Harakiri (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
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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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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.
The film was made in 1962 and it features people who lived in 17th century Japan. And yet here we are in the 21st century, still discussing the still-relevant issues that the film raises, and also the compelling, human people who are shown in the film.
The film starts calmly, with Tsugumo Hanshiro (masterfully played by Nakadai Tatsuya), a middle-aged ronin who once served a clan that has been abolished by the Shogunate, appearing at the gate of the Edo headquarters of the Ii clan. He requests a spot within their mansion to commit seppuku, as he no longer wishes to live in the extreme poverty that he has lived in for the past years.
In the course of the film, details are given about 17th century Japanese history and society, so that a viewer does not have to have studied extensively to know of the situations confronting the characters. To sum up: thousands of samurai retainers had been thrown out of their positions, made into lordless ronin, by the wholesale abolishing of clans by the bakufu government. In the rigid class system (samurai, farmers, artisans, merchants) that had been set up by the bakufu after the Tokugawa shoguns had established their reign, these displaced ex-retainers had no place at all; they were forced into marginal modes of subsistance -- either as outlaws or into very low-paying teaching or artisan trades.
The film unfolds after its stark beginning. In his inner headquarters, Saito Kageyu (Mikuni Rentaro), the chief retainer of the Ii clan, bemoans the fact that hordes of starving ronin have been making similar requests at various clan gates; most have wanted handouts rather than to actually commit seppuku, and Kageyu suspects the same of Hanshiro. But he agrees to meet with him.
Kageyu attempts to discourage Hanshiro with a tale of another ronin, a younger man from the same abolished clan, Chijiiwa Motome (played poignantly by Ishihama Akira). Motome had appeared at the clan's gate a few months earlier, requesting to commit seppuku for the same reasons. Kageyu reveals to Hanshiro that this younger man had been discovered to be carrying sword blades of bamboo (he had pawned his real swords) and tells of the outrage that his clan members had felt when a man requests to commit seppuku but does not possess the weapon for carrying out this request (a wakizashi made of metal, not bamboo) -- so it had been obvious to the Ii clansmen that Motome had wanted to extort the clan for a handout and had no intention of committing seppuku. So as an example to other scrounging, poor ronin, particularly those who don't carry real blades, the Ii clan members had decided to make an example of Motome. They had forced him to commit seppuku with his own bamboo wakizashi.
What happens following Kageyu's tale told to Hanshiro will tear your heart and drive you to view the film over and over. The story proceeds onward, toward its inevitable end, playing out like the best of Greek or Shakespearian tragedy.
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