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Where EAST meets the Northwest

SEPPUKU AS SOCIAL CRITIQUE. Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 samurai classic Harakiri is being shown by the Northwest Film Center as part of its "Sons of Samurai" film series. (Photo courtesy of Shochiku Co., Ltd.)


From The Asian Reporter, V16, #27 (July 4, 2006), page 13.

Suicide is painful


Directed by Masaki Kobayashi
Produced by Tatsuo Hosoya

By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter

Of all the rituals associated with samurai, perhaps none is better known than the self-disembowelment known as harakiri, or seppuku, its formal name. This gruesome practice, reserved for samurai who wish an honorable death, involves a samurai’s cutting open his belly, after which a second (called a kaishakunin) beheads the samurai, ending his agony. The act’s physical and cultural implications form the core of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 samurai classic Harakiri, which is being shown by the Northwest Film Center as part of its "Sons of Samurai" film series.

During the 17th-century Tokugawa Period, the Japanese shogunate consolidated its power by eliminating powerful daimyo (feudal lords) on one pretext or another, an act that also created thousands of ronin (masterless samurai). These second-class samurai sought employment with other daimyo, often resorting to work as craftsmen or artists if they failed. Ronin lacking these skills, or who simply fell on hard times, would sometimes commit seppuku rather than continue their dishonorable, masterless existences. Harakiri is set during this time, and follows the cascade of events resulting from the Tokugawa shogunate’s self-aggrandizing policies.

The plot begins when Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai), a middle-aged ronin, requests the use of a courtyard in the Iyi clan compound to perform seppuku.

In response, he is told about the rash of seppuku requests at clans around the country, after another ronin was taken on as a retainer by a clan impressed by the courage shown in such a request, leading other ronin to hope for similar results. When these ronin found that clans would simply give them a small amount of money in order to take their request elsewhere, the flow of ronin asking to commit seppuku increased.

Tsugomo’s resolve is questioned, and when he persists, he is told the story of Motome Chijiwa (Akiri Ishihama), another ronin for Tsugumu’s clan who had shown up at the Iyi compound some time ago, also asking to commit seppuku. Suspecting Chijiwa of insincerity, the Iyi elders found that Chijiwa had pawned his samurai blades and that his katana and wakizashi were in fact made of bamboo. Because samurai consider their blades to be their souls, Chijiwa was considered disgraceful, and the Iyi elders resolved to make an example of him by forcing him to commit seppuku with his blunt bamboo blades. The bloody result of this is shown during flashback and forms the most physically unsettling scene in Harakiri.

After Tsugumo hears the story and continues to insist on performing seppuku, he requests a specific Iyi clan member as his kaishakunin, but is told that his choice is sick at home. When his next two requested kaishakunin are also found to be ill at home, the Iyi elders begin to suspect that Tsugumo has more in mind than seppuku. Then Tsugumo tells his story, and we learn of his acquaintance with Chijiwa, as well as the real reason for the illness of the three Iyi retainers.

The spiralling story of fate and revenge that results is the perfect example of why an excellent samurai movie need not be a bonanza of swashbuckling swordfighting. While there is some action, and the bloody suicide scenes will disturb — as intended — more squeamish viewers, the focus of this movie is on the hollowness of the bushido, the honor code of samurai.

Created during the turbulent postwar 1960s, Harakiri has been widely interpreted as a criticism of the heartless and hidebound martial values of Japanese society, particularly the brutal bushido. The film’s somber tone, its brooding pace, and the rebellious ronin Tsugumo would all foreshadow later, less traditional samurai films, also questioning this hallowed warrior code. Kobayashi’s shots, framing characters in the rigid lines of Japanese architecture, and his skillful use of symbolism, especially an empty suit of elegant samurai armor, round out the brilliantly conceived emotional impact of Harakiri.

Viewers can appreciate this film on so many levels — from artistic achievement to cultural critique — that one does not have to be a samurai enthusiast to enjoy Harakiri. In fact, those looking for a dazzling display of swordsmanship will likely be disappointed, just as those seeking a cerebral experience may find themselves unprepared for the film’s more brutal scenes. As with the act itself, Harakiri may be difficult to watch at times, but that only makes the film’s emotional impact stronger. Those who are able to meet the film on its middle ground, halfway between shocking bloodbath and social commentary, will be rewarded with a masterful, elegant, and ultimately unforgettable film.