Samurai films similar to westerns have the ability to tell the most complex and challenging stories on the ethical and moral questions of a character in the form of tradition and human tragedy. Masaki Kobayashi's masterpiece Harakiri is one of the most powerful and also the most complex because its story not only questions the morality of the individuals within the context of the story but it also questions the way of the Bushido Code that the samurai's have always respected and honored. This story is set in 1630 as the opening shot is of a wandering older samurai/ronin named Hanshiro Tsugumo who is unemployed and poor as he enters the gate of the Iyi Clan Lord. He requests permission to kill himself in the clan's forecourt and in front of all the Clan to see. The ritual act is known as harakiri, (or seppuku in Japan) which is a form of respectable suicide that involves the man to plunge in his own blade and move it from left to right as a designated master swordsman stands beside him to decapitate him with one powerful stroke once he feels the time is right and the samurai committing this act is proved admirable. Hanshiro's reason for harakiri to the clan of Iyi is because he feels he is an unemployed disgrace, but what the clan doesn't know is that he has arrived there with much different intentions. The film will flawlessy unravel Hanshiro Tsugumo's secret agenda, setting up a moral dilemma which will leave the leader of the Clan humiliated before his own retainers by using the rules of the Bushido Code.
"1630. 13th day of May. Fair skies. Extremely hot from early in the day. IYI Clan Journal: 10:00 a.m.-
Master Bennosuke pays a visit to the Kandabashi mansion of the Honorable Lord Doi to present fresh river trout from the Shirakawa River., which arrived from our domain. No other official business to record. However, at about 4:00 in the afternoon, a samurai claiming to be a former retainer of the Fukushima Clan in Hiroshima appeared at our gate."
The opening shot of the film shows the symbol of the Iyi clan and of its anchestors which is a empty samurai armor suit immersed in smoke.
A stranger walks in to the Iyi estate and sits down as a Iyi clan retainer ask him, "you were a retainer of the former Fukushima Clan in Hiroshima?" The stranger tells him he is correct and says his name is Hanshiro Tsugumo, which is written with the character tsu as in 'harbor' and gumo as in 'cloud.' "What is the nature of your visit?" the retainer asks him. Tsugumo says, "My master's house fell in 1619. I subsequently left the domain and moved here to Edo, where I found shelter in a back-alley tenement. While seeking out a meager living, I sought connections for employment with a new master. But try as I might, we live in times of peace, and my every effort has been in vain."
The retainer goes into tell Kageyu Saito, counselor of the clan the reason for Hanshiro's visit. "Failing to find employment and with little to do, he finds himself in dire straits and believes he can endure it no further. Rather than live on in such poverty and disgrace, he wishes to die honorably by harakiri and asks for permission to use our forecourt. Such is his request." "Not again." Saito says. "Will they ever stop?"
Tsugumo is then led into his office and he sits down. Saito introduces himself saying, "I am senior counselor of the House of Iyi, Kageyu Saito. Rather then live on in endless poverty idly waiting for death, you wish to end your life in a manner befitting a samurai, by harakiri. In these times, it is a truly admirable resolve. I can only express the highest esteem. You mentiioned that you served the former Lord Fukushima. Did you happen to know a man named Motome Chijiiwa?" Tsugumo tells him he doesn't because in those days there were at least 12000 men in Lord Fukushima's clan and it is hard to remember everyone.
Saito then decides to tell him a story: "Earlier this year, perhaps around the end of January, this ronin named Motome Chijiiwa came calling, and the purpose of his visit was the same as yours. He requested the use of our forecourt to dispatch himself with honor." The story flashes back to Motome Chijiiwa arriving to the Iyi estate and giving his nature of his visit in the exact spot where Tsugumo arrived and his testimony and explanation he gives is almost identical word for word. Saito doesn't believe Motome's proposition and when one of his retainer's says to blame it on the Sengoku Clan because of one of their men.
Another retainer steps forward and says, "That's not necessarily true. The fellow who went to the Sengoku house was serious about disemboweling himself. There was nothing dishonorable about his intent. Precisely because they were touched by his sincerity, the Sengoku house decided to take him in as back-room retainer. That was good. They made the right decision in that case. The problem is the shameless imitators who have followed. They have no intention whatsoever of performing harakiri, and just because they're hurting a little for food and clothing, they show up at our gate to practice their thinly disguised extortion."
Another clansman doesn't believe they should just let him disembowel himself in their gateway, and to instead follow the example of other clans and give him something and ask him to leave. But Saito doesn't agree with that and says, "If we give him money and send him away, he'll soon be followed by others. One after another like ants drawn to a mound of sugar. Especially when His Lordship is away in his domain. Under no circumstances can we allow a stain to come upon our lord's name while he's away. He hasn't the slightest intention of killing himself, yet he speaks of honorable harakiri."
Umenosuke Kawabe who is a member of Lord Iyi's mounted guard, goes back into the waiting room and lies telling Motome that Senior Counselor Saito conveyed his request to His Lordship's son Bennosuke, telling him that Bennosuke finds Chijiiwa most admirable. The clan offers Motome a bath and a new attire to where in front of Bennosuke and an audience. "I must be dreaming..." Chijiiwa says to himself after a bath and a new attire, thinking the Clan won't have him go through with it and will probably give him some money. But then Kawabe walks in again and suddenly orders Motome to change his clothes. "What about my audience with Master Bennosuke? I was told I'd be granted an audience." Motome asks. "I don't think so. You must have misunderstood."
