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Following the collapse of his clan, an unemployed samurai (Ran's Tatsuya Nakadai) arrives at the manor of Lord Iyi, begging to commit ritual suicide on his property. Iyi's clansmen, believing the desperate ronin is merely angling for a new position, try to force him to eviscerate himself— but they have underestimated his beliefs and his personal brand of honor. Winner of the 1963 Cannes Film Festival's Special Jury Prize, Harakiri, directed by Masaki Kobayashi (The Human Condition) is a fierce evocation of individual agency in the face of a corrupt and hypocritical system.
Video introduction by Japanese-film historian Donald Richie
Excerpt from a rare Directors Guild of Japan video interview with the director
Video interviews with star Tatsuya Nakadai and screenwriter
Original theatrical trailer
PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Joan Mellen and more!
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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]
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.