"Hara Kiri" is directly translated as "belly cutting," and is the name best known in the West for Seppuku, a traditional act of suicide that was considered an honorable method of death amongst the Samurai of medieval Japan. To die by Seppuku was a privilege reserved for honorable men, and was formal and ritualized as is common in Japanese tradition. It was an extremely painful way to die, and required absolute will and self-control.
Kobayashi Masaki ("Kwaidan," "Samurai Rebellion"), a master director of Samurai films, uses this ritual as the focus of his film "Hara Kiri" (Japanese title "Seppuku.") The stage is set in the late Tokugawa period, a time when centuries of peace had rendered the warrior class moot, and Samurai without a rich lord to serve had nothing but their honor to sustain themselves. Forbidden by law, culture and training to seek their substance through less-honorable means such as farming or trade, the lordless Samurai were expected to starve and die with no word of complaint. One day, a hungry Samurai by the name of Hanshiro Tsugumo arrives at the gate of a local lord, requesting permission to perform Seppuku and end his suffering poverty through honorable means. And then the true story unfolds.
Probably his greatest film, Kobayashi dissects what it is to be "honorable," and who is the true possessor of this abstract concept. The rigid code of the Samurai is symbolized through the relentless use of straight lines, as hard and unyielding as the swords which are the supposed soul of a Samurai. The code has long outlived its usefulness, and is a contradiction in the world of peace. Both the code and the men are dinosaurs, needing to either change or die.
Hanshiro Tsugumo is played by the legendary Nakadai Tatsuya ("Sword of Doom," "Yojimbo"). He is incredible as Hanshiro, being both the ultimate Samurai ideal and at the same time one who's wisdom and compassion far surpasses those who speak of "honor," relaxing comfortably behind their money and position. Hanshiro's surface is one of acceptance and resolve, a man who has accepted his fate, but underneath is rage and righteous action, hidden and waiting to explode.
The pacing is typical of a Kobayashi film, and follows his pattern of a slow, slow build up that explodes with a violent and unexpected climax. "Hara Kiri," like other Kobayashi films, is a slow fuse leading to a large bomb. Hanshiro's story is complex, and he unfolds it delicately, so that all points are clear to the Lord and his men, as well as the viewers.
Criterion has recognized both the importance and the excellence of "Hara Kiri," and put forth a DVD worthy of the film. Aside from a beautiful transfer and improved English subtitles, they have assembled video interview with Nakadai Tatsuya and scriptwriter Hashimoto Shinobu, as well as an introduction by Japanese-film expert Donald Richie. In print, there is an essay by film scholar Joan Mellen and a re-print of her Kobayashi interview.
Any fan of Japanese film and/or Samurai films simply must see "Hara Kiri." Easily amongst the top 3 or 4 films of the genre, it is a masterpiece by every definition of the word.
on January 1, 2007
"Hara-Kiri," is an absolute classic. It is also one of the 3 greatest [if not greatest] Samurai films of all time. Not only is this a great Samurai film, it is also an outstanding drama. In fact, director Masaki Kobayashi stated that this film was more of an anti-samurai film, and he is correct. I must tread very carefully with this review, as to write too much of this film will destroy it for those of you who have not had the opportunity to see this MASTERPIECE of cinema. Directed by Masaki Kobayashi, the film deals with ONE individuals attack against the corruption and arrogance of the state. And in particular, one clan known as the House of Iyi, which is representative of the new unified state of Japan.
This is one of those films that transcends borders and nationalities--for it is universal. By this I mean that the films main protagonist, Hanshiro Tsugomo (Tatsuya Nakadai) represents the individual against the powers that be who are in charge. And in Hara-kiri, Hanshiro is about to give this House of Iyi a costly lesson in humility, with a touch of vengeance thrown in--that this clan's own arrogance has brought upon themselves. The period that this film takes place is circa 1630: not too long after Lord Tokugawa has established the Shogunate as the supreme power in the now unified Japan.
However, unification comes with a price. In order to consolidate his power, Tokugawa has purged many of the clans spread throughout Japan of their status. Therefore, many clans begin to fold up, and their Samurai must eke out a living within the confines of a profession befitting a samurai. This was very difficult to do, as farming was not acceptable to their Bushido code. Therefore, many of these former samurai found themselves starving since there were very few occupations they were allowed to do. The now masterless samurai are referred to as Ronin. Without the clan, and near starvation, many samurai wandered the country in search of work with another clan in the hopes of securing employment.
