Harakiri (切腹)

Director: Masaki Kobayashi

Written: Shinobu Hashimoto, Yasuhiko Takiguchi

Country: Japan

Year: 1962

Harakiri (English Subtitled) on Amazon.

Kobayashi was one of the rebels of Japanese cinema, most of his films dealt with political material – which acted as a metaphor to current issues. He was antiauthoritarian, especially in Harakiri. Most of his central characters were rebels against the authoritarian system. The most interesting aspect about Harakiri is that it builds up slowly, the director recognizes the audience’s hunger, everyone is awaiting the moment of violence yet Kobayashi keeps the tensions rising slowly. The violence build up in Harakiri is very similar to Sanjuro (1962), were Kurosawa waited until the final scene to show blood splatter. This way, Kobayashi shows the true form of violence, an important point which we will come back to later in this review.

The story of Harakiri is set in 1630, a period that followed the victory of the Tokugawa reign in the civil war; an event which ironically resulted I the unemployment of the samurai. Thus, desperate ronin began to show up at the gate of one of the clans, Iyi, asking permission to perform hara-kiri in their yard since it was the last honorable choice they are left with. The situation became more absurd after Iyi clan began paying the desperate ronin off in order to leave, which in turn attracted more of them as the rumor spread.

Masaki Kobayashi's "Harakiri"
The fraud samurai being prepared for ritual suicide in Masaki Kobayashi’s “Harakiri”


After the Iyi clan leader has had enough of the situation, he decided to allow the next ronin to come to actually perform hara-kiri, as a way to catch frauds.  The next ronin that came to the clan did turn out to be a fraud, in fact, when they prepared the yard for him to perform hara-kiri, the clan finds out that his swords were made of wood. Here we witness the most brutal scene in the film as the clan forces the poor man to pierce himself using the wooden sword.

This dramatic build up reminds me of the cinema of David Cronenberg, where we see a sudden act of extreme violence and blood splatter that we were not prepared for, after a period of brief deceptive peace. This is especially apparent when comparing Harakiri with Cronenberg’s latter films such as A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007). But of course, Harakiri owes a great debt to the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, especially Sanjuro (which was released in the same year) where we are exposed to one violent scene at the end of the film. This kind of treatment shows the true form of violence; we do not see it most of the time, which makes it the more horrifying and serious once we finally witness it.

Masaki Kobayashi's "Harakiri"
Tsugumo telling his story to Chijiwa during his final moments in Masaki Kobayashi’s “Harakiri”

There is a very interesting form of narrative in Harakiri, which does not come as a surprise since this is Japanese cinema of the 1960s we are talking about. The first part of the story is told from the point of view of the Iyi clan leader (Chijiwa) to one of the ronin (Tsugumo), and the second part of the story belongs to Tsugumo himself, whom at first seems to have come for the soul purpose of suicide. [spoilers ahead] As the clan arranges the ceremony for Tsugumo, he asks for one condition which is to tell his story before proceeding with the suicide. As Tsugumo’s story unfolds, it turns out that the last (so-called) samurai who was killed by the clan was actually related to Tsugumo. What began as a story of desperation became a story of revenge, which in turn resulted in a ridiculously intense battle in the final scenes (Tsugumo takes on the whole clan!).

Masaki Kobayashi’s “Harakiri”
Tsugumo takes on the whole clan in Masaki Kobayashi’s “Harakiri”

Tsugumo’s end was undoubtedly inevitable, Kobayashi’s point was delivered, nonetheless; ‘that the authoritarian power, however cruel and seemingly permanent, may in fact be vulnerable to change.’ In her essay Harakiri: Kobayashi and History, Joan Mellen argues that even Kobayashi’s film techniques reflected his themes:

The setting may be the feudal past, but Kobayashi undermines its authority by juxtaposing rigid, hidebound politics with a panoply of modern film techniques, from zooms to fast pans to canted frames to rapid elliptical cutting to gruesome realism. With these devices, which so obviously defy the stolid rituals of the past…1

There is no doubt that Kobayashi had established himself as one of the most important filmmakers of his time. Harakiri is a definite landmark in Japanese cinema history, especially within the samurai subgenre.

Film Award: Special Jury Prize (Cannes Film Festival 1963)

  1. Mellen, J. (2011).Harakiri: Kobayashi and History. Available: http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/381-harakiri-kobayashi-and-history. Last accessed 9th Sept 2014.
Mohamed Sultan
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