The story Saito is telling Hanshiro stops for a moment as Tsugumo says, "A most interesting tale, worthy of the famous red armor that symbolizes the House of Iyi and its reputation for great martial valor." Saito then asks Tsugumo was his intentions are and Tsugumo laughs telling him to rest because he came there with every intention of dying and committing Harakiri. Saito isn't yet sure if he believes Tsugumo and decides to recount more of Motome Chijiiwa's story.
It flashes back once again with Motome Chijiiwa being told to change out of his garments and to put on the robes for the proper Harakiri ceromony. Motome realizes that the Clan want him to actually go through with the harakiri and he suddenly offers if he can have a request for a brief respite. Several guards come into the room and master swordsman Umenosuke Kawabe coldly tells him he is to late for that because they already made the arraignmentfs for his Harakiri and there can be no delay. Motome tries to take off but the guards withdraw their swords and Motome knows he is no match especially by master swordsman Hayato Yazaki. "Rather than being chopped up like a dead fish" master swordsman Hikiokuro Omodaka says, "perform harakiri and die like a samurai."
After Motome changes into the proper harakiri robes he then makes his way outside to the Clans forcourt surrounded by several armed guards and an audience with Councelor Kageyu Saito's seat high above in the center.
While he waits, Hikiokuro Omokaka, Hayato Yazaki, Umenosuke Kawabe and Counselor Saito are inside looking at the sword that Motome supposedly brought to commit harakiri. They realize it's nothing but a bamboo sword and they look at how weak and flimsy the blade is. "Look at it. It wouldn't cut tofu. He sells off his soul as a samurai, replacing his blades with bamboo, and then shows up saying he wants to perform harakiri? The nerve of this man!" shouts Saito. When the ceremony is all set and the Saito and the three master swordsmen walk out into the forcourt Saito takes his seat in the center and orders Motome to begin harakiri with his own bamboo sword.
Motome is in complete shock and begs one last time to Saito for a day or two respite. Motome says to them, "I swear I will not run or hide. I'll return to this spot without fail!" Saito tells Motome, "I've heard lately of incidents all across Edo of which ronin who don't deserve to call themselves samurai demand the use of a clan's forecourt to commit harakiri but are happy to walk away in exchange for a few coins. I'll never believe that a man of your noble character could be such a despicable extortionist. Now then. You may proceed."
Master Hayato Yazaki walks up beside Chijiiwa and tells him that if he shall be his second for the harakiri. Yazaki says, "you will rip your bowels open crosswise, like this. Once I see you have done so, i will strike off your head. Until I'm satisfied you've fully torn open your bowels, I will not bring down my sword." Motome is given his own sword to use which he knows is only a flimsy bamboo sword. Yazaku tells him to use his own because a samurai's sword is his soul. In a slow and disturbing scene Motome tries to multiple times stab himself with his bamboo blade, digging the sword in as deeply as he can within his chest. While the sword starts to dig in Motome in pain begs for Yazaki to finish him off but he is told that isn't enough and he must drag his blade to the right no matter how difficult it is. When he finally struggles to do it he is then finished off with one swipe of Yazaki's blade which decapitates him off-screen.
After Saito is finished telling Hanshiro the story Hanshiro is told that during Motome's struggle he managed to bite off his own tongue. "Who in his right mind attempts harakiri with just a bamboo sword?" Saito tells Hanshiro. Hanshiro informs Saito that he shouldn't have any concerns with him, because unlike Motome's sword his isn't made of bamboo and he will commit harakiri in grand form.
When Hanshiro is ordered to change his clothes for a proper harakiri wardrobe, Hanshiro demands to commit harakiri in the clothes he is now wearing and the Clan accepts. When in the forcourt in front of guards and of Saito Hanshiro asks Saito who will be serving as his second. When he is told Ichiro Shinmen Hanshiro thinks for a moment but isn't satisfied with that suggestion.
When he demands someone else to be his second Hanshiro reccommends Master Hikokuro Omodaka because of him being highly trained in this Iyi house. But Saito is told Hikokuro cannot attend because he is ill and requesting a few day's rest. Hanshiro pauses for a moment and then says, "that is most disappointing. I had my heart set on Master Omodaka performing the service. I wonder if I might not beg his special consideration."
Saito thinks for a moment and then orders one of his retainer's to head to Master Omodaka's place and bring him back for his services no matter how sick he is. While everyone patiently waits in the forcourt, Saito asks Hanshiro if he would rather wait in the courtyard or inside until Master Omodaka arrives.
Hanshiro says, "If I may counselor, it could be quite tedious for us both to sit here and wait in silence. To pass the time perhaps you'll allow me to tell you a little about myself." Saito is at first shocked and then laughs at Hanshiro's demands but non the less lets him tell him a story finding it amusing and that his Clan might learn something slightly mocking it. "That tale you related to earlier", Hanshiro says to Saito. "The ronin from Hiroshima named Motome Chijiiwa was a man of great acquaintance to me." Saito quickly becomes silent and sits down to listen to what Hanshiro has to say.
