.:: S T O R Y ::.
In this grim yet exquisitely composed film, Kobayashi Masaki delves into the world of the 17th-century samurai, examining "the honor in death--and the death of honor" (Time). After an unemployed samurai is forced to commit harakiri before a feudal lord, his father-in-law returns to the scene, seemingly to play out the same agonizing suicide ritual. Kobayashi begins at the story's end, then recounts the narrative as told by the father-in-law. The effect is almost unbearably suspenseful, leading to an explosive climax of supreme defiance and samurai swordplay, erupting from a battle of wills, called bluffs, and hotly defended honour. For connoisseurs of samurai action, Harakiri is not to be missed.
.:: A B O U T ::.
In 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu won the battle of Sekigahara and announced himself Shogun, thus becoming the ruler of Japan. During the Tokugawa shogunate (1600-1867), Japan was divided into 264 provinces, ruled by Daimyo (lords), who while having some freedom in making laws, were under the strict supervision of the shogunate. Equally, Japan was divided by a caste system (shi no ko sho) and basically only samurai had rights. Non samurai were forbidden by law to travel or to have family names.
A samurai was a warrior employed by a daimyo. There were five classes of samurai, ranging from average foot soldier to high administrative personal, and while privileges varied, they all lived by the samurai code, which basically was to follow giri (duty to the lord) and bushido (way of the warrior). This meant, that the life of the samurai was in the hands of the daimyo. To give ones life to serve was the only way to die for a samurai.
As a result of the shogunate, many samurai became unemployed and thus ronin. It is estimated that just after Sekigahara (1600), there were 2 million samurai in Japan. In 1640, there were less than 100,000. Most became farmers or merchants, but some became bandits and some went on to form gangs, which later should become the yakuza. The biggest decrease is contributed to death. The first generation samurai under Tokugawa were fighting men, who really did nothing else than kill and go to war. To live in peace was painful and frustrating for them. They would begin to duel and within few years there were so many duels out of boredom, that duels were forbidden by law. That samurai were bored, is perhaps best seen by kirisutogomen, a decree that allowed any samurai to kill any person from a lower caste, if that person offended him.
The life for a ronin was even more frustrating, as he had no rights and was stripped from his name. Thus many ronin would seek temporary employment at a daimyo, thereby becoming samurai, in order to commit seppuku. Some daimyo were so taken by this sense of duty, that they would employ them for real, which again lead to many ronin trying to con daimyo into employing them by asking for permission to commit seppuku in their service.
Seppuku is ritual suicide, where the samurai would cut his stomach and then be beheaded. Hara Kiri, the reverse reading of Seppuku, is stomach cut and has no ritual. Hara Kiri lacks code, as you can commit hara kiri anywhere anytime, but seppuku is a strict ritual with several stages and at least two people involved. Hara Kiri is thus nothing else than to die by your own hands. However one should not read the reverse meaning into the text, as ?Hara Kiri? is the American title, which the distributors gave the film, as they feared people would not know what ?Seppuku? was.
This is the basis of ?Hara Kiri? by Kobayashi. An aging ronin, Tsugumo, seeks permission to commit seppuku from the Lyi daimyo. It is granted and before committing it, he asks permission to tell a story, by which we learn what lead him to take this action. Tsugumo does not intend to commit seppuku, but instead seeks revenge, as the Lyi daimyo dishonoured Tsugumo?s son, by forcing him to commit seppuku with unshaped bamboo swords. After having revealed the hair knots of the daimyo?s three sword masters, who were to be kaishakunin (those who behead), Tsugumo continues to slaughter everyone in his way, until finally being shot. The note in the book says, that nothing out of the ordinary happened that day.
?Hara Kiri? is the first of two Samurai film, the other being ?Samurai Rebellion?, in which Kobayashi would launch a full frontal attack on the samurai code. Written by Hishimoto Shinobu, the regular writer of Kurosawa and perhaps the best screenwriter in Japanese film history, based on a novel by Takiguchi Yasuhiko, Kobayashi lines out his critic of the Samurai code, its hypocrisy, the thoughtlessness and how powerless the individual is against the daimyo?s control of its own history.
Taking place in the first half of the 17th century, Tsugumo is a first generation samurai. He grew by the sword and notes upon the poor swordsmanship of the swords masters with, ?Swordsmanship untested in battle is like swimming on land?, humiliating both them and their daimyo by having cut their hair knot (the very soul of a samurai) of while fighting. By the actions of Tsugumo, the second generation samurai are depicted as men claiming to live by a code, they are unable to back up, which reflects upon the entire system, which only exists to govern blindly by repressing others.
The visual style of Kobayashi is stunning. A master of long focal compositions, his mise-en-scene are carefully arranged in terms of space and layers. Note the use of present lines and shadow to divide the frame into layers, each with its own importance. Equally impressive are his fight sequences, where he alters extreme long shots with close up. ?Hara Kiri? hints towards Kobayashi?s flirtation with avant garde techniques, but only hints by the use of a sudden zoom or pan. The development of style will continue in ?Kwaidan?, until finally with ?Rebellion? reaching a point, where he arranges compositions with geometrical precision and at the same time uses avant garde editing techniques.
Another important element of ?Hara Kiri? is Nakadai Tatsuya, who is to Kobayashi, what Mifune was to Kurosawa, and was along with Mifune the only leading man who had international star appeal. Nakadai was casted by random by Kobayashi, who in turn became so impressed, that he gave him the lead playing Kaji in ?Human Condition?, arguable Kobayashi?s most important film. He also appeared in both ?Yojimbo? and ?Sanjuro?, before becoming the main actor for Kurosawa in both ?Kagemusha? and ?Ran?. Alongside Mifune, Nakadai is the greatest Japanese actor ever. To the samurai film, he is the key actor, as he not only acts in both ?Hara Kiri? and ?Rebellion?, but also in the three other seminal samurai film, ?Sword of Doom?, ?Tenchu? and ?The Ambitious?. His style is very different from Mifune, more subtle, more internal.
Considered to be one of the three central samurai film, along with ?Shichinin no Samurai? and ?Rebellion?, ?Hara Kiri? is a masterpiece and required viewing.