When Harakiri was released in the US shortly after it’s 1962 debut, it received a title change from the more correct Seppuku to its current moniker. That change is significant in that it shows why American audiences and filmmakers were more slow to respond to Masaki Kobayashi’s masterwork than they were to the films of Akira Kurosawa. Everything about this film is inherently Japanese, unlike Kurosawa’s westernized films, but because of that, I find Harakiri to be much more intriguing than any of the works of Kurosawa. It isn’t “better” because films aren’t exactly running foot races against one another, but I find it more attractive.
The story is relatively simple but it unfolds in a complicated way. That should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Rashomon since Shinobu Hashimoto wrote both screenplays. He also wrote Seven Samurai but Harakiri was based on the novel Ibun rônin ki by Yasuhiku Takiguchi so that may have colored the way the work was presented. At any rate, we get to see the tale unfold in numerous flashbacks as ronin Hanshiro Tsugumo presents himself at the gates of a feudal lord’s compound and asks permission to commit ritual suicide in the courtyard. I don’t think it’s fair to go any further into the plot but suffice it to say that things aren’t all what they may seem. As we get filled in on the back story from the various participants’ points of view, the real plot is slowly uncovered.
I don’t always enjoy black and white films, especially those with relatively static action, but I was riveted by this film. The tension level is very high if you have at least a cursory understanding of the samurai class and their code of conduct. As various characters commit more and more faux pas, I began to feel that there would be no way for anyone to save face in the end. If you approach this film from a western perspective, I imagine that you’d find much less tension present. I imagine American audiences siding with the protagonist from the very beginning, but if you see the film from a Japanese point of view, he is completely out of line and it takes time to accept his perspective.
The cinematography by Yoshio Miyajima is stunning in its elegance. The level of violence seen on screen was unheard of in its day and is still somewhat shocking today, but it serves the story well. A Zatoichi movie this is not.
The main theme has been talked about for decades so I’ll give it short shrift here. Kobayashi was well known as a pacifist. After being drafted during WWII, he refused to fight and refused promotion. Harakiri spends most of its time pointing out the hypocrisy of the samurai code and of those who continue its traditions. The film has been labeled “anti-samurai” and that wouldn’t be incorrect, but it assumes a simplicity that isn’t present here. This film is thematically complex with as much to say about individual integrity as it does about samurai culture. I feel that Kobayashi’s opinion of the samurai code stemmed from the perversion of it that was used to manipulate the Japanese people during WWII. In much the same way that Star Trek episodes were sometimes about current events in the 60’s, I believe Harakiri is more about the leadership of Japan during the 40’s than it is about the samurai class.
I’ve read reviews of Takashi Miike’s recent remake of Harakiri and the critics have not been kind. While I fail to see the need to update such a near-perfect execution (no pun intended) as the original, I’m interested to see what Miike does with the material. Could it be that the critiques I read were negative because the reviewers were Americans? I’ll definitely post a review when it’s released here in the states, but I’d suggest watching the original first. It’s highly recommended.