By Jackson Powell
Certainly, a black and white Japanese film released in 1962 is an atypical choice for a Saturday movie night. However, director Masaki Kobayashi’s masterful Harakiri is nothing shy of superb, and more impressively, remains inexplicably powerful nearly 60 years after its initial release.
The film immediately transports you into a world you likely never knew existed: the Edo period in Japan, 1630. Western culture often depicts the Samurai as almost god-like warriors, whose skills are only trumped by their propensity to put honor above their own life. This movie, however, takes place after the Samurai fell from glory, and found themselves in a hopeless era. Following a restless period of civil wars in Japan, the Edo period was comparatively peaceful. Dominated largely by one military, the constant warring dwindled away, and the need for Samurai warriors slowly vanished with it, leaving many Samurai jobless. Called “ronins,” wandering Samurai without masters stumbled into poverty—a striking contrast from their prior prestige. The rarity and exclusivity that Westerners often imagine Samurai to uphold is completely eradicated in this movie, as it depicts Samurai as being abundant, existing in excess with nowhere to go.
It is difficult to precisely place Harakiri into a single genre. One could easily argue that it is a mystery, an action, a drama, or historical fiction. Regardless, one thing is undoubtedly true: not a single scene goes by in which the viewer isn’t fully engaged. Bouncing artfully between storylines, like an older version of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, the film splices together a series of seemingly independent events, eventually revealing a stunning and complete work. As the story moves along, you have the lovely luxury of piecing together these disjoint snippets. Your light confusion slowly morphs into shock, while the fascinating tale reveals itself.
Upon viewing, you’ll likely struggle to picture actor Tatsuya Nakadai, who plays protagonist Hanshiro Tsugumo, as anything other than a real Samurai who is frozen in time and bogged down by his perilous position. His sternness and striking commitment to the role masks any semblance of a modern man. However, his range as an actor is shockingly broad. In other films, such as Kurasawa’s High and Low, he perfectly portrays a cocky young detective, completely disjoint from his Samurai persona in Harakiri. In essence, the brilliance of Harakiri is not restricted to its screenplay or directing, and rather extends to the unparalleled abilities of the actors.
Consequential to its dated production, a viewer unfamiliar with this style might struggle to adjust. In combination with reading subtitles, the black and white coloring can become distracting. Some might question the decision to make the film in black and white when color films were already common in the 60s. Throughout the 40s, 50s, and 60s, Japan was still largely in debt from World War II, and creating color movies was very expensive. Thus, while cinema lacked funding, budgets simply did not include creating color films; black and white cinema subsequently remained prevalent in Japan. While this might sound like a drawback, it creates something uniquely authentic. More so, this foundational period in Japanese cinema required filmmakers to rely purely on the quality of the movie itself, rather than the budget, to propel films to widespread acclaim. Complexity and depth are less existent in the production value, and instead emerge thoroughly in Harakiri’s incredible writing and acting. While the film itself is colorless, the world it depicts exemplifies the brightest and widest array of hues imaginable.
Beyond the naturally rich and inventive storyline, the film benefits the Western viewer in more ways than one realizes. It introduces us to many legendary actors and filmmakers we haven’t been exposed to before, it offers a wonderful insight into a small piece of foreign cinema and its perspective, and it provides a unique look into the history of Japan from an angle we don’t often see.
(While it’s certainly best to read the following after you’ve watched the movie, feel free to read on if you still need convincing – although, be mindful that the next section contains spoilers!)
The film is set around Hanshiro Tsugumo, a hapless ronin who has determined he’d rather die than continue a life of poverty. He decides to request the ability to commit suicide (harakiri) honorably in the courtyard of the powerful Iyi clan house. As it turns out, requesting to commit harakiri under the guidance of powerful clans had become increasingly common over the preceding months. In response, most clans would deny the right to commit harakiri and instead offer ronins money to leave, and in very special cases, take in the ronins and give them a job. This created a tendency for ronins without any intention of committing harakiri to request to do so with the hope of receiving money. Suspicious of the Tsugumo’s request, presuming he too was after money, the head counselor first described the story of the last ronin who petitioned them for this honorable demise to scare off Tsugumo. The story described a young man named Chijiiwa Motome, who claimed to desire this same fate as Tsugumo. The Iyi clan, suspecting he was bluffing, decided to capitalize on this and attempt to halt any further requests. The council collectively agreed that the best recourse would be to force him to commit harakiri against his wishes (and in a particularly gruesome manner).
Through the story of the young Motome, who is depicted by the Iyi as being greedy and foolish, we learn more about our main character, about the Edo period of Japan, and about a Samurai’s honor. As Motome’s story progresses, Tsugumo maintains that he wants nothing more than to make the Iyi house his final resting place. While Tsugumo’s resolve is unwavering, suspense builds as we begin to realize that Tsugumo may have more up his sleeve than a peaceful and humble request.
The movie projects a key theme challenging the quintessential attribute of the Samurai: their honor. It depicts a time in which strict adherence to the longstanding code of the Samurai resulted in nothing more than egregious hypocrisy from those in power. It showed that the outdated framework for what is right and wrong had little room for compassion, yet the rich and powerful enforced that framework on those living in poverty. It questioned what the purpose of traditions was if they didn’t benefit the people who practiced them. Most of all, it showed the detrimental effect of the authority’s conservative views, and their refusal to accept that their way of life had flaws. It echoed that, as the world changes, shifting from the almighty highs the Samurai felt in their peak of power to the unmentionable lows of the following era, culture should change too.
I stumbled across Harakiri while patrolling some of the highest rated movies on IMDb and initially had no exposure to Japanese filmography or black and white films in general. However, I can’t emphasize enough how pleasantly surprised I was with this movie, and I truly struggle to find anything unlikable about it. I kindly request that you give it a chance yourself.