Harakiri's excellence is immediately self-evident. Youthful star Tatsuya Nakadai plays a swordsman of a complexity and depth not encountered in many Samurai films. The initially straightforward story transforms into a devastating critique of the feudal system and the Samurai ethos. Director Masaki Kobayashi (Kwaidan) makes a good case against that code of honor - and by extension the modern military codes based on it.
Honored at the Cannes film festival, Harakiri is considered one of the best Japanese films ever made.
Samurai films come with a number of stock themes, but director Kobayashi chooses instead to use the genre to criticize authoritarian hypocrisy. His Samurai hero has lost everything by no fault of his own. His clan leader is deposed over a political mishap, throwing 1200 vassals into limbo. Sworn to serve their master to the death, the many Ronin Samurai turned out into the streets have limited ways of making a living. Hanshiro Tsugumo holds onto the honor of his caste, refusing to let his daughter become a concubine and declining work not worthy of his rank.
The story of Harakiri could easily be told on a stage, yet the film is in no way stage-bound. The present action takes place in the course of one afternoon, with several stories told in flashback form. Each flashback is a major narrative surprise, subverting what we've seen before while adding a new level of complexity. The devious Iwa clan is moved by Tsugumo's sincerity but also suspects that his presence is a ruse, that he may have an agenda beyond a simple request to kill himself. Both conclusions turn out to be 100% true.
Run-of-the-mill Samurai fare expects us to routinely accept swordfighters with near-superhuman skills as resolutely steadfast and ruthless in their beliefs. The Samurai hero's stoicism and noble worship of death is frequently contrasted against corrupt bureaucrats, craven bandits or scheming turncoats. Hanshiro Tsugumo at first appears to be just this kind of impenetrable icon, insisting that he wants to die and challenging his Samurai peers to do little more than hear him out before he does himself in.
But Tsugumo's flashback narrative reveals him to be an ordinary man betrayed by his noble values. Desperate to save the life of his adored grandson, it never occurs to him to sell his valuable swords to pay for a doctor. Tsugumo's son-in-law appears to have skipped out on the family when he's most needed, until his horrible self-sacrifice is revealed. Tsugumo's mission at the Iwa compound is a suicide gesture that becomes a protest against the self-important Samurai who dwell within.
Kobayashi's film is fluid and animated, expertly directed to raise viewer interest to the maximum. It has several excellent action scenes, including one grossly difficult act of seppuku that we can almost feel - it's like trying to gut one's self with a butter knife. The action is realistically bloody but doesn't exploit its mayhem. One classic duel on a windswept hill features star Tetsuro Tamba of the Bond film You Only Live Twice.
Tatsuya Nakadai is a solid actor capable of projecting both rigid authority and strong depths of emotion; his best scenes involve his unrestrained affection for his daughter and grandson. That emotional bond makes us all the more concerned for his fate. We want very badly for the ragged Tsugumo to reach the conclusion of his mysterious mission.
The film's cynical ending compares the hypocrisy of the Iyi Samurai with the corrupt corporate leaders in Akira Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well. The urge toward a cover-up of misdeeds and crimes also invites comparison with the conclusion of John Ford's Western Fort Apache. Cavalry officer John Wayne officially whitewashes the bad policies of his predecessor in the interest of maintaining the honor of the corps, and the audience is meant to approve. Harakiri takes a more jaundiced view of official lies in the name of so-called honor.
Criterion's DVD of Harakiri is the expected beautiful enhanced B&W presentation. The excellent audio showcases Toru Takemitsu's spare score, highlighting the raw sounds of ancient instruments that would become the backbone of his horror omnibus Kwaidan. Donald Richie provides an introduction for the feature that should by no means be seen first. There is an original trailer as well.
The second disc has a poster gallery and new interviews with Tatsuya Nadakai and writer Shinobu Hashimoto. The Directors Guild of Japan provides a 1993 interview with Kobayashi excerpted from a longer show; director Masahiro Shinoda hosts. Disc producer Curtis Tsui fills a thick pamphlet insert with an essay by scholar Joan Mellen, accompanied by her revealing 1972 interview with Kobayashi, a sharp-minded and outspoken man.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,