For the second time in 1962 I am leaving the List and adding an entry of my own. Again it is a Japanese movie, “Harakiri” by Masaki Kobayashi, and again the theme is the samurai of feudal Japan. Thank you to Bea for recommending this one. There were times during the viewing where I was doubting your judgement but it did win me over. This is a tough movie to watch, but also an intelligent and beautiful movie.
“Harakiri” takes place in 1630 at a time following the civil war period where the shogunate is so firmly established that the need for warriors has all but disappeared. Where the samurai warrior caste had their glory days during the civil war, they are now practically useless. A practice has started where unemployed samurai, ronin, will approach the compounds of leading clans and ask to be permitted to commit ritual suicide, seppuku, in their attendance in the hope to be turned away with some money or be employed through their show of commitment to Bushido, the warrior code.
When Tsugumu Hanshiro (Tatsuya Nakadai) shows up at the Iyi clan and ask to do seppuku in their forecourt, the master of the compound, Saito Kageyu (Rentaro Mikuni) is exasperated by yet another one and decides to tell him the story of the previous applicant in the hope of deterring him. The story is about a young samurai called Chijiwa Motome (Akira Ishihama) who came asking doing seppuku. Instead of turning him away with money they decided to take him on the word. This will generate respect for the Iyi clan and deter other beggars. It is soon clear that Chijiwa has no intention of committing seppuku, that he was merely a beggar. Even his swords are just for show, they are made of bamboo. Still Saito is showing no mercy and forces Chijiwa to commit seppuku on his bamboo swords, a gruesome sight.
This does not deter Tsugumu, but as they prepare for the ritual Tsugumu is holding off the procedure by telling the assembled retainers a terrible story. One that will turn the story upside down and tear the bushido code and samurai pride to pieces.
Chijiwa’s seppuku is a very graphic and truly horrible affair. Not pleasant at all. Yet the true horror is the fate of Tsugumu’s little family, especially the sickness and death of his grandchild, the toddler Kingo. This is heartbreaking in the extreme, but not played for sentimentality. At this point I was wondering if I really wanted to watch this.
Still, the message is so clever and subtle in the way it is introduced as well as brutal in its finale. The samurai pride that all samurai are trained to value and the Iyi clan is representing is just bullshit compared to the raw necessities of life. Providing for your family, treating sick children, being able to get work, that is what is important, this is what creates value. Who cares a flying fart about a samurai’s stoic pride in the face or hardship? The Iyi are exposed as the hypocrites they are and shown that they live on a lie. Something I suppose was sinking in in postwar Japan. Certainly it is easy to find parallels in contemporary Japan with jobseekers facing the big zaibatsu conglomerates with their ideals and work codes.
The impression that lingers though, is the beauty of the pictures, many of which are so serene that they are almost stylized. When an entire group of samurai are sitting entirely still in an immaculate courtyard surrounded clean-lined Japanese architecture it feels like a representation of Zen, of perfect balance and order. Yet outside samurai reality the real world is a chaotic place and when the two crash the visual impact is astounding. Often I felt that I could just stare at the images and enjoy them and be happy with that.
Thank you again, Bea, for introducing me to this movie. It is really a movie like no other and one that I am very happy to have seen.