I love samurai films. They were among the first foreign films which I have watched, but namely I would focus on those of Akira Kurosawa, particularly Seven Samurai, which was an influential part of my own life for it brought onto myself a new means of appreciating cinema in all regard. As I were to venture into more samurai cinema, I decided to look into more that were not from Kurosawa and that was how I stumbled across Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri for a change. When I finished up, something hit me about Harakiri in a way that I wouldn’t have expected from samurai films. In some strange manner, Harakiri was almost a rather philosophical experience. As it continues to reside inside my own thought, my own love for it grows much stronger, for it truly is a masterful accomplishment on many grounds.
The title “harakiri” is in reference to the Japanese practice of “ritual suicide by disembowelment.” What Masaki Kobayashi paints in Harakiri is a picture that, in its intention of capturing what formed Japanese culture within the 17th century, is also questioning what these rituals are to lead up to. When the time really comes, what is the most fitting way for a person to go ahead and end their life? In Harakiri, what Masaki Kobayashi is answering are questions about the morality of the samurai. At the same time, he also goes on to question the way their honor systems and codes work, making Harakiri one of the most thoughtful of samurai films. It’s a film that is willing to discuss the way Japanese culture in its day had worked, and it inspires many thoughts to run down the mind of the viewer about morality.
Coming off a script written by Shinobu Hashimoto (who had previously written some of Akira Kurosawa’s most famous films), there’s always a sense of wonder coming out from the delivery of every last line. There’s some sort of beauty that comes out because of the ideas in which the dialogue is expressing. Such beautiful dialogue could only be more powerfully delivered, not only if masterful storytelling backed everything up, but if it also had more exceptional performances to back everything up. Masaki Kobayashi’s willingness to let the script for itself in Harakiri‘s case allows for it to prove itself as not only one of the best-scripted samurai films, but one of the best-scripted of all films, for ideas flow from start to finish that would in turn ask questions about the Bushido code (which is otherwise more famously known as “the way of the warrior”).
With a script that was written by a frequent collaborator of Akira Kurosawa, one would normally expect that the leading role would be played either by Takashi Shimura or Toshiro Mifune. Instead, the leading role is played by a man who was normally to play opposite of Toshiro Mifune, and that man is Tatsuya Nakadai. It is clear within the way Tatsuya Nakadai is playing his own role as Tsugomu Hanshiro that he is able to pull off an older ronin rather well. At a young age of only 29, his own devotion to such a performance makes for a fascinating character study. We are not merely watching a ronin who wishes to commit seppuku, but we are also viewing the challenges that come along in regards to the code he must follow, within a world that runs amidst hypocrisy, leading to a world full of poverty as samurai are thrown out of work.
Visually, there’s so much to be stunned with in regards to Harakiri. Whether it range from the crisp cinematography or the detailed set pieces, it is clear that Masaki Kobayashi is evoking a picture of the environment that had formed 17th century Japan. Like Akira Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi is a storyteller who never lets the set pieces overwhelm what he chooses to offer his viewers on the screen.Harakiri displays cinematic storytelling at perhaps some of its most masterful. It is not only a tale of vengeance which he is telling, but a challenging of the Bushido code and a philosophical tale in the most unexpected ways. Kobayashi’s means of telling his story almost equal the levels in which Akira Kurosawa managed to achieve, for we have a samurai film that in turn brings into question the hypocrisy and corruption being faced within the system of such a society.
Harakiri is a film that requires one to experience and not merely view. Masaki Kobayashi turns what could have been a simple tale of vengeance into a tale of corruption and poverty. Compared to names like Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, Masaki Kobayashi almost sounds like a more overlooked name but he shows right here that he is expressing a specific mastery that would place him amongst the very best of Japanese filmmakers. It does not merely show only the battles of the samurai, but also the true nature of humankind from courage against what is wrong in society. Harakiri is not a process in which we are merely allowing, but something worthy of treasuring and preservation as a means of redemption. Harakiri displays the samurai film at some of its most thoughtful, and ultimately, it is one of the very best of the sort. An astonishingly perfect and remarkably human piece of filmmaking.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Shochiku.
Directed by Masaki Kobayashi
Screenplay by Shinobu Hashimoto, Yasuhiko Takiguchi
Produced by Tatsuo Hosoya
Starring Tatsuya Nakadai, Rentaro Mikuni, Shima Iwashita
Release Year: 1962
Running Time: 133 minutes