Hanshiro begins by telling everyone in the forecourt a story of Chijjiwa when he was just 15 and of Hanshiro's daughter Miho who was a child of 11 which was 11 years ago. Hanshiro is outside in his courtyard practcing his bow and arrow shooting with his loyal best friend Jinai as he mentions to him that it has been seven years since his wife Nui's passing as he plans to throw a small ceromony in her honor. Jinai mentions how a rough warrior like Hanshiro managed to raise his daughter Miho alone all these years without remarrying. Hanshiro says that Jinai has been doing just fine as well on his own raising his growing son Motome Chijiiwa.
Hanshiro continues to narrate explaining that their life would have continued to have gone like that if things would have been well, but it was not to be. His master's house was eventually brought to ruins because of the unreasonable judgment by the Tokgawa shogunate regarding repairs being performed on Hiroshima Castle, and his master Lord Masanori Fukushima was ordered into exile leaving his 12,000 retainers without any means of livelihood.
His story continues as one day Hanshiro makes his way running down the stairs of Jinai's home to find Jinai dead inside from suicide leaving a note for his friend explaining that the Honorable Masakatsu Fukushima is going to be put to death and he decided to precede him on his journey.
Regarding his son Motome he asks Hanshiro to look after him believing Hanshiro will raise him well. Hanshiro asks mourns over his friends death and asks himself why Jinai committed harakiri before he had even done so; thus realizing his friend probably knew if he didn't Hanshiro would before him. The people in his house forbid Hanshiro to follow his friend Jinai and to be by their side before their homes are all abolished and that he is the only one that can watch over Jinai's son like his friend wanted. Hanshiro then makes a promise to his dead friend that he will watch over his only son and raise him as his own and the best he can.
Hanshiro's story to the clan is suddenly interrupted when one of the retainers that Saito earlier sent returns and tells Saito that Hikokuro Omodaka, the man Hanshiro wanted for his second has a severe illness that is much worse then it originally seemed and that his pain was so great he didn't want to be seen by anyone. Saito turns to Hanshiro and says to him, "Master Tsugumo. You heard what he said. I must ask you to select someone else as your second."
Hanshiro says, "I am sorely disappointed but it appears I have no choice. In that case I would ask for Master Hayato Yazaki." Saito is stunned by his second recommendation because that seems to be a problem as well since Yazaki too has been absent for four or five days because of an illness. Hanshiro thinks once more for a moment for another recommendation and says, "Again it seems I have no choice. I request Master Umenosuke Kawabe. Counselor, surely it's not possible that Master Kawabe is also under the weather?"
The councelor gets up shocked by Hanshiro's third recommendation and turns and leaves walking into the estate. Hanshiro is left alone outside on the foreground with the guards as says, "all three unavailable on this particular day...what a very odd coincidence. Most curious." Hanshiro starts to laugh in front of the guards and the audience as they wait for what Saito decides to do.
Saito is inside talking with a few of his Clan saying, "he's up to something. Hikokuro was the one who first insisted that Motome Chijiiwa be forced to go through with harakiri. Yazaki was the one who discovered his blades were bamboo and insisted he be forced to use them, and Kawable was quick to agree." Saito doubt's all this is a coincidence and doubts Hanshiro's intentions are to disembowel himself like he said. "Whatever it is he won't get away with it. We'll force his hand and make him commit harakiri. In fact if he refuses, we'll descend upon him in force and cut him down. What happens within the walls of this compound...is as secret as what happens behind the walls of our castle back home," Saito tells a few of his Clan in private. But Saito is bothered about Hikokuro and other two master swordsman and sends one of his retainers to find out more and get the real story.
Saito then returns into the foreground and asks Hanshiro to finally proceed with harikiri without further delay. Hanshiro says, "but, Counselor, the ritual cannot take place without a second." Saito tells him he understands but with all three men he wishes seems to be presently out of commission he will have to accept their choice and go with Ichiro Shinmen.
Hanshiro still protests saying he has named three specially selected men and he has the right to have one of those three; and if not he will call off the harakiri for now. "Enough, Hanshiro!" the Saito shouts. "Your extortion scheme has gone too far. It's bad enough to march in here demanding a place to perform harakiri, but then you quibble endlessly over naming your second. You never intended to commit harakiri. All your really want is money!" Hanshiro cuts in saying, "if I were the extortionist you say, would I be calmly sitting here on this platform? I am fully prepared to die. But cutting my belly open does not in itself ensure smooth passage to the netherworld. I need someone to expeditiously strike off my head...a swordsman of reliable skill. The least I can expect is to choose my own second."
After a long pause Saito angrily gets up and calls Hanshiro a fraud, a man never intended to commit harakiri. The sliding doors all open around Hanshiro as guards are ready to attack and kill him. Hanshiro demands them to stop as the guards come towards him on the platform and draw their swords as Hanshiro calmly sits down and says that he hasn't finished his story. Saito lost all his patience with Hanshiro and doesn't want to hear him continue his so called ramblings but Hanshiro assures him saying, "I will fight desperately to the death no matter the odds against me. Some of your men will be wounded undeservedly. Some may even lose their lives. Would it not be better to simply hear me out? Once I have finished my story I will disembowel myself...with no further ado. Or if you feel harakiri will too good for me, you may turn your men on me to do what they will." Saito sits down and asks Hanshiro if he has his word as a samurai that will will commit harakiri afterwards he will listen to what Hanshiro has to say.
