In January 2022, my favourite cinema ran a series of films that they gave the title Mythos Samurai (“The Samurai Myth”). We ended up seeing seven (how fitting!) out of eleven films, from Akira Kurosawa’s Shakespeare adaptation Throne of Blood via the Tarantino favourite Lady Snowblood to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s gentle anti-revenge film Hana – and, yes, Seven Samurai was also among the films shown. It was interesting to watch the films as different perspectives on the same motif: the samurai, the officer caste that protected the daimyo from the late 12th century to 1876. What was perhaps most interesting, however: how many of the films subverted the image of a noble warrior caste. The protagonists of these films were often ronin, masterless samurai who had lost their status, or samurai who doubted the tenets of their caste, and none of them presented a cool, badass ideal for easy consumption. The system that created the samurai was always presented in an ambivalent or downright negative light, even when the films clearly share a fascination with the aesthetics and iconography of the culture.
And that ambivalence towards the samurai, the feudal system they were a part of and the values they were meant to embody is represented best perhaps in Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri, a film that is grim and exhilarating, exciting and scathingly critical in equal parts.
In Harakiri, a man arrives at the estate of the Iyi clan. He wishes to commit ritual suicide within the courtyard of the palace. He is a ronin, a samurai who has lost his leader, and he is impoverished. However, Tsugumo Hanshiro (Tatsuya Nakadai) is by no means the first of these former samurai who has come to ask to be allowed to kill himself in such a way. Thousands of samurai during the period had lost their position and become impoverished – and Saito Kageyu (Rentaro Mikuni), the counsellor of the Iyi clan, knows that many of these men secretly hope that the grand families and estates will placate them with a few coins and send them on their way, to avoid a potentially awkward scene. In fact, the most senior samurai of the clan have become so disdainful of these honourless ex-samurai that they make a point of calling their bluff: sure, you can kill yourself in our courtyard. Why so surprised? No, we won’t let you go and put your affairs in order first – after all, there are some who leave and never come back, having lied about their intention to cut open their belly and die in a horrific, cruel display of ‘honour’. You’re not one of those honourless creatures, are you?
As part of the ritual, Hanshiro tells his story, and like a variation on the theme of Scheherazade, he cannot die before his story is told. It quickly becomes clear that there is something else at play than just his wish for an honourable death at his own hands. Hanshiro is entirely aware that not too recently another ronin, Chijiiwa Motome (Akira Ishihama), had asked to be allowed to kill himself at the Iyi estate and was forced to go through with it. What made things worse: Motome had pawned the swords’ sharp metal blades for a little money and instead had blades made of bamboo. Since a samurai’s soul was said to reside in his swords, this was yet another dishonour in the eyes of the Iyi clan and its samurai, another thing deserving punishment. The social order must be preserved by punishing those who might try to upset it and frightening others into submission.
The scene in which Motome is made to go through with his suicide is immensely harrowing. Even if Harakiri is not explicitly gory, it is unsparing in showing the agony the man is forced to inflict on himself. Elsewhere, it is not immune to the allure of samurai culture and its aesthetic, but it delivers its horrors early on, so that everything that follows – even scenes that in isolation could be taken from any samurai epos – is coloured by the cruelty we’ve witnessed. And while Motome is finally avenged, that vengeance ends up ringing hollow.
From all the samurai films we watched over the last month, Harakiri may be the one that has the most beautiful, stirring sword fight scenes, but there is no doubt that, if anything, Harakiri is an anti-samurai, anti-bushido, anti-authority film. It has nothing but scorn for a caste system that is arrogant, self-satisfied and cruel. At the same time Harakiri‘s commentary on a society in which honour has become a fetish and a weapon to be used against those less fortunate resonates beyond its historical context: while the specifics are obviously rooted in a certain time, place and culture, the film speaks about any society in which people are made literally obsolete and where obsolescence means that you deserve whatever inhumanity is visited on you. Salarymen made redundant may not be samurai, and they may not be forced to throw themselves on their blades (bamboo or otherwise) and disembowel themselves, but the principle is not altogether different. In Harakiri, samurai have worth and meaning while they’re employed, and once that employment ends, they may as well kill themselves, because those who are in power have neither use nor respect for them. Professional redundancy means that you become worthless in the eyes of a society that washes its hands of you. This theme is relevant beyond the context of 17th century Edo and beyond Japan, as Harakiri pulls off being both highly specific and entirely universal.
Verdict: Harakiri is a riveting drama, and even if its rhythms may seem slow at first, the film and its performance are admirably intense. However, while it deals with grim themes and depicts some scenes of harrowing cruelty, there is a surprising amount of humour to be found, albeit of the darkest, bleakest kind. While the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa are often subversive as well, movies such as Yojimbo and Sanjuro still work first and foremost as entertainment. Harakiri is much more explicitly critical, and its critique carries across time well into the present day. At the same time, I found it quite astonishing how, late in the film, Kobayashi and his screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto have fight scenes that are as exhilarating and beautiful as any in samurai cinema and still play into the criticism of the film as a whole, rather than coming across as instances of Harakiri wanting its cake and eating it as well. For anyone who’s got some of the Criterion releases of Kurosawa’s jidaigeki films already sitting on their shelves, Harakiri is a perfect addition to these, contributing to a more complete take on samurai culture.