Masaki Kobayashi’s HARAKIRI

by Lyle Sylvander

(Fall 2005 Issue)

The Criterion Collection continues its reissue of classic Japanese films with the release of Masayaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri, winner of
the Special Jury Prize at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival. Harakiri was an enormous international hit and is universally acknowledged
as a masterwork of Japan’s Golden Age of cinema.  Yet its director never achieved the iconic status of fellow contemporaries Akira
Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenj Mizoguchi.  Criterion seeks to correct this imbalance by offering a host of supplemental material on
an additional DVD.  Included are interviews with film scholar Donald Ritchie, star Tatsuya Nakadai, screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto
and Kobayashi himself (filmed in 1993, three years before his death).  As is the case with most great filmmakers, Kobayashi
expressed a unique vision with thematic consistency.   While Kobayashi never equaled the vast output of some of his more famous
colleagues (particularly Kurosawa), he nevertheless produced a masterwork in Harakiri that stands among the best of Japanese

The film takes place in 1630, during the early reign of the Tokugawa shogunate.  Many clans and fiefdoms were destroyed by the
Tokugawa consolidation of power and masterless samurai (ronin) wandered the countryside looking for employment.  One such
ronin, Motome Chijiiwa (Akira Ishihama) arrives at the court of the Iyi clan and requests that he be permitted to perform harakiri or
seppuku (ritual suicide).   Chijiiwa has lost his livelihood and is hoping that the clan, which is protected by its powerful Tokugawa
ally, hire him on as a retainer instead.  The clan is contemptuous of such tactics, which are quite common among destitute ronin, and
they decide to preside over his death rather than provide assistance.  In an ultimate act of humiliation, Chijiiwa is forced to
disembowel himself with his bamboo sword, as he has sold his real samurai sword.  This story is told in flashback and the film’s plot
focuses on Chijiiwa’s father-in-law, Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai), who arrives at the Iyi court with a similar request to
commit harakiri.  Eventually, Tsugumo shames the Iyi clan elders before their retainers and avenges his son-in-law’s death.

As Ritchie explains, Harakiri continues the critique of authoritarian power in Kobayashi’s previous trilogy The Human Condition.  The
feudalist structure of Tokugawa Japan provides the same moral conflict that the modern military did in the earlier film.  Kobayashi
rejects individual submission in the face of power and condemns the hierarchical power structure of feudal Japan.  By exposing the
hypocrisy of the Iyi clan elders (the plot details won’t be divulged), Tsugumo attacks the very foundation of the bushido code and
exposes the entire societal structure as an empty shell.  In this way, Kobayashi has made an “anti-samurai” film perhaps best
exemplified by the suit of armor at the center of the Iyi court.  The film begins with an isolated shot of the imposing suit surrounded
by darkness and white mist.  At the end of the film, Tsugumo tears the suit apart and reveals the emptiness beneath during the
climactic battle.  Similarly, Kobayashi shoots most of the scenes with a formalistic and ordered placement of people and objects.  In
times of distress, his camera becomes angular and discordant, with jarring close-ups of eyes and faces, particularly during
Chijiiwa’s act of seppuku.  Aided by Nakadai’s intense performance and Yoshio Miyajima’s stark black and white photography,
Kobayashi creates a mood of pervasive tension as Tsugumo and his enemies engage in psychological warfare – the Iyi elders know
that he has something other than seppuku in mind and that appearances aren’t what they seem.  As in the best of tragedy, there is a
sense of inevitable fatality about the proceedings.  The corrupt and evil ways of the clan lead to its own nihilistic undoing.  The film
ends with a final shot of the restored empty body of armor, indicating that despite what has transpired, shogunate Japan will
continue to be ruled by the blind vestiges of totalitarian power.

Criterion should be commended, as always, for the quality of the restored print and digital transfer.  The supplemental interview with
Nakadai is especially informative on the making of the film and his approach to the role of Tsugumo.  As a member of Tokyo’s
Shingeki (New Theatre), Nakadai’s performance embodies the individualism and resistance to conformity of postwar Japan.
Hashimoto’s interview details the writing of the screenplay and places the concept of seppuku within the thematic context of the
film.  Both artists detail the creative process during production and their working relationships with the uncompromising
Kobayashi.  Kobayashi’s interview is a disappointment, however, as the director comes across as rambling and eccentric.  But, that
should not diminish one’s opinion of this great filmmaker.  After all, directors are judged on the merits of their creative work rather
than their social skills.  By this criterion, Harakiri reveals Masaki Kobayashi to be a great master of cinema.

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