Hanshhiro gives him his word and Saito tells his men to fall back as Hanshiro continues his story. After Hashiro's master house fell and his friend Jinai died and asked him to look after his son Motome, all of them left their domain and traveled to Edo. Hanshiro says, "The streets of Edo were crowded with ronin flotsam from the Battle of Sekigahara. In former times, other clans would have gladly taken in any ronin who'd earned a name for himself. But in an era no longer in need of warriors or horses, so peaceful that no wind even rustled the leaves on the trees, it was a constant struggle simply to find a meal. Indeed, it shames me to recall our miserable lives of these last eight or nine years."
During these hardships Hanshiro's daughter Miho was growing up and becoming a beautiful woman while Hanshiro works menial jobs to support his family. When she turned 18 in the spring she one day decides to head to town to the wholesaler as earnings collector arrives to ask Hanshiro for any income that Hanshiro owes. Hanshiro politely apologizes that he is backed up on dues. The earnings collector then makes a proposition to Hanshiro about his beautiful daughter Miho and that she could marry into the Sakibara family who are worth 10,000.
Even though Hanshiro could gain from this marriage and pay off his dues he declines the offer because he will never make his daughter a mere concubine to profit from her connection no matter how far he's fallen. After teaching a children's class Motome arrives home and is asked to dine with his adopted father Hanshiro. Hanshiro tells him that he has thought this over for a long time and he has seen over the years the love that Motome and Miho have for one another. Hanshiro then offers if Motome take Miho to be his wife, but at first Motome delines because of how poor of a man he is. After enough persuading Motome eventually happily accepts and Motome and Miho finally get married and after two years they have a young boy named Kingo.
The three of them in the next year even though struggle through poverty and hardship remain happy together as a family and Hanshiro describes to Saito how this was the happiest time in their lives. Eventually Hanshiro and Chijiiwa start hearing around town that many of the other struggling families tried to commit harakiri at the Sengoku Clan's gate. Motome then tells his father that he heard the Sengoku were so impressed by some of these men that they offered them employment; and because of that many ronins have followed.
And yet Motome and Hanshiro both agree that no matter how hard it will be for the family they could never shamefully do that. Motome says, "In these difficult times, it's no help growing desperate. Becoming too impatient in seeking employment is a danger we must all take care to avoid." Hanshiro tells the Couneslor how the baby Kingo was the center of his families happiness but it didn't last for long. One day Miho starts getting sick and coughs up large amounts of blood. Motome starts to panic as he tries to go out and make a living trying to make as much money as he can for his family and to help his deeply sick wife.
Suddenly one morning Kingo gets a sudden high fever and Miho and Chijiiwa admit to Hanshiro that they can't send a doctor for their son because they don't have the money. The three of them sit their in silence looking helplessly at baby Kingo. Kingo seems to be getting worse by the moment and Hanshiro suddenly starts to break down looking over his dying grandson. When all hope seems lost Motome finally comes up with an idea and says to his family, "I have an idea. I need to go out. Please look after Kingo." Motome lies to his wife and father and says he knows a former retainer of the Kato Clan who makes his living as a moneylender. Motome says he'll be back by the evening and for Hanshiro to watch over Kingo because Miho is too weak.
During the evening Hanshiro and Miho are waiting for the arrival of Motome and they suddenly both realize that Kingo's fever is getting much worse and Miho starts to cry not knowing what to do for her son. Hanshiro tells Saito and the clan that he waited for Motome's return but he did not return. Then around 9 at night he did return home but not alone. He was brought home by a party of retainers from the House of Iyi and they told Hanshiro and Miho the request of harakiri that Motome brought to them.
One of the retainers tells Hanshiro, "we understand there have lately been incidents all across Edo in which ronin present themselves at the gates of daimyo houses and threaten to commit harakiri unless given money. This disgraceful practice has put many houses at a loss as to what to do. But now we have Motome Chijiiwa, a samurai of true valor, who carried out his resolve to die honorably." They also let Hanshiro know that they examined Motome's swords after the harikiri and realized that both of the swords were made of bamboo, so no one can accuse them later of having switched blades. Hanshiro then asks them, "In that case Motome must have borrowed a blade from your household?" The retainers tell him Motome did not and died magnificently using his own blade. Hashiro is shocked that Motome killed himself with such a weak blade and the retainers say, "The entire household witnessed the spectacle of harakiri performed with a bamboo blade. It would have been more fitting for a samurai to tend his life with a true blade, which is a warrior's soul." Iyi's retainers then leave Hanshiro and Miro with Motome's body as Miho breaks down and cries over her dead husband. Hanshiro then realizes that the reason why Motome brought bamboo blades to the House of Iyi was because he secretly sold his samurai swords because of their money woes and of his families desperation.
