Harakiri is the commoner’s was of saying “seppuku,” which in Japan is the formal term for ritual suicide by disembowelment. Harakiri is the common term, which literally means “stomach cutting.” It was an integral part of the bushido code of conduct and was ordered by a superior as punishment to redeem some offence, or chosen over a dishonorable death at the hands of an enemy. To the samurai, it was a sign of honor, courage, loyalty, and high moral character of the individual. Except when performed on a battlefield, it was a very formal ceremony, requiring certain etiquette, witnesses and considerable preparation. This ritual only makes me think that the Japanese really needed to take things down a notch or two. There are countless stories where samurai or even lords commit seppuku with a letter or an appeal to a higher authority in order to make sure its contents were taken seriously. That had better be a pretty serious letter. Harakiri is a particularly painful and rather messy way of ending one’s days. In this ritual, the “performer” opens his abdomen, starting from left to right and then finishing from top toward bottom. But there is so need to be left for hours contemplating one’s entrails. Another swordsman, acting as a “second,” stands by to decapitate the person at a pre-arranged moment in the ceremony.
Enough with the history lesson and back to the film. Harakiri is a Japanese film directed by Masaki Kobayashi. The story takes place between 1619 and 1630 during the popular “Edo period” and the long reign of the Tokugawa Shogunate which put an end to hundreds of years of civil war. There was a flip side though—countless unemployed samurai or “ronin” wandering the country in poverty. The movie tells of a ronin, Hanshiro Tsugumo, who was ordered to live so he could care for his daughter, grandson and son-in-law, the son of another samurai who had already committed suicide. That is a lot of death when there was little war.
Our main character, Hanshiro Tsugumo, is trying to find a place to commit seppuku. One tactic a disgraced samurai tried to use in order to receive a little money, would be request, or threat to commit suicide, with the hope of receiving a handout. But Kageyu Saito, the senior counselor to the clan, begins to tell Hanshiro what is clearly a warning about another ronin, Motome Chijiiwa, who made the same request, but the house called his bluff and forced him to kill himself. To try and really hit things home, the counselor pointed out that this chap’s sword was a fake made of blunt bamboo, but that didn’t matter as they still insisted that he fillet himself with it anyway, making the death was excruciatingly painful. In the face of this warning, Tsugumo reiterates his request to commit seppuku.
While the proper steps are taken, Hanshiro Tsugumo begins to recite his tale of hard times to the counselor and the rest of the onlookers. Apparently his lord’s house was a threat to the Shogunate and was destroyed. His friend and samurai did commit seppuku and left Tsugumo to look after his son, who, it turns out, was the one who had to kill himself with the bamboo sword. With the responsibility of looking after his family and son-in-law, Tsugumo did not have the option to choose the “samurai” way to end his life, and was forced to live in abject poverty and work at menial jobs far below his status in order to support his family.
They were so poor that when his grandson and daughter took ill they could not afford to hire a doctor or any other medical care. At this point Tsugumo’s son in law went to the clans house hoping to receive charity by threatening to commit seppuku. But as we know they called his bluff and shortly after his death, his wife and son succumbed to illness and died.
As Tsugumo recites his tale, he had, we come to find out, the day before coming to the lord’s house to request seppuku, tracked down their three top retainers who he blames for the deaths of his family. To really humiliate these three and the clan as well, he does not kill them in combat as he could have but cuts off their topknots—something more humiliating to a samurai that death. Tsugumo tosses the three topknots at the counselor’s feet and points out the reason those three samurai are not there was not illness as they claim but embarrassment from their unwanted haircut.
After finishing his story, Saito orders his retainers to attacked Hanshiro Tsugumo, who fights all of them off alone, killing four and wounding eight while slowly succumbing to his wounds. Then as a new group of men arrive armed with guns, Tsugumo commits seppuku to avoid being killed by the clan. The counselor orders his men to cover up this humiliation by sending them to the three samurai and have them either killed or allowed to commit seppuku—and is told in fact that one already has. The counselor also covers his ass by reporting the damage done by Tsugumo, as the result of “illness.” Without the cover story, word might get out that a scraggly ronin made them look so foolish or worse “loose face” to the other houses.
This film is nothing less than a work of art. Filmed in black and white, Harakiri’s dark story only becomes that much grittier. Exposing the façade of the establishments veneer of respectability by their adherence to the “samurai code,” no stone is left unturned to keep the illusion and status quo alive.
Harakiri is by far one of my favorite “chambara” (the name given to Japanese action films dealing with the Feudal era of Japan) films. It is a great movie all around, its story, cinematography and acting are nothing short of superb. You are missing out if you have not seen this classic.