrambling to find one of Tsugumo’s requested “seconds” who are mysteriously absent or another suitable assistant, the about to be departed samurai tells a story to the other clan members attentively waiting in the courtyard. When Tsugumo’s matter-of-fact story, told with an intense ominous solemnity, reveals a connection to his young predecessor, paralleling the storyteller's subdued, slow-burning desire for revenge, his tale sends deathly chills up the spine, increasingly spills into and complicates the present tension-filled circumstances, and foreshadows an explosively violent showdown to his yet to be concluded narrative.
Hanshirō Tsugumo is possessively consumed by Japan’s most proficient actor Tatsuya Nakadai, who provides us with one of the screen’s finest, character-revealing performances ever committed to celluloid. Masaki Kobayashi has directed with consummate precision and subtle finesse what is perhaps the most perfectly constructed, intricately layered, exhilarating, and thoughtfully compelling screenplay ever written, by the greatest screenwriter of all time, Shinobu Hashimoto, whose credits comprise many of Japan’s most accomplished cinematic works: Rashomon, Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Samurai Assassin, Sword of Doom, and another masterpiece for Harakiri’s director Kobayashi, Hidden Gem #62 Samurai Rebellion.
Harakiri is an immense tragedy of enormous stature, rich in irony, and while it voraciously denounces the very cultural codes of tradition its deeply felt characters cling to, still miraculously manages, in its own special way, to honour and respect them. This is a film that transcends its jidai-geki or period-drama setting with a profound emotional and physical force best exemplified by its stunning apocalyptic conclusion. Once witnessed, this timeless and magnificent work of art promises never to be forgotten.
Harakiri is one of my Turner Classic Movies' recommendations for the month. It is scheduled to air Sunday, September 11 at 11pm PST. Immediately following, TCM will present Samurai Rebellion at 1:15am (technically Monday morning) PST.