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Against The Tides: 60 Years Of Kobayashi's Brutal Harakiri
William Stottor , February 22nd, 2022 18:15

Turning 60 this year, Kobayashi's landmark film Harakiri brutally attacks the inspirational strength of Seven Samurai and the premise of authority, finds William Stottor

The image of a character committing seppuku or harakiri – a form of ritual suicide by self-disembowelment – in a Japanese jidaigeki (period drama) film is always shocking, but never surprising. This ceremonial act, based on honour, has never been more brutally attacked than in Masaki Kobayashi’s landmark 1962 film Harakiri. In just over two hours, Kobayashi exposes the hypocrisy and danger of authority as well as the questionable practice of honour at all costs; and even though it is a jidaigeki film set in 1600s Japan, the themes are timeless. Kobayashi subverts the genre’s traditional tropes of heroism, instead creating a fierce, resonant anti-samurai film. Screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto never presents these subversions in baseless or rushed ways, instead strengthening them with thoughtful depth.

The film starts with Tsugumo Hanshiro (played by a charismatic Tatsuya Nakadai) arriving at the Iyi clan estate, wishing to commit seppuku in front of the senior counsellors and samurai living there. At first the estate is an empty, ugly place shrouded in darkness and danger, a precursor of things to come. Due to recent cases of samurai arriving and falsely asking to carry out this act while in fact looking for food, money or work, the counsellors remain suspicious of Hanshiro. Kobayashi peels back the layers of the plot as he flits between past and present, revealing cowardice and hypocrisy amongst the clan’s samurai as well as Hanshiro’s own motives for arriving at the estate. In the same way that Kobayashi takes his time and remains in full control of the narrative, Hanshiro’s reasons for his arrival become apparent in a deliciously delicate manner. Always stoic, he may not technically be in a position of power, but he is the man in control.

It is Hanshiro’s challenge against the estate’s authority which forms the basis of Harakiri. Due to desperate circumstances, his son-in-law, Motome, visited the estate a few months earlier and was badly treated by the counsellors. The most senior member of the estate, Saito, is a man unmoved on whether he and his counsellors and samurai made the right decision in their treatment of Motome, as they cared more about simplistic codes of honour than understanding him on a human level. They mock Hanshiro and decline simple requests, asking him without ever saying out loud, “What can you do about it?” Yet Kobayashi and Hasimoto never make Hanshiro weak, instead giving him a steely strength. The authority of the counsellors and samurai of the estate is entrenched in this era of Japanese history, but its resonance is timeless; governments and other bodies of authority act in this self-entitled way everyday around the world. Kobayashi’s fascination with societal power structures can be seen in his other films, such as The Human Condition trilogy (1959-1961) and 1967’s Samurai Rebellion, but in Harakiri. he attacks it with the most ferocity.

Yet for all Harakiri’s contemporary relevance, it remains particularly important to the principled traditions of samurai. In other jidaigeki films, samurai are portrayed as heroic men fighting for the people, their bushido (code of honour) never faltering. But not all these films follow this pattern – Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, released in 1961, follows a former samurai motivated by money above all else – but the most famous titles, such as Seven Samurai, double down on the heroism. This notion of good versus evil has inspired countless reiterations, in films like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings but if these works have any flaws, it’s perhaps their rose-tinted view of the world. Harakiri has no such hue: its glasses are unclouded, unmoved by idealistic views.

Hasimoto saves the greatest lines of dialogue for Hanshiro’s final monologue, as the protagonist ruthlessly states to stony-faced samurai that their code of honour is a façade. He asks why the men of the estate showed not even a hint of mercy or understanding to Motome. The power of Hasimoto’s writing is so great that it feels like the whole film has been building up to this monologue, waiting for this cathartic eruption of anger and bitterness. Kobayashi gives it further impetus with a combination of quick and slow zooms, building tension carefully before exploding it to pieces. He also often revels in silence, letting Hanshiro’s words sink in as the estate’s counsellors sit gobsmacked. And with the honour system of the samurai dismantled in just a few lines, Hanshiro’s personal journey is almost complete.

Perhaps the most impressive symbolism comes in the opening and closing shots of Harakiri, with Kobayashi shooting in both instances samurai armour on display at the Iyi clan estate. Each time it is enveloped by the interior darkness of the estate, smoke rising in and around it as Tōru Takemitsu’s simmering string-based original score swells. The armour symbolises looming, dangerous authority, untouchable even when attacked and thrown to the floor by Hanshiro, both literally and metaphorically.

Harakiri’s conclusion is hard to take as it is steeped in unfortunate realism; like many bodies of authority, the estate’s counsellors and samurai are only concerned with reputation. One man – in this instance, Hanshiro – can’t topple a power-crazed, deluded regime, a notion that could apply to various points of history as well as to our present-day societies. A character tells him, “You can’t fight the world you live in or go against the tides of time.” Hanshiro, alone but enraged by injustice, hears this but still fights against the system. Even though the dent he makes is small, it’s still there; he fights less against the actual act of seppuku and more against the people who enforce it. As Harakiri reaches its 60th year of existence, Kobayashi’s masterpiece remains as dramatically and technically impressive as it is significant.