Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 black and white film Harakiri (Seppuku), is the second film of his that I’ve seen; the first being his 9½ hour long The Human Condition. Despite Harakiri’s being only 133 minutes in length, it’s the better film; and that’s with the full acknowledgment that The Human Condition was a hell of a good film. Harakiri is also one of the best examples of a great political work of art precisely because its greatness has nothing to do with its politics, but because of its art. It’s only the fact that it has a political stance that makes it political, whereas most ‘political’ art preens its politics.
The film opens on the image of a samurai suit of armor we soon find out is the symbol of the Iyi clan. The whole of the film takes place in a single day, although loaded with flashbacks that serve to both undermine and complex the actions seen in the ostensible present tense. The film takes place on May 16th, 1630 AD, to the narration of one of the scribes of the house of Iyi. Many ronin (samurai who have lost their lords due to a decree from the Tokugawa Shogunate) have been showing up at such lush houses, requesting to commit seppuku (hara-kiri or ritual suicide), because they have heard that one such ronin who did so was hired on by the house. Others were merely paid off, to avoid the discomfiture of becoming known as a haven for suicides. Enter Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai), a fiftysomething ronin, with a request to commit seppuku. The counselor for the Iyi clan, Kageyu Saito (Rentaro Mikuni, who plays the role with a Henry Kissinger-like disingenuous oiliness), tells Tsugumo a tale of another ronin who came to commit seppuku earlier that year, in January. His name was Motome Chijiiwa (Akira Ishihama), and the clan soon saw that he was disingenuous. The reason the tale is being related is that Saito suspects Tsugumo of likewise seeking alms (or extortion, as they call it). He tells Tsugumo how the house allowed him to go through with the seppuku, knowing he would not, then forced him to do so, with a bamboo blade, for he had sold off the steel in his own. This meant his death was far more painful than need be, and when his ‘second’ refused to end his agony, Chijiwa bit his own tongue, to bleed to death, an act which further ‘shamed’ the Iyi house. All this is related in the film’s first 30 minutes. Tsugumo is not deterred, and, when asked by Saito, if he knew Chijiwa, as they were from the same lord, Tsugumo denies it, claiming that his master employed over 12,000 men and there was no way he could have known all of them.
He is led into the same courtyard where Chijiwa was forced to suicide. There, he asks for three specific retainers of the Iyi house, all of whom are famed. But, all three claim to be ill when sought. While waiting for each of the three to arrive, Tsugumo asks Saito if he can relate to the rest of the house how he arrived at his situation, for he has learnt that they could be in his position in the future. Saito scoffs at this. This is when Tsugumo admits that he, indeed, did know Chijiwa, and was his godfather, after Chijiwa’s father committed seppuku eleven years earlier, after the fall of their house. He was asked to raise Chijiwa by both his father and his house’s master. Later, Chijiwa- now a teacher of Chinese classics- married Tsugumo’s daughter, Miho (Shima Iwashita), and they had a baby named Kingo. Tsugumo was a doting grandfather, and some of the best moments in this samurai film are the non-samurai moments, including much of the dialogue (most odd for a film in this genre). It was because of his needing to take care of his daughter and Chijiwa that Tsugumo never got to seppuku, and had to live in poverty.
Then, Miho and Kingo got ill, and Chijiwa had to sell his sword for money to pay for a doctor. He then told Tsugumo he was going to go to a money lender, but instead went to the Iyi house to try and ‘beg’ for money. His body was returned that night, by the three samurai Tsugumo names to be his seconds. Within days, both baby and mother die, as well, leaving Tsugumo all alone. He feels even worse after having found out his son-in-law sold off his blade for money, while he still had his. He felt shame for never even having thought of selling off his blade (or ‘soul,’ to the Japanese, and ‘phallus’ to mankind). He came to realize that the samurai code (Bushido) was a façade. He tells this to Saito, and scorns him and his house for not showing more human decency, rather than the false honor of the samurai. As he puts it, ‘After all, this thing we call samurai honor is nothing but a façade.’ He also tells Saito that his three choices to be his second are not really ill, but hiding in shame, for days earlier, Tsugumo tracked all of them down, beat them in swordfights, and cut off their topknots, de facto emasculating them. The three are Hikokuro Omodaka (Tetsuro Tamba), Hayato Yazaki (Ichiro Nakaya), and Umenosuke Kawabe (Yoshio Aoki), and are shamed and awaiting their hair to grow longer again. Upon finding out the truth, and seeing Tsugumo toss their labeled topknots on the ground, Saito orders his retainers to find the three samurai, and order them to commit seppuku, or kill them if they refuse. It seems only Omodaka has done the ‘honorable’ thing, and committed suicide already.