Yet, with so many ronin roaming the country, and many clans now purged by Tokugawa, work was a near impossibility. Which brings us to our main protagonist in the film: Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai) in his most celebrated role to date. The films narrative begins with Hanshiro Tsugumo coming to the gates of the House of Iyi. Hanshiro Tsugumo is a proud man, yet something has occurred recently that brings him to this particular clan which boasts of its honor and courage. He has asked for permission to commit Hara-kiri in the courtyard of this House. It is here that the Counselor of this clan, Kageyu Saito (Rentaro Mikuni) proceeds to tell Hanshiro Tsugomo of another samurai who also wanted to commit Hara-kiri in this courtyard.
But there is something very different about this ronin Hanshiro Tsugumo. As the Counselor relates his story of this other ronin, Hanshiro listens intently---for Hanshiro too has a story to relate to this Counselor in charge of the House of Iyi. Hanshiro has not just come to this clan to commit Hara-kiri, there are more profound reasons why he has come to this House. And it is here that film begins with the telling of a story of poverty and sadness which has occurred in Hanshiro's life. Hanshiro Tsugumo has come to the manor of the house of Lord Iyi, not only to seek permission of this Counselor to commit Hara-kiri on this clans property, but to lecture this clan.....and WOW, how he lectures them.
The Counselor of the Iyi clan, Kageyu Saito, is in charge--as the Lord of this Domain is away on business. And it is here that Hanshiro Tsugumo recounts a tale to this Counselor on the fate of his beloved son-in-law, daughter and grandson. You can sense the resentment of Hanshiro Tsugumo as he sees the hypocrisy of those around him. Hanshiro understands that the Bushido code, like the samurai, have changed. And with this, the film builds to an ever greater climax. I don't wish to spoil this film for you, so I will not go any further, other than to write that this film belongs in EVERY cinema lovers collection.
Whether you like samurai, or foreign films in general, this film is POWERFUL. I have seen this film more times on the big screen, and video, than any other I have seen. And I NEVER tire of viewing the film. This is a MASTERPIECE of a film. As a warning to viewers who have not seen this film--DO NOT view the Donald Richie interview in the beginning of the film, as he gives away important parts of the film. Also, there is a terrific booklet that comes with this film, and you should read it---but only after you have seen the film. Once more, this is one of the GREATEST films in cinema. And it is one of my personal favorites. The film is a must see. Highly, highly recommended. [Stars: 5 plus infinity]
on May 23, 2002
After Japan emerged from its civil wars in the early 17th century, many clans were banned by the victorious Tokugawa Shogunate. Thousands of samurai warriors who knew the arts of war but precious little else suddenly found themselves thrown out onto the street.
HARAKIRI tells of the chain of events set into motion when a destitute samurai goes to one of the remaining clans and offers to commit suicide according to the harakiri ritual. His real intent was to get a handout once the Iyi clan elder had seen his determination. This clan, however, had been hit up by other samurai in similar straits. The elder praises him and immediately has him prepare for suicide by disembowelment. When the young samurai requests a delay, the elder insists he begin immediately.
I do not want to ruin the picture for anyone by giving anything away. Some time later (though earlier in the film, which skips around with the chronological story), the young samurai's father-in-law -- also a samurai -- shows up at the gate making the same request. This time the samurai is the redoubtable Tatsuya Nakadai. His intention is revenge, and he damned near lays waste to the entire clan to attain it.
Kobayashi's direction of this elegant wide-screen epic may seem to be stodgy and talky at times, but the tale it tells will curdle the marrow of your bones. There is relatively little swordplay until Nakadai produces three small items from the folds of his kimono resulting in an all-against-one battle royal.
This is one of the greatest of all the samurai films. No Jacobean revenge tragedy by Cyril Tourneur or John Webster can hold a candle to it in its ferocity. Kobayashi's film is Shakespearean in its breadth and holds up well to multiple viewings. This is a letterboxed print, so you see ALL the action.
on March 21, 2007
I've said it once about another movie, incidentally by the other great Japanese director as well and I want to repeat my words in regard to "Harakiri": "There are good, very good, and even great movies. But among them there are just a few that go beyond great. They belong to the league of their own". Masaki Kobayashi's "Harakiri" aka "Seppuku" is one of them. The film of rare power and humanism, of highest artistic achievements, profoundly moving, tragic like the best Shakespeare's plays, universal and timeless even if it takes place in the faraway country of 1630, by the words of one of the reviewers "Harakiri" "is to cinema as the Sistine Chapel is to painting. Unsurpassable!"
The film grabbed me from the very first shot, from its opening credits with their perfect harmony of kanji (I believe it is correct word to describe the writings) characters, with the unusual disturbing score and with the dark beauty of the images. And then the story begins that centers on Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai), one of hundreds or maybe even thousands unemployed lord less samurais, ronin, that in the blessed times of peace had not many choices to adjust to new life and often preferred to commit a ritual suicide, hara-kiri or seppuku on the property of the wealthy estate owners. According to Bushido, the way of the samurai, "One who is a samurai must before all things keep constantly in mind, by day and by night . . . the fact that he has to die. That is his chief business."
