by HELEN GEIB
At the start of Harakiri (1962), ronin Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai) applies to the Iyi Clan for the privilege to be allowed to commit hara-kiri* in the forecourt of the clan’s estate. He is granted an interview with the clan’s young headman. The headman relates the story of another ronin, Motome Chijiwa, who applied for the same favor a short time before. He asks if Tsugumo knew this young man, as he was from Tsugumo’s clan. Tsugumo answers evasively that his clan had many retainers at the height of its prosperity and it was impossible to know them all. At the end of his story, the headman suggests that Tsugumo might wish to give up his request and depart. Tsugumo responds that he has come prepared to die.
The events of the film take place almost entirely inside the Iyi estate and at Tsugumo’s small home, but the larger setting is a city overrun with destitute ronin (samurai whose clans have been abolished by the Shogunate or who have been expelled from their clans) and their families. Some of the most desperate have adopted the practice of approaching one of the large clans and declaring they wish to commit hara-kiri under its auspices as a pretext for begging for alms. Chijiwa had the misfortune to be the first to apply to the Iyi. The clan compels him to act on his application, and exercises its compulsion through a series of decisions that demonstrate an implacable cruelty. Chijiwa’s end is widely broadcast as a deterrent to possible imitators and a prideful declaration of the clan’s adherence to the samurai code of honor.
Chijiwa’s story is told through flashbacks inter-cut with Tsugumo and the headman’s discussion. Tsugumo’s application is accepted and he is taken to the forecourt; the headman and many retainers gather to act as witnesses. Hara-kiri requires a second and a messenger is dispatched to fetch the samurai Tsugumo nominates to fulfill that function. While they wait, Tsugumo tells his story. Chijiwa was not a stranger. He was the son of Tsugumo’s closest friend, his charge after the fall of their clan, his son-in-law, and the father of his grandson. Tsugumo tells of the halcyon days before he was made a ronin, the family’s subsequent hardships and struggles to eke out an existence, the fleeting days of happiness after the birth of the baby.
Like Chijiwa’s, Tsugumo’s story is told through flashbacks inter-cut with the ongoing dialogue between Tsugumo and the headman. The narrative structure builds suspense and helps to draw out the film’s theme, but perhaps most importantly, it makes the film endurable. In a linear telling, the incremental accumulation of tragedy would be overwhelming. In this telling, Tsugumo has already lost everything when the film begins. Only the consummation of his revenge stands between him and a longed-for death.
The ultimate consummation of his revenge is not the deaths of the guilty (necessary but subsidiary), but the annihilation of the clan’s comfortable hypocrisies about the samurai code. The film’s theme is that the samurai code is a hollow facade and beyond that, that it is barbaric and useless. In a series of devastating revelations, Tsugumo exposes the Iyi “honor” as a sham. His revenge is complete. But he takes no comfort in his own adherence to the code; he refutes his hearer’s and his own lifelong belief in its worth. His life and death alike conform to the highest ideals of his class, but what of it? Living and dying according to the code did not earn food, or medicine, or another day on earth for the people he loved.
Harakiri is one of the great samurai films for the consummate artistry of the filmmaking, the powerful and complex performance by Nakadai, the gripping story, and the uncompromising moral outrage that drives the film to its shattering conclusion.
Harakiri is available in a 2-disc edition from The Criterion Collection. Features include a new transfer with newly translated subtitles, an introduction by Japanese film scholar Donald Richie, an excerpt from a prior interview with director Masaki Kobayashi, new interviews with Tatsuya Nakadai and screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto, the trailer and a poster gallery, and a booklet with an essay by film scholar Joan Mellen and a reprint of her 1972 interview with Kobayashi.
*Hara-kiri is a form of ritual suicide practiced by the samurai class in feudal Japan. Seppuku, a more formal term for hara-kiri, is the term used by samurai and also the original Japanese title of the film. It is a gruesome act. I refer the curious to Wikipedia for a more detailed description.
New releases this week: CJ7, Irina Palm, Smart People