He then orders his retainers to kill Tsugumo. A battle ensues, and slowly Tsugumo is worn down, although he kills four of the Iyi retainers and seriously wounds eight others. All this occurs as the Counselor retires to his chambers, and listens to the goings on. Unable to finish him off with their swords, other retainers arrive with guns, and shoot him before he can commit seppuku. He stumbles into the room holding the symbol of the Iyi clan, an old suit of armor. He tosses it at his pursuers and dies. Saito orders his scribes to cover up the mess; to write that Tsugumo acted weirdly, but committed seppuku, and that all the other deaths were the result of a strange illness. Word must not get out of the disgrace of the Iyi clan, at the hands of one mere elderly ronin. The incident is thus effectively whitewashed. Might indeed makes right.
The DVD, put out by The Criterion Collection, is a two disk set, but there really aren’t enough features to justify its needing two disks. Disk One has only the restored film (and it’s a good transfer), a trailer, and an introduction to the film by Japanese film scholar Donald Richie. But, it lacks any option for an English language dubbed audio track, and even lacks an audio commentary, which, given the film’s excellence, is appalling. Also in the negative is the fact that the film’s subtitles are all in white, always a problem with black and white films, for the titles often blanche out. In this case, however, because the film is in a 2.35:1 aspect ration, most of the subtitles fall into the lower black bar area. Disk Two has interviews with Kobayashi, Nakadai, and screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto, as well as a poster gallery. As none of the interviews is that long, they could easily have fit on to the first disk, since there was no audio commentary for alternate language dubbing. The second disk, therefore, is just a cynical marketing ply. There is also an insert booklet with two works by film scholar Joan Mellen: an interview with director Kobayashi, from 1972, and a rather by the numbers essay on the film.
Technically, the film is quite spectacular. Although mostly set on soundstages, the use of close-ups and the black and white lighting create an almost timeless atmosphere. One could easily believe that the film was taking place on another planet, or in outer space, or in ancient Rome. The score, by Toru Takemitsu, is very apt to the moments of the film, and never makes mere melodrama out of anything. The screenplay, by Yasuhiko Takiguchi and Hashimoto, who scripted Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, is outstanding, and, in fact, makes much of that film’s use of multiple points of views. But, wherein the earlier film told the tale from the points of views of the characters within the film, we only get a bit of that here. Instead, Hashimoto manipulates the reality of the film’s percipients, by first giving us the bare facts of Chijiwa’s seppuku, than altering its effect greatly by letting us later find out the background information. This enables the viewer to experience the same sort of parallax that the Counselor Saito, and the Iyi retainers, do. We are then simpatico with not only the film’s hero, but its villains. The acting is excellent. Nakadai is one of the great actors in film history. Period. He is also one of those rare actors whose face is enough, alone, to convey wide ranges of emotion without words. And standout performances are given by Rentaro Mikuni, as Counselor Saito, Akira Ishihama, as Chijiwa, and Tetsuro Tamba, as Omodaka, the most intriguing of the three beaten Iyi samurai.