Hanshiro angrily grabs his own samurai blades and says to himself, "But I...I would never let this go. It never entered my mind. The stupid thing was too dear to me...and I clung to it. To this stupid...!!!!" Hanshiro finishes his story to the Saito and of the Iyi Clan in the foreground as he tells them Kingo died two days later, and three days after that as if chasing him, Miho died as well. "Thus, Hanshiro Tsugumo, find himself utterly alone in the world., having lost every last person he had ever cared about." Saito asks Hanshiro if that finally concludes his story and before they go on for Hanshiro's harakiro Hanshiro wants to just say one last thing:
"May all those here listen carefully to what I'm about to say. No matter how grinding his poverty and hunger, for a samurai to present himself in someone else's entryway and declare that he wishes to commit harakiri there is an unspeakable act that can in no way be excused. However...the manner in which the House of Iyi handled the matter...surely left a great deal to be desired. If a samurai risks shame and ridicule to beg for a day or two's grace, he must surely have good reason. A simple inquiry as to the reason for the request would have told so much...yet with this many witnesses present...not a single one among you had the consideration to ask. His wife lay gasping for breath, on the very verge of death, while his beloved son burned with fever, in dire need of a doctor. Motome no doubt wished to explain the situation to me, make whatever last effort he could for his son before turning all further care over to me, and then return here to the House of Iyi."
"As to Motome Chijiiwa...the circumstances that drove him here were no doubt complex. But it was he who declared his wish to commit harakiri. What followed upon that request may not have been what he intended, but he reaped what he himself sowed. He was in no position to complain, or to blame or condemn anyone. At that point his was but to cast all else aside and die a magnificent death. To face death without wavering...that is truly the way of the samurai. But what did this man do? He cravenly asked for a day or two's grace. One might well accuse him of having gone mad!"
"True enough. Madome have indeed gone mad. But I say good for him! I praise him for it! He may have been a samurai, but he was also a man of flesh and blood. He could not live on air alone. When he had reached the point of no return, even a man as strong as Motome will go mad trying to protect his family, and I would praise him for it. They'll call him 'the bamboo ronin.' Not only samurai, but townspeople, too will scoff at his wavering. But let them laugh all they want. Who can fathom the depths of another man's heart? How can those who never wanted for food or clothing understand their misery? To those who find Motome loathsome for his pleading, I ask: What if you found yourself in the same position? Would you do any differently? After all, this thing we call samurai honor is ultimately nothing but a facade!"
"Is that what your trying to tell us? That samurai honor is nothing but a facade? 'Even if I say I want to commit harakiri, surely they won't make me do it.' Wishful thinking is where these ronin go wrong. If a man says he wants to commit harakiri, we will let him. In fact, since he has proposed it himself, we'll make sure he does. This is the policy of the House of Iyi. For use, samurai honor is no mere facade!"
Hanshiro starts to laugh and tells Saito and all the armed guards not to worry because he still plans to disembowel himself because he has nothing anymore to live for and look forward to. He says, "The suspicious mind conjures its own demons. In fact I can hardly wait to join Motome and Miho and Kingo in that world to which they have gone ahead. But I would never be able to face them were I to go empty handed. I thought perhaps once I had explained then even members of the Iyi Clan would surely say, 'Oh, so that's how it was. Perhaps we were overzealous that day in rushing to that end.
Anyone can see that our handling of the situation was less than ideal. Perhaps there were ways in which we carried things too far. No doubt both parties could have conducted themselves to better effect.' If I could take with me even a single word in this vein, it would be a comfort to Motome." Saito is too stubborn to accept his mistake and mistakes of the House of Iyi and tells Hanshiro that the world doesn't bend to sentimental tales, and if he thinks that samaurai honor is nothing more then a facade then he never had a chance to sway them. Hanshiro says, "well then, forgive me for my long-winded recitation. I will now proceed with the ritual. Before that, I must return some items that belong to this house."
Hanshiro then takes out of his robe and throws onto the floor a cut off samurai topknot. He says, "for easier identification, I have placed name tags on each. Please examine them carefully. Master Hayato Yazaki, and Master Umenosuke Kawabe. I understand they're both among the best swordsmen of the Iyi Clan. I took only their topknots, not their lives. In the case of Hayato Yzaki...it was six days ago..."
He then tells Saito the story of how he followed Hayato down a windy side road and instead of killing him they fought and he then also cut off his topknot. Hanshiro then tells Saito that he had a little more diffculty with Master Hikokuro Omodaka, perhaps aware of what had happened to Yazaki and Kawabe and so decided to catch Hanshiro off guard at his home. Because of the homes low ceiling the two decide to duel at Gojiin-gawara. When the two reach their destination in the open hills they pull out their swords in silence while the wind blows the grass with a bleak grey sky hovering in the background. After a diffucult battle Hanshiro breaks Hikokuro's sword and defeats him.
Hanshiro tells The Counselour that taking Omokaka's head was difficult but taking his topknot proved even harder; as he pulls it out his from the rob and tosses it next to the other two samurai's topknots. Hanshiro then laugh mocking the House of Iyi and says, "Whatever the differences in skill, for a samurai to have his topknot taken is the same as having his head stricken off. It is an ineptitude, a disgrace, that can scarcely be atoned for even by death. Yet these men claim illness and shirk their duties while waiting for their topknots to grow back. Counselor! This house boasts of its red armor and martial valor, but it seems that even in the great House of Iyi, samurai honor is nothing more than a facade. Haahaahaa!"