At the same time, samurai and anti-samurai film, "Harakiri" offers the masterfully screened scenes of swordfights, not plentiful but exquisitely choreographed, perfectly paced and unbearably intense but the film is much more than that. It is also a gripping court drama where the truth is unfolded in the flashbacks. The viewers are allowed to look closer at the noble Samurai code of behavior and to reflect on how its abuse impacts the fate of an individual and the society in general. Compelling, poetic, and tragic, the movie has one of the most pessimistic endings ever that makes you wonder how the history is made, how the historical events are interpreted and who decides what would be written in the chronicles and important documents and what would be left out.
A Masterpiece, one of the best movies ever made, "Harakiri" deserves all its praise. It is not in my nature to force my opinion on anyone but if you call yourself a movie buff or a movie lover, you MUST see this film.
Five stars is not enough to rate it.
on June 27, 2007
This just might my be my favorite samurai film of all time and one of the best I've ever seen. Harakiri is based during the Edo period around the early 1600's. A man named Hanshiro Tsugumo apears infront of the house of Kageyu Saito to commit Harakiri, also known as seppuku, which is the Japanese ritual for suicide. To discourage Hanshiro from doing so, Kageyu Saito tells the story of another samurai, Motome Chijiiwa. Moteme is actually Tsugumo's son-in-law, he tells the story of how hard the struggle has been in the past months for the poverty stricken family. While watching this retelling you start to understand how hard it was for this mans family.
Tsugumo's friend, also a samurai committed seppuku and left Tsugumo to look after his son. It turns out that his son was Motome Chijiiwa. While looking after Chijiiwa and also his own daughter Miho, Hanshiro is unable to choose the "honorable" way to end his life so he has to live in poverty and work degrading jobs in order to support his family. When the children got older Tsugumo wanted his daughter to marry Motome. Motome wanted to but didn't think he could support anyone else in such hard times. The two ended up getting married and having a child. As the story goes on and Tsugumo keeps talking you and the samurai start to realize what's really going on but you'll have to watch to find out.
One of my greatest concerns with a film made long ago is the quality of the picture and sound and both are as good as you are gonna get them but it's decent. Everything else is perfect; this film has some of the best samurai action scenes you'll see. Tatsuya Nakadai is amazing making this film feel real, like he was actually a samurai and this character. The way the story builds up suspense is perfect; it grabs you in more and more as it goes by. First Tsugumo's telling this heartbreaking sad story and then his story gets faster. More action is added with revenge and courage. It's filmed in a stylish and realistic beginning, middle, and certainly the end. This is an amazing movie that can never be touched, anyone who loves samurai films I would definitely recommend this for you.
on September 28, 2011
The film itself is a masterpiece - the build-up of tension as the main character tells his story, climaxing in his final lesson - you will not find anything like it in cinema. And as always with Criterion, the image quality and extras are unparalleled.
But there is one major problem that existed in their DVD release and still exists in the Blu-ray edition: the sides have been cropped by about 10% total. See DVDBeaver for several side-by-side comparisons (particularly, the scene in which Chijiiwa is seated in a white robe, surrounded by clan members - one guy on the left is cropped out, destroying the composition of the scene). I have also added two comparison images to the Amazon Product photo gallery at the top of this page.
It appears that only the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray edition has the right composition, but unfortunately the detail appears to be slightly lacking compared to Criterion.
Hopefully Criterion will realize this problem and correct it in future releases.
on November 21, 1999
I have seen all Japanese masterpieces, but this one is absolutely the very best Japanese samurai movie ever made. Director Kobayashi used his piercing observing eyes to tell the world that there are painful agony and undisclosed black truth of the overly golorified Harakiri (suicide by self-inflicted abdomen cutting and openning). I first watched this movie in 1973 and immediately was convinced this one is the best Japanese movie ever made. Only Akira Kurosawa's movies like Rashomon, etc. can match with Harakiri's depth and enlightenment. A must see movie, it makes you think, and realized that many of the glorified- virtures the society adores and admires are actually nothing but sad lies.
on December 18, 2006
This film is of such a high quality I can begin to praise it enough. I would give it six or seven stars. Amongst palm d'or or criterian films this one is a stand out. It has an emotion depth that even surpasses some (most?) of karasawas best work.
on December 4, 2006
This is one great samurai flic. I must say i was blown away by the brilliant directing and the story just blew me away.
on October 9, 2005
Bushido, the way of the samurai, in theory, provides a noble idea, but like all ideas, some change to fit personal goals and agendas. Derived from four major philosophical and spiritual sources (Buddhism, Confucianism, Shintoism, and Zen) the samurai generated the Bushido, as the samurai had to be fearless, enlightened, and reflective while displaying both compassion and self-control. The samurai sought the true way to become the ultimate warrior where he displayed respect and reverence for both friend and foe. For centuries, the samurai had sought an inner path to enlightenment, righteousness, and dexterity while serving a clan with their skills in swordsmanship. Here Masaki Kobayashi, a proponent against authoritarian power, directs a samurai tale that illustrates how the concept of the Bushido transforms into a self-serving design.
