The Essential Series: Harakiri (1962)

The Essential Series

I discontinued myEssential Series column last year due to my rather absurd movie write-up backlog (February 2011 saw me publish 27(!) posts). But as I’ve begun to focus primarily on contemporary pictures, the early year lull of new pictures has got me thinking that I should revitalize this old chestnut of an idea. The concept of The Essential Series is to reflect on the films that I hold closest to my heart. So in what I hope to turn into a regular column, I’ll be exploring my favorite films, relishing in the experience of revisiting classics that have shaped my understanding of the cinema.

Harakiri (1962)

Directed by Masaki Kobayashi

Frequent Akira Kurosawa collaborator and screenwriter of Harakiri, Shinobu Hashimoto made no grand effort to make Harakiri a timely feature. As he notes in a Criterion interview, the picture was created as a way to describe “a day in the life of a samurai”. But in developing the screenplay, Hashimoto touched upon a larger social condition in which the very idea of being a “samurai” takes upon different meaning. One views a samurai with a particular sense of reverence – they’re warriors of great intellect, superior conditioning, and unfaltering honor.  Even those samurai who are at the bottom of the social strata are viewed with a sense of nobility, as seen in their unwavering dedication to justice in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. With Harakiri, Hashimoto seems to be subverting this sense of reverence by addressing the concept of shame as it pertains to samurai culture. Critiquing the politics and corruption of being a samurai is a compelling enough narrative, but Hashimoto acutely constructs his narrative around a humanistic lens.

Harakiri opens with a ronin (a samurai without a master to serve) named Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai) who comes to the samurai house of Lord Iyi. This masterless samurai inquires about using the temple’s courtyard to commit harakiri. Given the widespread poverty in the land, the request is hardly atypical. And in committing suicide, Tsugumo will be forgiven of any past sins. But before Tsugumo is to proceed, he is told a story about another man who came to the Iyi House gate.

The narrative flashbacks to a man named Motome Chijiiwa who proposed a similar query. But unlike Tsugumo, his intentions don’t seem genuine. Several samurai of the Iyi House mention that peasant ronin have asked to commit harakiri throughout the land, only to be turned away in exchange for cash. So instead of offering Chijiiwa any money, they go along with his proposal. This is obviously not what Chijiiwa had in mind, and with only a bamboo blade, he does not have the adequate tools to complete the ritual. Still, he is forced by the various members of the Iyi House to commit the act. It’s only by laying the weapon on the ground and tossing his body onto the bamboo blade is Chijiiwa able to complete the act. It’s an incredibly harrowing scene that underscores the sense of misguided reverence one can have for samurai culture.

The flashback ends and we find Tsugumo still willing to go through with his harakiri. He seems unfazed by the story. So, like with Chijiiwa, preparations are made for Tsugumo to go on with his harakiri. Sitting on a blanketed wooden crate and surrounded by Lord Iyi’s samurai, the audience is set for the ritual. But before he goes on with the act, Tsugumo specifically requests a “second” for his act. A second’s duty is to slice off the head of the individual committing harakiri, therein completing the act and insuring safe travels to the heavens. Tsugumo requests any of three names to be his second. Most curiously, none of the three are at the house – all of them are absent due to claims of sickness. This is obviously a perplexing situation to Lord Iyi, who begins to question the reasoning behind Tsugumo’s visit. And that’s precisely where the narrative unfolds in stunning fashion, as Tsugumo arrests the Iyi House with his compelling life story, wherein the reason for his arrival extends beyond committing harakiri.

There are two particular aspects to Harakiri that standout as especially subversive and compelling. First is the aforementioned screenplay by Shinobu Hashimoto. Hashimoto’s use of flashbacks is particularly inventive as he utilizes the technique to not so much halt the narrative, but to construct its significance. There’s a specific methodology to the way he logically constructs Tsugumo’s arrival to Iyi House and the importance of Chijiiwa’s death – Hashimoto diligently unites the two narrative threads together in spectacular fashion. And while tinkering with chronology is hardly a new method of storytelling, there’s something admirable about the precision of it all. Most pictures tend to benefit from a messy way of unfolding the twists and turns of a narrative. Here, Hashimoto is less concerned with surprising the audience – he bluntly allows Tsugumo to acknowledge that he knew Chijiiwa early in the picture. Instead Hashimoto tells a compellingly simple story of lost love and poverty. Hashimoto is aware that leaping back and forth in a timeline can remove the audience from the visceral nature of a film, therein he utilizes the technique for its analytical benefits. This absence of narrative gimmickry makes the whole picture come together in a very realistic way.

Another crucial aspect of the picture’s success is Masaki Kobayashi’s tight direction. He takes Hashimoto’s verbose and dense material and turns it into a picture of rich cinematic worth. It’s hard to believe that a script riddled with such pronounced and antiquated dialogue could have so many moments of complete silence – with every scene of exposition comes an equally evocative scene of characters coming face to face with their demons in silent reverence. The placement of Kobayashi’s camera serves to underscore the tension of the picture as well, as he peers in on the action from an angle and from above. When Tsugumo sits in front of Lord Iyi with all the samurai observing the proceedings, Kobayashi positions his shot from above, as if an outside spectator attempting to avoid detection.

Kobayashi subscribes to a very methodical pacing that displays a keen understanding of Hashimoto’s script and a crisp sense of developing tension. There’s a precision to everything involved throughout the film, wherein Kobayashi lingers on scenes and constructs frames with a deeper understanding of their meaning. This is particularly evident in the way he handles a sword fight between Tsugumo and a member of Lord Iyi’s House. Taking place in a dusty and windy environment, Kobayashi choreographs the sequence with such detail, allowing the scene to move slowly and with the utmost realism. The whole sequence functions as a group collaborative, with Kobayashi leading his actors and technicians to create a scene of such palpable tension.

My first time viewing Harakiri was in December of 2008. So moved by the picture, I took the film to my brother, rewatching the picture and exposing him to a piece of subversive cinema that was foreign to both of us. I finally returned to the film earlier this week and was just as riveted by it now as I was then. It’s one of those rare films that have a timeless quality to it. The brutality and honesty that Harakiri evokes is something that can’t easily be forgotten.