Winner of the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1963, Harakiri (1962) easily proves to be more than just a simple samurai film. Directed by Masaki Kobayashi - the director of the 9 hour 47 minute epic The Human Condition (1959-61) - Harakiri is a vivid depiction of two paths in ancient Japanese life: the path of humanity, and the path of the samurai.Set in 1630, Harakiri follows a starved rõnin (masterless samurai) from Hiroshima named Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai) who arrives at Lord Iyi's fortress in Edo seeking a place where he can peacefully commit harakiri. Upon arriving, Tsugumo is informed of the corrupt nature of rõnin in the area who have been threatening to commit harakiri but pull out in exchange for a few coins. However, there is one rõnin named Chijiiwa (Akira Ishihama) who recently performed a long and painful harakiri with a bamboo sword. Chijiiwa expressed great cowardice prior to his harakiri as he requested to run away promising that he would return, but he was forced to proceed with his honorable suicide by samurai code. Discouraged from performing harakiri to end his life, Tsugumo sticks to his guts and continues to urge for his request to commit harakiri to be accepted. With great reluctance, the counselor of Iyi grants him permission to commit honorable suicide in the courtyard.
The events that follow are a series of scheduling dilemmas as the man that Tsugumo would like to cut his head off is not available due to a severe illness. After naming off two more samurai to cut his head off (both of which are also unavailable due to illness), the counselor begins to grow suspicious of Tsugumo's true motives. To prove himself to be worthy of an honorable death in their courtyard, Tsugumo recounts the tragic tale that brought him to the point of a fully-desired harakiri.
It is from that point of the film that Harakiri becomes less a film about samurai culture and more of a film about life in feudal Japan. Dedicating a fair 90 minutes to Tsugumo's account of the best days of his life all the way to the tragic ending of his good fortune, as an audience this sequence is beautiful and rewarding. Up until that point, only one harakiri has been seen (the bamboo sword harakiri at the beginning of the film), so there is no reason to believe that this film contains vivid action sequences. The entire film has a constant layer of tension bearing over the events on the screen as the audience (and the characters) await Tsugumo's harakiri. It's in the final twenty minutes that all the build up pays off with a fantastic twist.
With fantastic performances from the entire cast, it is the lead actor Nakadai who truly steals the show as both a father and a grandfather before tragedy befalls his family. His character embodies the entire theme of the film as he points out the flawed nature of the samurai path by living a life so fruitful and rewarding. The camera even pans from the left (Tsugumo) to the right (counselor) when Tsugumo speaks justifying that what he is telling the counselor is true like a book.
Harakiri is a film about the samurai code, but it is primarily a film about dignity, parenting, and honor. Acknowledging the samurai code, Tsugumo sees the value in the council of Iyi's beliefs, but he challenges the rationality of forcing a man willing to disembowel himself to do it immediately without questioning as to why he wanted to leave (referring to Chijiiwa). This film is loaded with complexities hidden within the subtleties.
One of the best elements of this film is director Kobayashi's decisions on what to show and what to cut away from. At times, the cutting of this film is as abrupt as the cutting of the swords in the film. Choosing to show the buildup to a sword duel and then cutting away from the scene the moment before their swords first clash is oddly satisfying as we (the audience) are constantly aware that the events on the screen are being recounted by an honorable narrator who will tell us what he chooses to tell us without embellishments (compared to Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) which features three unreliable narrators who twist the truth).
One of the greatest action scenes from this film (other than the final battle) is Tsuguomo's duel with Omodaka (Tetsuro Tamba) in which they confront in a field in the rolling-hills outside of Edo. The wind is raging as they clash swords with beautiful choreography.
Harakiri is a film rarely spoken of in the modern realm of cinema, which is odd since the film's influence is obvious upon modern films. Everything from the final battle in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill (2003) to the Wachowski Brothers' The Matrix Reloaded (2003) clearly took inspiration from this powerful non-traditional samurai film. Though there is little violence in Harakiri, what violence there is crosses into both the super realistic and the fantastically choreographed. Being shot in black and white adds a historical beauty to the entire film, but it oddly seems to intensify the violence as well. Kobayashi's filming style for Harakiri benefits from black and white because of his visceral and emotional style of filmmaking, whereas other film directors would need to film in color to convey the bloody battles with the same gut wrenching result as Kobayashi.
Harakiri may not be for everyone, but it is a prime example of a film greater than its genre as it challenges the samurai code of honor (the very hinge that the film hangs upon) while being a film more focused upon the personal life of a former samurai.
My ranking: 5/5