Saito furiously gets up from his chair and orders his Clan to cut Hanshiro down. In a breathtaking action climax hundreds of Iyi armed guards all surround Hanshiro as he they all suddenly attack him. This long intense and bloody fight sequence eventually ends up inside the House of Iyi and throughout several different rooms as several of Iyi's armed guards are getting sliced and killed in a bloody slaughter while Hanshiro keeps on fighting as he slowly gets cut and injured.
The last room Hanshiro merely stumbles in because of severe bloody wounds is the room of the symbol of the Iyi Clan and of its anchestors which is in the form of a empty samurai uniform. When Hanshiro sees this he picks it up and uses it as a sort of shield from his attackers. Saito orders his men to fall back as gunmen are ordered in the room. Hanshiro throws the statue down begins to start commiting harakiri on himself just as the gunmen shoot him to his death.
After the death of Hanshiro the Counselor Saito is then told that Handshiro has been killed. Saito asks the casualties among his men and is told four are dead and eight were seriously wounded. Saito then orders his retainers what they will tell the public. "The ronin from Hiroshima...Hanshiro Tsugumo, committed harakiri. All our own men died of illness. The House of Iyi has no retainers who could be felled or wounded by some half-starved ronin. Former retainer of the Fukshima Clan, Hanshiro Tsugumo, committed harakiri honorably according to his wish. All of our men died of illness." One of the retainers comes in to inform the Counselor that Hikokuro Omodaka, was found in his home the other night dead from harakiri. When the retainer asks Saito about the supposed illnesses of Kawabe and Yazaki, Saito tells him to go back to them and order them to commit harakiri on the spot. He then tells him to take some skilled swordsmen with him so if they fail to do it, the swordsmen can make them by force and they will the public they had died of illness. When the retainer is shocked by Saito's tyrannical orders Saito tells him that he wasn't born yesterday and he knows the harsh ways of the world.
The last few moments of the film are in complete silence as we are shown a sequence of shots of the murderous bloody rampage that started in the forcourt and ended up within the estate of the House of Iyi; as the pieces of the armor which is the symbol of Iyi is picked up and put back into place. When the word got out to the villages of the false story of Hanshiro committing harakiri in the House of Iyi, several days later Lord Doi in the Edo Castle took the time to say some nice words of praise to the Iyi Clan and young master Bennosuke.
Japanese director Masaki Kobayashi came of age in the postwar moment, a time when filmmakers were at the vanguard of dissident expression in that country. Drawing upon a rich history of protest in Japanese cinema, which had fallen dormant during the war and occupation years, filmmakers seized the opportunity to challenge those institutions that remained wedded to the nation’s feudal past. Of this generation of directors, none was as passionate as Kobayashi. Every one of his films, from The Thick-Walled Room (1953) to the feature-length documentary Tokyo Trial (1983) to The Empty Table (1985), is marked by a defiance of tradition and authority, whether feudal or contemporary. Kobayashi found the present to be no more immune to the violation of personal freedoms than the pre-Meiji past, under official feudalism, had been. “In any era, I am critical of authoritarian power,” the filmmaker told me when I interviewed him in Tokyo, during the summer of 1972. “In The Human Condition [1959–61], it took the form of militaristic power; in Harakiri, it was feudalism. They pose the same moral conflict in terms of the struggle of the individual against society.”
Like other directors of this period—notably Akira Kurosawa—Kobayashi often expressed his political dissidence via the jidai-geki, or period film, in which the historical past becomes a surrogate for modern Japan. In Kobayashi’s hands, the jidai-geki exposed the historical roots of contemporary injustice. (Japanese audiences were well schooled in history and could be counted on to connect the critique of the past with abuses in the present.) Harakiri, made in 1962, was, in Kobayashi’s career, the apex of this practice. In the film’s condemnation of the Iyi clan, Kobayashi rejects the notion of individual submission to the group. He condemns, simultaneously, the hierarchical structures that pervaded Japanese political and social life in the 1950s and 1960s, especially the zaibatsus, the giant corporations that recapitulated feudalism.
Born in Hokkaido on February 14, 1916, and educated at the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo, Kobayashi joined the Shochiku Ofuna studio in 1941, as an assistant director. Eight months later, he was drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army. There, he resolutely rejected the opportunity to become an officer, insisting upon remaining at the rank of private. To suffer the misfortunes of the ordinary recruit at the hands of the military clique, to place himself in harm’s way without the prerogatives of the officer class—the class that had led Japan into the Pacific War—was Kobayashi’s means of protesting against the war itself. That war, Kobayashi has said simply, was “the culmination of human evil.”
After the war, Kobayashi returned to Shochiku Ofuna, where he assisted the great director Keisuke Kinoshita before graduating to directing in the early 1950s. His antiauthoritarian tendencies were immediately apparent in his work, inevitably provoking studio censorship. His first major film, The Thick-Walled Room, was shelved by Shochiku Ofuna for four years, as a result of its controversial suggestion that those responsible for Japanese wartime atrocities were not the minor, or B and C, war criminals but those at the top. Kobayashi had been indignant that, at the end of the war, soldiers and low-ranking officers were often punished cruelly, while many of those directly responsible for the crimes escaped censure.
