Harder Than It Looks

Film: Harakiri
Year: 1962
Director: Masaki Kobayashi

Harakiri is set during the early seventeenth century, a period when war and strife had decimated once-powerful samurai clans across Japan, and many a skilled and studied bladesman was reduced to a masterless ronin, wandering the streets and countryside with little aim besides subsistence, hardly more than a beggar. Apparently, it was common practice at this time for a needy ronin to appear at a surviving clan’s doorstep and request permission to use their court as a venue in which to honorably excuse themselves from the hardships of life—often instead leaving with a few coins and the local lord’s pity, or even fresh employment. Thus a scam is born.

After hearing of the increasing philanthropy of their neighbors, the samurai of the Iyi clan have become wise to the ploy. When a haggard veteran named Tsugumo comes calling one spring day, they are suspicious of his resolve to commit ritual suicide at their open-air altar. The senior counsellor, Kageyu, invites Tsugumo to his chambers and tells him of the last ronin who pleaded for this favor: when the Iyi tricked the young man into revealing his true intentions, they forced him to see through the promised mutilation. Tsugumo avers that his self-destructive proposal is in earnest, and his demeanor suggests no less. The steward leads his guest to the courtyard and assembles his retainers to witness the ceremony. While they await the bloodshed, Tsugumo begins to relate a story of his own, shedding harsh light on himself, the Iyi’s former victim, and the very practice of symbolic suicide.

The roots of Harakiri lead back to writer Shinobu Hashimoto’s work on the legendary Seven Samurai, which as a wee zygote was planned to be a record of the classical samurai’s daily life. Harakiri is no such diary excerpt, but instead is what many have called an “anti-samurai” picture, a moral undressing of the widely hallowed Bushido, or code of the samurai. One of the most outstanding tenets of this doctrine is, of course, the act of harakiri—known in Japan by the more macabrely connotated term seppuku. The deed entails a samurai’s self-disembowelment using their own sword, which here as always functions (I think, don’t listen to me) as something between a token and a literal incarnation of their soul. The primary operation of this unimaginably painful display is a sort of dual-purpose repentance and punishment for some otherwise unpardonable disgrace. Besides this, seppuku could also serve as a deeply venerable method of early retirement. Given these applications, and the intense trappings of honor affixed to the act, a façade of harakiri fever could also be used as a bargaining chip by penniless samurai who would prefer something to eat over the toothy tithes of Bushido.

For Hashimoto and director Masaki Kobayashi, harakiri signifies even more: the ultimate expression of a fundamentally inhumane and totalitarian system. The movie stands at once in awe and in condemnation of the practice of seppuku, striking a mean balance that few contemporary films seem interested in pursuing. (Mel Gibson’s directorial work comes to mind, though it tends to tip in favor of awe; his sappy but sporadically stunning Oscar contender Hacksaw Ridge is no exception.) Once of the first items on the filmmakers’ agenda is the seppuku catch-22 to which the Iyi clansmen treat the desperate young ronin Motome, who precedes Tsugumo: if Motome is to secure the samurai’s respect and ideally their money, he must prove his honor by pledging harakiri—but once he has so pledged, to back down upon the offer of charity would be a disgrace forgivable only through the same sacrifice. He is left with no choice. The scene of his death is made all the more gruesome, and the young man’s character all the more amazing, by the fact that he has already pawned his swords out of destitution and must slice himself open with bamboo.

Bushido as a creed is not on trial here so much as the inflexible devotion it was sometimes paid during Japan’s feudal ages. Part of the enthralling irony of Harakiri is that its hero, Tsugumo, challenges the authoritarian order by exemplifying it, by following decorum to the letter—at times more rigidly than his bloodthirsty audience, it seems—and twisting the codes of honor against those who have not learned to exercise them righteously. Disciplined heroes become villains and monsters under the pathological commitment to a dogma, inflected with cultishness and sadism, to the point that it overrides basic human decency. As, I believe, the only actual veteran of battle in the movie, Tsugumo has lived through enough to distinguish a martial philosophy’s benefits from its dangers; if overtheorized and underpracticed, by those who have never seen war or hard times, it can become like a sword without a hilt.

Harakiri’s political consciousness is a descendant of Kobayashi’s earlier The Human Condition, an anguished World War II trilogy comprising a ten-hour death punch of tragic storytelling, which maybe sacrifices a certain amount of visual energy in pursuit of its remarkable thematic material. The artistic merits of Harakiri are more akin to Kobayashi’s following feature, the breathtaking ghost horror epic Kwaidan. In both of these movies, cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima achieves a sort of proto-hi-def quality, with every face—and faces are a recurring point of fixation—rendered in a clammy, abject porousness that bespeaks all the sweat and sorrow of life. Tatsuya Nakadai as Tsugumo is, by default, the face to watch—and he is great, foreshadowing his work twenty years ahead as the doomed monarchs of Kagemusha and Ran—but in terms of countenance alone I was more transfixed by Rentaro Mikuni as the magisterial Kageyu, who spends much of the movie studying the jaguarlike composure of his guest and growing less sure of who is inside the cage and who out. Yet even Mikuni hardly trumps the strength of the secondary actors, all of whom intermingle feelings of ritual, schadenfreude, piety, and terror as they prepare to witness another grisly performance of seppuku. Not a speck of these emotions is lost as Miyajima’s camera siphons from the beady flesh of their cheeks and brows with a penetrating vibrancy.