Harakiri (1962)

Director:  Masaki Kobayashi
Cast:  Tatsuya NakadaiAkira IshihamaShima Iwashita 
Plot:  An elder ronin samurai arrives at a feudal lord's home and requests an honorable place to commit suicide.  But when the ronin inquires about a younger samurai who arrived before him things take an unexpected turn.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won Jury Prize (Cannes).
Runtime:  133min
Rating:  PG for some disturbing scenes.

“What befalls others today, may be your own fate tomorrow.”

A samurai about to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide, sits in an open courtyard in the middle of a clan house and tells a story to all who are willing to listen.  He is surrounded by armed samurais who are there to witness his death, perhaps too eager to do so.  They are impatient and want the ritual to be done neatly and quickly.  But Hanshiro (Tatsuya Nakadai) the lone samurai continues to tell his story.  This goes on for the bulk of the entire film, and you might wonder: is this really a samurai picture?

Yes it is, and by many counts, one of the most accomplished in its sub-genre, albeit an unconventional work that still remains less well-known than the swordfighting epics such as Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954), Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962).

Directed by the underappreciated Masaki Kobayashi (The Human Condition trilogy, 1959 – 1961; Kwaidan, 1964; Samurai Rebellion, 1967), Harakiri contains no elements of swordfighting until the very end, which is spectacularly staged.  Yet for the preceding two hours, we are engaged by the storytelling involved, both of the film, and by Hanshiro. 

Through flashbacks that create drama and intrigue, Kobayashi expertly gives meaning to the filmic present by recalling the past.  There's a hidden tale, bleak and tragic, forced out of one's quest to right a wrong.  The relentless agency of the individual against a corrupt authority is what powers Harakiri, which inevitably also functions as a political statement against authoritarianism.

The cinematography is purposeful, always centering on the lead actor, thus creating a space both physical and psychological, for Hanshiro to function as the bearer of injustice and action.  The swordfighting in the climax illustrates a desperate struggle to make a statement, even if death is certain as it is seemingly secondary to the gravity of past (in)action and present consequence. 

The haunting music by Toru Takemitsu (Ran, 1985), in particular the use of Japanese-styled string plucking, creates an ominous mood that adds dramatic tension to the proceedings.  Kobayashi's measured ability to visually unwind (or rewind) the narrative proves to be sustaining – it never fades away because the story is simply too engrossing.

Recently, Takashi Miike adapted the novel that Harakiri was based on with Harakiri: Death of a Samurai (2011), which was in competition at Cannes.  Is it as powerful as Kobayashi's work?  Well, I haven't had the chance to see Miike's version, so I'm in no position to do a comparison.  But this I can say about the 1962 version:  it is movie storytelling at its finest, and a must-see for any film enthusiast.

Verdict:  An unconventional samurai movie by the underappreciated Masaki Kobayashi that emphasizes on the relentless agency of the individual against a corrupt authority rather than spectacular swordfighting.


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