It is surprising that a director like Kobayashi would ultimately flourish at Shochiku Ofuna, which was then specializing in sentimental domestic dramas of everyday life. Even the great directors working at the studio, Yasujiro Ozu and Kinoshita, fit the studio model. Ozu’s films may dramatize social change—none more than his masterpiece Tokyo Story—but his characters ultimately accept that they are powerless to alter their circumstances. In contrast, Kobayashi’s characters risk their very existence by coming into conflict with the forces of injustice. Indeed, the individual in his films best expresses himself when he risks everything, taking a stand against corruption, hypocrisy, and evil.
Harakiri opens in 1630, only three decades into the more than 250-year reign of the Tokugawa shogunate. The Tokugawa consolidation of power, following its victory in a civil war, has resulted in the destruction of many clans, depriving feudal daimyo of their fiefdoms and converting their samurai into ronin, condemned to wander the countryside masterless, in search of means of survival. Still armed with two swords—representing their soul, according to the code of Bushido—the former samurai are feared and mistrusted.
Safely under the protection of their Tokugawa ally, the Iyi clan are contemptuous of the suffering ronin who come to their door requesting that they be permitted to perform hara-kiri (ritual suicide), in the hope that they might instead be hired on. When Motome Chijiiwa (Akira Ishihama) presents himself before the Iyi clan for this purpose, they choose to preside over his death rather than offer assistance. It is his father-in-law, the samurai Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai), who, in shaming the Iyi clan before their retainers and avenging Chijiiwa’s death, expresses Kobayashi’s view that there are ideas worth dying for. Tsugumo’s bold defiance of feudal authority has a precedent in Bushido itself: the samurai who sacrifices his conscience to “the capricious will . . . or fancy of a sovereign,” Inazo Nitobe writes in Bushido: The Soul of Japan, is to be chastised, even if the only recourse against injustice open to the samurai in Harakiri, after failing to appeal to the conscience of the Iyi clan elder, is to shed his own blood.
Kobayashi discovers irony in the finiteness of the Tokugawa period. The feudal daimyo behave as if their power will last forever, but audiences are able to penetrate their hubris through their own awareness that the Tokugawas will be defeated and that official feudalism will fall with the restoration of the Emperor Meiji, in 1868. This irony is reinforced when Tsugumo tears apart the armored figure, with its white wig, that stands for the clan’s heritage. When it is later resurrected and reseated in its place of honor, Kobayashi exposes the fragility and transience of all authoritarian power.
This perspective fits Kobayashi’s subtle critique of contemporary society as well. Kobayashi suggests that, just as the Tokugawas, in their arrogance, were shortly to be defeated by upstart, dissident clans loyal to the emperor—and as militarists during World War?II had been defeated—those wielding feudal power in the present might well find their authority coming to an end.
Kobayashi’s rebellious sensibility found its parallel in the actor he discovered, Nakadai, star of Harakiri and Kobayashi’s other masterpiece, The Human Condition (and later of Kurosawa’s High and Low and Ran). An actor of the modern Shingeki, or New Theater, Nakadai embodied postwar individualism and youth culture—in his clear enunciation and strong, deep speaking voice and in his expressive body movements, facial mobility, and willingness to convey deeply felt emotions, rather than repressing them on behalf of an outworn notion of samurai dignity.
Nakadai portrays the distinguished Tsugumo as, in part, an ordinary man: a grieving widower, kind father, and doting grandfather. Kobayashi contrasts these images of the family man with the fierce, upstanding traits Tsugumo possesses as a samurai. Yet it is as a loving father that Nakadai is particularly moving. He refuses to allow his daughter to be adopted by a clan in which she might become a concubine; he will not sacrifice her to serve his own fortune, even when their economic situation is dire. This fierce individualism serves Kobayashi’s dissidence. In the scene where Nakadai examines the bamboo sword that his son-in-law was forced to use to end his life, he weeps, “The stupid thing was too dear to me?.?.?. and I clung to it!” revealing a range worthy of Marlon Brando.
Like many Japanese novelists and filmmakers, Kobayashi depicts social themes through allegory; he is an expressionist rather than a realist. In Harakiri, the stark contrasts of black and white—for example, Tsugumo’s black kimono against the white-sheeted platform on which he tells his story—reflect the intransigence of the Iyi clan, upon whose mercy Chijiiwa throws himself unsuccessfully. Kobayashi’s extensive use of the wide screen signifies the seeming endlessness, the horizontality, of feudal power.
The setting may be the feudal past, but Kobayashi undermines its authority by juxtaposing rigid, hidebound politics with a panoply of modern film techniques, from zooms to fast pans to canted frames to rapid elliptical cutting to gruesome realism. With these devices, which so obviously defy the stolid rituals of the past, Kobayashi expresses his belief that society need not be destructive of the needs of individuals, and that authoritarian power, however cruel and seemingly permanent, may in fact be vulnerable to change.
Harakiri won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1963. Kobayashi’s mentor, Kinoshita, pronounced the film a masterpiece, among the five greatest Japanese films of all time. Kobayashi would continue working for another two decades, ultimately breaking out of the studio system in the late 1960s and forming the independent Yonki-no-Kai, or the Club of the Four Knights, with Kinoshita, Kurosawa, and Kon Ichikawa. Harakiri, though, would remain the most vibrant expression of his belief that life is not worth living unless injustice is confronted with unrelenting force and single-minded purpose.
