I was never sure why sometimes people use the word “harakiri” and sometimes it’s “seppuku,” so I looked it up. Both words are written using the same kanji characters, “to cut” and “stomach.” The difference, I found out, is formality. “Harakiri” is an informal word, and would perhaps be used to describe a defeated warrior taking their own life on the battlefield. “Seppuku” is more formal, maybe more befitting describing the act of suicide that would also involve a second slicing the person dying’s head off. This is worth knowing, since Masaki Kobayashi’s film Harakiri is actually known as “Seppuku” in Japan.
It’s the May of 1630 in Edo (Tokyo) and a disheveled man has arrived at a massive estate. He is Hanshiro (Tatsuya Nakadai, who was one of the stars of Kwaidan), a ronin who was struggled to eke out a living during the peaceful Tokugawa shogunate and is requesting the right to commit seppuku in the courtyard. Hanshiro is brought to the counselor (Rentaro Mikuni) to verify his intentions – it turns out that many samurai had become ronin recently, and a disturbing strategy had been developed: go to an estate and ask to commit seppuku, and the estate will be so impressed they’ll give you money and food or maybe even invite you to join them.
The counselor tells of Motome (Akira Ishihama) another ronin who had come to this particular estate to commit seppuku. At that time, they had bathed Motome and were unsure of what to do, until they inspected his swords and realized they were made of bamboo. Having decided that Motome was trying to scam the estate, they forced him to kill himself anyway, brutally disemboweling himself slowly with his dull sword. Only when Motome was in so much pain that he bit off his own tongue did his second, the resident master swordsman Hikokuro (Tetsuro Tamba), put him out of his misery.
Undeterred, Hanshiro is brought to the courtyard and given everything he needs to kill himself. Everything, except his second of choice: Hikokuro, who is absent that day because he is sick. A messenger is dispatched to bring Hikokuro and in the meantime, Hanshiro asks permission to tell his life’s story to the counselor and the gathered samurai. As you might be expecting, Hanshiro has lived quite a life, and he has an important lesson he wants them all to hear.
Harakiri is a shockingly humanist movie, desperate to wake people up to the brutal reality of honor and tradition. Hanshiro is a total badass, a man who has lost everything and wants to make sure no one else makes the same mistakes he did. When he hears of Motome’s bamboo swords, he doesn’t look down on that man for giving up his “samurai soul,” instead, Hanshiro beats himself up for not seeing that he too could have sold his swords to help his family. On the other hand is the counselor, a man who is so obsessed with saving face he’ll kill and dishonor anyone that might risk exposing him. I was honestly stunned at how unromantic Harakiri was at showing the beginning of the end of the way of the samurai, focusing entirely on how terrible this supposedly noble system was.
Released in 1962, my biggest problem with Harakiri is it’s length, 134 minutes. It seemed to me like there were maybe a few too many flashbacks; scenes made to depict that which could have been covered in only a few lines. But I don’t want to hard too much on those, because obviously seeing Hanshiro’s tragedy makes it more powerful than merely hearing him describe it (perhaps this is the empathic power of film – I was convinced as an audience member of Hanshiro’s plight but no one else in the movie is). Also, Motome’s seppuku is super brutal, there’s nothing like the gushing dark blood of old black and white jidaigeki! Speaking of jidaigeki, this is one of the best I’ve ever seen.