In the year 1630, the island that now goes under its native name, Nippon, also known as Japan to westerners, was only in its beginning of the Tokugawa shogunate, which lasted for some 250 years. The major difference with the Tokugawa compared to previous military leaders was that they unified their powers while exterminating smaller and less prosperous clans. It left numerous samurai without masters, as they had to drift into an unemployed existence also known as ronin. In Harakiri, known as Seppuku, in Japan, the audience learns about the socioeconomic and political changes that a ronin faced after the loss of a position while suffering from poverty and hunger. This story is set within the walls of the Iyi clan's stronghold. The audience should also know that the Iyi clan was a supporter of the Tokugawa shogunate.
Images of the Iyi clan's traditional armor open the film with a hauntingly stark presence, as the dark background contrasts the armor while fog drifts aimlessly around the armor. Analogously, the opening imagery presents a notion of a dark, resistive, and hollow presence, as no human fills the armor. It also provides the impression of lacking compassion while this clan's symbol represents the clan's merciless power and might. Eventually, the imagery forcefully fades into reality where it sits on the clan's high seat overlooking the clan and its fiefdom.
Out of the Iyi clan's log, a narration informs the viewer about a samurai and former retainer of the Fukashima Clan that arrives to the Iyi clan's grounds, which brings the audience back in time through a flashback. This man is Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai). Hanshiro requests to use the Iyi clan's forecourt of the Iyi's stronghold for a ritual suicide (harakiri) where the samurai cuts open his own abdomen in order to uphold his honor. Before the clan approves of his request, the senior counselor of the house of Iyi, Kageyu Saito (Rentaro Mikuni) meets with him. In his meeting, Kageyu informs Hanshiro about a recent incident where another man arrived who made a similar request. Together with Hanshiro the audience learns that other ronin have made the same request in the hope of obtaining a position, or getting a little money. However, the Iyi clan does not deviate, as they will make sure that the ronin executes harakiri by following the rules of Bushido. The story does not deter Hanshiro who remains steadfast in his decision of performing harakiri.
Well spread hearsay has reached Hanshiro's ears that the Iyi clan possesses a number of terrific swordsmen, as he requests one to be his assistant. The assistant's sword skills will serve the purpose of decapitated the Hanshiro's head when the pain of gutting himself becomes too painful, which in a way helps save face, no pun intended. However, none of the men that he requests are present, as they all are absent for the day due to illness. Yet, Hanshiro requests one of these men, as he wants the job done properly. Consequently, Kageyu sends for them, and while they wait Hanshiro begins to share his life story for Kageyu and the present samurai. Hanshiro's story is a perplexing and mesmerizing tale that will pull the audience in several unexpected directions, as director Kobayashi portrays a strong criticism of authoritarian rule of Iyi clan and their abuse of the Bushido.
Kobayashi's vision does not only reflect of historical incidents several centuries ago, but also, he freely criticizes the abusiveness of despotic power which shows complete disregard for the individual. This is something he personally experienced as a private, even though he was offered an officer position, in World War II, a war he referred to as, "the culmination of human evil." Now less than two decades after the war, Kobayashi ironically sets the tale during the Tokugawa shogunate, which we now know exists no more. This knowledge serves an intentional reminder that despotic rule never lasts, as people eventually will always overcome the oppressiveness, as they did after World War II. In regards to the aftermath of both World War II and the Tokugawa shogunate, Kobayashi points out that the individuals of the lower socioeconomic levels suffer far worse than those in power, as those in power always find away to bend the rules to their favor.
Harakiri offers much more than mere sword fight, as Kobayashi allows the audience to reflect over the social application of the Bushido and the abuse of the samurai code. In addition, Kobayashi playfully applies masterful symbolism that intentionally criticizes the political perspective of totalitarian rule in a jidaigeki (also known as chambara, or sword fight in a period film that takes place between 1600 and 1868.) This is why Harakiri emerges as one of the bewildering cinematic masterpieces that compares with Rashômon (1950), with its mysterious element, and Seven Samurai (1954) by Kurosawa and Miyamoto Musashi's samurai trilogy with its social impact in the shadow of Bushido. Lastly, through the combination of brilliant camerawork, a clever script, and terrific performances by the cast all are come together under Kobayashi's skillful direction that leaves the viewers with a lasting and truly amazing cinematic experience.