The great Japanese director Masaki Kobayashi came about with his films with a similar theme of defiance of tradition and authority, whether it was within the feudal times of Japan or in contemporary present life. In the early 40's Kobayashi was drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army and he openly rejected to become an officer rather insisting that he would rather stay at the rank of private because he wanted to feel and suffer the misfortunes of the ordinary man within the horrors of war. He later protested against the war himself stating it was "the culmination of human evil." A lot of the injustice that he probably witnessed within the war was later reflected in his 9 hour magnum opus The Human condition which shows a man who tries to rise against the corrupt, immoral injustice of the Japanese military during the horrors of World War II. Samurai Rebellion is more similar to Harakiri in which it tells another tragic tale about the corruption of the Feudal government and how a husband refuses to give up his wife to a superior. Kobaysahi is known most famously for his supernatural horror classic Kwaidan which tells four frightening Japanese folk tales which involve the themes of greed and dishonor.
And yet Harakiri is the one that I believe tops them all because of its raw power and honest ideas of human existence and the flaw of men. The story questions the ethics on how far would we as a human being would go to not feel the need to beg for help or ask for assistance even when your family’s lives are at stake. Hanshiro and Motome earlier on have a discussion about how they hear about other poorer ronins sacrificing their dignity and crawling to the Sengoku Clan's offering to commit harakiri knowing district's there have been giving several appeals like this. They also heard that in some cases the desperate ronins had their lives even spared and were given money or work by the clan they appealed to; but Hanshiro and Motome both admit that no matter how bleak things get they would never shamelessly destroy their honor; even if it means getting money or a job. And yet that's exactly what Motome does when his baby is so sick that they can't even afford a doctor, because when an individual is at a breaking point where their family is in fear of survival who’s to say what anyone would do? Who are we to judge and say what is or isn't honorable when we are selves have never been put in such a situation?
Human emotions and human instinct are not black and white and when following a fanatic dogmatic belief it can cloud a persons mind on what is necessarily good or bad and right or wrong because there are greater values that go further than a persons inheritance to honor, loyalty, or their form of religion. It sometimes takes more courage to do the human thing than to do the traditional thing and when following any form of strict code it blinds a human being from arriving at their own moral conclusions and doing what is naturally the right humanistic thing to do. Harakiri is a story that reflects such situational morals, in which the better you know a man and what he has been through, the more deeply you understand his motives and why he does what he does. Hanshiro Tsugumo is portrayed as a strong, humble and distinguished man who is fierce, wise and loyal to his samurai traditions and even sympathizes with his authoritarian bureaucrats. And yet he knows there is a moral limit to not succumb to higher authorities, especially when he refuses his daughter Mino to be adopted into a wealthy clan where she might become a concubine.
He chooses not to sacrifice her to serve his own fortune and yet later in the film when he realizes his son Motome sold his samurai sword to receive any money that he could acquire to save his family, Hanshiro looks at his own samurai sword and sees his own stubbornness saying, "the stupid thing was to dear for me...and I clung to it!" It's even more tragic that Motome sold his own sword since the bamboo sword he brought to the House of Iyi was the one they forced him to use for his harakiri which led him to have a slow, painful and agonizing death. In the House of Iyi's defense I understand why it's hard to keep accepting imitators who come in with no intent in performing harakiri to recieve a simple handout, but when they called Motome out on it and he begged them to spare him a few days and promised to return to them; they should have agreed to it. There was no excuse for them to not only give Motome no other way out, (because knowing the character of Motome, he would have returned as promised), but to cruelly have him use the bamboo sword he brought to be the weapon for his suicide was immoral, and inexcusable. This bleak and yet honest climax of the film portrays how a respected government can in reality be nothing more than a facade of buried lies and murderous corruption. The film presents a negative view of the feudal system of Japan of the 16th century, depicting the corruption and the hypocrisy as a means to retain one's honor after a disgrace. The vanity of Saito shows how the outward appearance of honor is much more important than the real thing and when someone finally exposes that he decides to cover it up with lies so their house and the Bushido Code does not appear weak or flawed but pure and untouchable. This kind of thinking probably happens in all powerful governments and laws to protect themselves from an uprising whether it could be said for the Roman Empire, feudal Japan or the United States of America. The governments behind the Roman Empire and feudal Japan both believed their governments would last forever in which we know they both did not, which makes me wonder about the future of our country and government and if we really believe we will last forever. During several shots of Harakiri and most famously in its closing shot is the respected symbol of the Iyi clan and of its anchestors, which to simply describe it is just an empty suit of armor; which at the end has been now disgraced and exposed as the fake and hollow symbol it really is. It also makes for ironic symbolism for the many symbols of the authoritarian powers around the world today and how they all create a facade and illusion as a pure and undestructable government. When seeing that armor it's also hard for anyone not to think of their own government that they abide by and live under, making them question their moral authenticity and how committed they would be to it no matter how much it could question their humanity. When Harakiri was released in 1962 it won the Cannes Film Festival's Jury Prize and was hailed by critics around the world. Film critic Roger Ebert stated Harakiri to be one of the most beautiful films he's ever seen and what he says concluding the final narration of the film I couldn't have said better myself. "When we listen to the heartless reasoning of Saito, it is easy to draw parallels with more recent political debates where rigid economic theories of both left and right are cited as good reason to disregard human suffering."