The Leeds International Film Festival Catalogue introduced this film as follows: “Of all Masaki Kobayashi’s attacks on the cruelty and inhumanity perpetrated by authoritarian power, perhaps none are more brilliant than his visceral, mesmerising Hara-kiri.” The title refers to the ritual suicide performed by samurai warriors as a way of ending their lives. The word literally means ‘belly slitting’ and this is an accurate description for a quite brutal and shocking action. The act requires the samurai to use his own sword to stab himself in the belly and then cut the stomach open horizontally and vertically. A slight gesture to humanity is the positioning of a ‘second’ who will decapitate the samurai when it is clear that he has completed the action. In Japan the more common term for this traditional action is “Seppuku” which implies a ’more noble act of ritual suicide.’
This genre film by Kobayashi Masaki [the order in Japanese usage] places the action at the centre of a complex story that subjects this ‘heroic’ act and the code from which it springs to a ruthless critique. The film is set in the Edo Period (1615 to 1867) when there is an absence of earlier clan warfare. This left many samurai without work or means of support [i.e. ronin or masteries samurai]. Hara-kiri or Seppuku offered a way out of poverty and loss of status: however it could also be used a s a way of pressuring the clan lords to provide money or work. In Hara-kiri the Iyi clan is faced with just such an event. Tsugumo Hanshiro (Nakadai Tatsuya, Kobayashi’s favourite actor), a one-time samurai with a fellow clan, arrives at their gates and requests permission to commit Hara-kiri in their castle. In an effort to avoid the tricky decision the senior retainer tells Tsugumo a tale, of another samurai (Chijiiwa Motome – Ishihama Akira) who had called at the castle with the self-same request. This telling involves the film in a number of flashbacks but also uncovers a complex web that changes the direction of the story and confounds the expectations of the audience.
The film is shot in black and white Grandscope, a Japanese anarmorphic format. One of Kobayashi’s most notable skills is in the use of the wide screen. He is able to achieve this quality through his colleagues, in particular Miyajima Yoshio, the cinematographer, who also worked on The Human Condition (Ningen no joken, 1959 – 1961). That film is most notable for the use of the wide screen in filming landscape. Hara-kiri eschews landscape for most of the film; we are frequently set within very defined spaces within the clan castle or in its central courtyard. But the visual quality is just as noticeable. The courtyard scenes are extremely formal, in line with the samurai code. But this also sets out the power plays between the clan and the two would-be suicides.
The interiors of the castle are very claustrophobic. The retainers are frequently filmed in carefully composed compositions with lighting that both suggest noir and the expressionist. Kobayashi, together with his screenwriter Hashimoto Shinobu, is expert enough to include some of the traditional samurai sequences, including an impressive sword fight. But the film and its resolution subvert the usual values that are ascribed to the samurai and their codes. At one point the protagonist comments [as translated] ‘honour and bravery are a false front.’ This explicit comment is re-inforced by a number of visual symbols presented in the film. The key example would be a traditional suit of armour that sits in the entrance to the Iyi clan castle. Its position there is meant to symbolise both the code and the traditions which
support it. But subsequent treatment in the film undermines its official status. Another is the official clan record book, which we see, in the opening shot of the film and with which the film also ends. The entries in the book demonstrate the hypocrisy with which the clan leaders treat the code.
Kobayashi’s attack is itself very Japanese. Rather than the film subverting an authoritarian system it subverts the feudal system and code of the samurai. So the film critiques power but it also critiques the accompanying values of ‘honour’ and ‘face’. The latter in particular is a key theme in Japanese films and in the jidai-geki [period] genre. Honour and face, or what they are deemed to represent, are targets in all of the Kobayashi films that I have seen. Harakiri stands out because of the formal coherence of the plot, and of the form and style with which the film is constructed. The Catalogue notes that the film not only critiques the samurai tradition but [for Japanese audiences] there was an allegorical attack on “the militarism of the war period and on the hierarchical power of the zaibatsu, the giant corporations that came to dominate post-war Japan.”
Unfortunately this was the only one of the Kobayashi features at the Festival that was not available in 35mm. It was screened in a digital version, but this stood up pretty well on the Albert Hall screen. The sound was fine and the films enjoyed a fine score by Takemitsu Toru. The film won a Special Jury Prize at the 1963 Canes Film Festival.