The film has been (mis)interpreted in many ways, and, given Japan’s feudal (and then current corporate) state (not to mention the disastrous militarist rule of the early 20th Century), there’s no surprise that the film was loaded with political content. Yet, all of the political intrigue of the film is built upon well developed characters who simply have personal ideological clashes. And the leading character, Tsugumo, is willing to die for his, and that is the belief that his whole life in obeisance to Bushido has been a fraud. The key moment in the film is not Chijiwa’s suicide, nor the death of his father, his wife, nor his child, but when the bamboo samurai’s body is returned to his family by the three arrogant and contemptuous Iyi samurai- Omodaka, Yazaki, and Kawabe. While Miho and the baby obviously have little sympathy or truck for such masculine nonsense, it’s clear that Tsugumo, to that point, still believes in his life’s code. He even accepts that the Iyi clan could allow his son-in-law to seppuku, and do so because of ‘honor,’ and his supposed ‘extortion.’ But, when he finds out of the wanton and deliberate cruelty of forcing him to suicide with a dull bamboo blade, Tsugumo has a double revelation: 1) he realizes that there is no honor in the system, because the clan could easily have lent him a sharp steel blade to minimize suffering (and his later hearing of the details only confirms this view of the Iyis) but chose sadism, and 2) he realizes that, just as the clan’s pride, and Chijiwa’s pride, led to his death, so did Tsugumo’s pride in never even contemplating selling off his own sword to help pay for his grandchild’s needs. And, even if, by the warped macho standards of the day, Chijiwa was guilty of ‘extortion,’ Tsugumo sees that his punishment was far too grave for the crime. Thus, he has a choice to either accept his life and his part in its making, or dare to power, and try to force the edifice off its mantel. This also recapitulates the artistic and political sentiments of director Kobayashi, for he was a fiercely apolitical character, who distrusted all power, and the two films of his that I’ve see, this and The Human Condition, both have characters that loathe the entrenched power structure, and eventually suffer greatly and die for it. It makes an interesting contrast with the films of Kurosawa, both the samurai and modern films, for, while Kurosawa likely shared much of Kobayashi’s political sentiments, his characters are basically characters that work to change evils in small ways, over long times. Kurosawa was more evolutionary in his beliefs, thus lending credence to the claim that most Japanese considered him the most Westernized of all the major Japanese filmmakers of the mid-20th Century. His ronin Tsugumo is a Japanese version of No. 6, from the British television show, The Prisoner. Both are men of unwavering principles, men of steel, and men whose victories may only be Pyrrhic. No. 6, at the end of his journey, seems destined to only have to do it all again, whereas Tsugumo’s struggles are not even marginalized. They are wholly expunged, as if it was all for naught. And, the film seems to show that all in the Iyi clan (including its retainers) are content with not just this lie, but many others that could fill other films. After all, deceit and comfort, for the vast majority, sure as hell beats honest suffering, especially if you’ve seen a bamboo seppuku.
Naturally, many critics of the day, especially in America, did not get it. The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther wrote: ‘It is a curiously obfuscated story that this long and inevitably tedious picture tells- a story of ancient customs, political jealousies and personal pride. And one should not feel unintelligent at not following it at every step, so slowly, ponderously, obscurely and often painfully is it told.’ Of course, one can harrumph that it’s only Bosley Crowther, infamously fuddy-duddy, even in his day, but the film got decidedly mixed reviews, even if its narrative is not obfuscated, but simply folded from a clarion thrust. However, the film did win many film festival prizes around the world, including the second place Special Jury Award at the Cannes Film Festival, in 1963. It lost the Palme D’Or to Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard.
The film that Harakiri shares the most cinematic DNA with is Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well. In a sense, that film is the modern retelling of this film, wherein a vengeance seeking hero plots to destroy his tormentors, only to have him end up dying, as well as having the real truth expunged. But, along with that film, Harakiri never errs by making its politics lead its art around. From the almost exact repetitions of the early actions of Chijiwa and Tsugumo in the Iyi house, to the repetition of the samurai armor to start and end the film, there is no doubt that politics is merely a weapon in the artistic arsenal; it is not its raison d’etre. But, the film also shares much artistry and narrative technique in common with Kurosawa’s more placid Ikiru, which also has a large portion of its ending consist of characters relating flashbacks of what happened to the film’s lead character. That this dialogue intensity occurs in a samurai film is unusual, but only at first blush, since Harakiri is, in reality, as much of a samurai film as Stanley Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory can be called a ‘war’ film. And, like films like The Wild Bunch and Once Upon A Time In The West, Harakiri ends with a symbolic foreshadow of the future of the nation it’s set in. It is no happenstance that the rogue ronin Tsugumo is not felled by another’s sword, but only by guns, for that was the way the Tokugawa Shogunate, the ultimate bad guy in this film, was to fall almost 240 years later.
The Human Condition ultimately missed out on greatness because of its length and overarching ambition, which sometimes obfuscated points that should have rung clarion. Harakiri does not suffer that ill. It is a deft lightning strike at its target, and as such delivers a killer blow. It also shows that Japan’s filmic legacy, in the 20th Century, was more than its Big Three directors, Kurosawa, Yasujirô Ozu, and Kenji Mizoguchi. Masaki Kobayashi seems to be every bit their equal, and, along with Kon Ichikawa, Hiroshi Teshigahara, Shohei Imammura, Nagisa Oshima, and Mikio Naruse, the middle part of the last century seems to have been, for Japanese film, one of the most Golden of Golden Ages any country has experienced in any art form. Bravo!