Samurai films have often been said to have been inspired by American westerns and then served as the inspiration for later American anti-westerns. These movies mourn the inflexibility of the samuraui code and the senseless loss of life and individuality in the name of honor. Often they are set near the end of the samurai period, just as anti-westerns like The Wild Bunch were set during the encroaching influence of civilization on the West to further underline the cowboy’s savage lawlessness. Yet, Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri is set in 1630, when the code was perhaps at its most rigid. Maybe to suggest, through a modern hero, just how needless this code was. But the hero of Harakiri, Tsugumo, is not modern, he agrees with and he upholds the code, perhaps even more than his agressors, the Iyi clan.
The beginning of the movie has a forboding eeriness to it. We see the empty armor of the Iyi clan, the pompous symbol of their strength and majesty and the camera glides like a spectre through the Iyi compound. It seems deserted and vaguely haunted. Then a man appears, it is Tsugumo, a former samurai for a house that fell into disgrace years ago. He says he has fallen upon hard times and rather than struggle through life in endless poverty he asks if he could be graciously allowed to disembowel himself honorably in the courtyard of the great compound. The man who hears this request takes it to the clan’s counselor, Saito (Rentaro Mikuni), who hangs his head and mutters, “Will it ever stop?” In this time of peace, there are countless unempoloyed samurai and many have taken to coming to the great houses and begging to honorably end their lives. The houses will give these poor souls some money to send them away, which is what the samurai wanted in the first place. Saito receives Tsugumo and tells him a story of a man named Chijiiwa who came to the Iyi clan with such a request earlier in the year. Saito, advised by his retainers Omodaka (Tetsurô Tanba), Yazaki (Ichirô Nakatani) and Kawabe (Yoshirô Aoki), decided to force the man to go through with it. It won’t do to have the house of Iyi thought of as a place for handouts. Chijiiwa begged for a few days to calm himself and swears to return but the Iyi will not hear of it. It must be now, and with his own sword, which is made of bamboo and “wouldn’t cut tofu.” Chijiiwa has sold his real one and with it his soul, as the code goes, a samurai’s sword is his being. Seen in flashback, we watch Chijiwa being forced to try to spill himself open with a dull bamboo sword, in great pain and with much blood, begging Omodaka, as his second, to cut his head off. Traditionally, the second would sever the head once the one commiting hara-kiri has split himself open in a horizontal and vertical line and Chijiiwa’s clumsy job with the bamboo sword has not satisfied Omodaka. Chijiiwa bites through his own tongue in an attempt to bring death quicker and only then does his second yield and bring down his blade. This is the honorable way of dying. Tsugumo is not unnerved by the story and convinces Saito that he is there to truly commit hara-kiri. He is brought into the courtyard and is issued a second. Tsugumo says he was hoping to be given Omodaka, as he is knows as a finely trained second. He’s not available, he’s ill, Saito tells Tsugumo and sends for him. “While we wait, perhaps I can’t tell you something about myself,” Tsugumo says and begins a story about how he raised Chijiiwa as his own after his real father, a friend and fellow samurai, killed himself when their house fell. Saito now gets suspicious of Tsugumo and demands that he pick a replacement second immediately. He chooses Yazaki, also missing with illness. Then Kawabe, the same. He continues his story, about how Chijiiwa married Tsugumo’s daughter and had a son and the four of them lived in happy poverty until Tsugumo’s daughter and her child fell sick. Chijiiwa, in his desperation, sold his sword to try to aid his family, finally sinking so low as to ask the Iyi clan for a place to kill himself with the real motive being for a payout. Tsugumo then relates how Omodaka, Yazaki, and Kawabe came to him to tell of how his step-son cut himself open with his own, dull blade, speaking of honor and dignity but barely concealing their sick joy at the poor man’s tortuous end. Then, shockingly, Tsugumo removes three swathes of hair, the esteemed top knots of Omodaka, Yazaki and Kawabe. Top knots are sacred to the samurai, to lose them is to be shamed for life and sometimes longer. The three aren’t sick, they’re faking illness to give themselves enough time to grow their top knots back. Saito, humiliated that his best men had been shamed, orders his guards to kill Tsugumo and a racous battle begins, one that Tsugumo eventually succumbs to, but not before making it to the room where the honorary armor is held and throws it on the ground, exposing how empty it is, how weak.
Kobayashi is a master at complex contextual moral conundrums. In Samurai Rebellion (1967), he again traverses a delicate path between duty to society and duty to humanity. That film tells the story of a family that is first ordered to take the daimyo’s unwanted concumbine to marry, which the family begrudgeningly does, giving her to the eldest son. The two eventually develop real love for each other until the daimyo loses his heir and orders the woman back into his household and the family revolts. Samurai Rebellion was famously renamed for American audiences to sound more exciting when a better translation of the Japanese would simply be Rebellion. There’s very little fighting in it and the revolution is one of a personal or social nature. Such is the case with Harakiri (though it is far from misnamed). Kobayashi pulls off a more impressive trick here by first grounding the audience in the social norms of the time. There were moment’s when I found myself against Chijiiwa who, after all, requested to kill himself, shouldn’t he be made to follow through if his bluff is called? Of course not, that’s barbaric, but the film does such a good job of rooting us in the time it is set in that we begin to think that way. It also makes Tsugumo’s overthrow of rigidity for empathy all the more powerful. In the end, it’s a bitter pill to swallow as Saito makes it clear that officially Tsugumo committed honorably hara-kiri and his men all died of illness and weren’t relieved of their top-knots at all (Omodaka, Yazaki, and Kawabe are all ordered to kill themselves for the dishonor of losing their top-knots, though that story is not to be told publicly) and the hypocrisy will live on. If a story set in 1630 seems remote from modern times, think of kamakaze pilots, willingly killing themselves in World War II, in what was then decided to be honorable. It’s not too far of a leap. Harakiri is a fantastic picture, one with a terrific performance at its center by Nakadai as a man who wants revenge and is ready to die. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Eastwood in Unforgiven, but Tsugumo wants more than simple blood. He’s there to expose the flimsy code and embarrass the counselor for the fraud that his honor is.