The importance of the Anti-Samurai Cinema in Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri
If this was an article about an Akira Kurosawa film, whether that’s Seven Samurai, Rashomon, The Hidden Fortress, or anything else from his filmography, the idea of starting with an introduction explaining who he is would be absurd. It’d be like trying to explain who Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese are. Put simply, like Kurosawa, if you’d never heard of those names before, you probably aren’t the audience for a piece of writing that they’re the subject of. And that’s absolutely deserved. Each of them has not only an exhaustive filmography of well-loved critically acclaimed films, but they’re all responsible for films that have become bigger than themselves and inspired more of what we’ve all come to love. Without Kurosawa, there would be no Star Wars. Without Spielberg, the concept of an event film, or a blockbuster, would look very different. Without Scorsese, we might not have a mainstream champion of cinema as a true art form rather than a mere business model. But can’t similar praise be given to Masaki Kobayashi?
Kobayashi was a contemporary of Kurosawa. The two of them were even founding members of Shiki no kai - The Four Horsemen Club, along with Keisuke Kinoshita and Kon Ichikawa. Where Kobayashi differs from Kurosawa, though, is the sheer magnitude of his balls. That isn’t to take anything away from Kurosawa’s, but it’s hard to compare Kobayashi’s body of work to really any other director once you factor in the context of when and where he was making films. Where everyone around him was championing the samurai as a noble hero, Kobayshi was more interested in deconstructing that period of Japanese history for its less spectacular truth.
With Kurosawa’s body of work, most of his masterpieces (and they are masterpieces, no amount of praise for Kobayashi’s differences is intended to take away from that) are heavily stylized portrayals of all the things that make a samurai cool. There’s exaggerated violence, big melodramatic death scenes, and usually, at the centre of it all there’s a stoic character who’s far more interested in downplaying his own martial skill than he is in showing it off. It’s not exactly fair to say that those films were a type of propaganda, but equally, there is a sense that showing the samurai as the honourable hero is the convention that would have been preferred among those with any kind of vested interest in Japan’s outward image. Of which there were a lot in the 50s and 60s, still are quite a few today. To put a modern term on it, Kurosawa’s films would have been considered accessible for mainstream consumption due to the familiarity with the foundations they were built on, and the national pride that comes with them. It’s no surprise that one of Kurosawa’s most prolific fans, Steven Spielberg, would go on to be the inventor of the modern blockbuster with a similar formula tailored for Western audiences.
Kobayashi’s filmography is a lot more challenging in every sense. Really, he should be considered the antithesis of Kurosawa when it comes to representing what a Samurai is. Where the norm is noble heroes who put honour above all else, you’d probably assume that a film with a name like Harakiri might carry on that tradition. The concept of ritual suicide is, after all, iconic of the lengths that a samurai will go to in order to preserve their own honour. What we have instead is something far more timeless. Although Harakiri, like most of Kurosawa’s work, is a jidaigeki, a period drama, it differs in that it’s difficult to categorize it as a chanbara - one that’s foremostly concerned with swordplay, action, and heroics. Harakiri isn’t a film that’s interested in doing big showpieces or wowing its audience with action, it’s one that wants to pull apart the power structures of the samurai with a critical eye.
Set in Edo in 1630, Harakiri separates itself from the typical samurai film straight away. There aren’t many fights to go and pick, and the opportunities for a samurai to become a hero are scarce. It’s a time of peace, and as such unemployment is high. All across the region, there are rōnin who have fallen on hard times because of it, so already we’re in a context that’s far less typically grandiose of that period of history, and far more true to the common experience of any other period of history. As the film continues, it dives so much deeper into that theme, and that’s where it becomes a film about power structures and how they can encourage people to become cruel. When a rōnin, Chijiiwa Motome, shows up at the estate of the Iyi clan requesting to commit harakiri on their forecourt, his intentions are questioned right away. There’s an initial suggestion that they should give him a few coins and hope he goes away, following the lead of other clans in the area who’ve experienced similar strangers at their gates. But they can’t for fear that it might attract more down-on-their-luck rōnin to try the same extortion scam. Instead, they decide that they must allow this stranger to go through with his wishes to commit harakiri.
As the clan prepares for the ritual to take place, they examine Motome’s swords in private. The shock revelation that he’s sold his blades, considered intrinsically linked to a samurai’s soul, and replaced them with bamboo sticks is made, and this is where Harakiri starts to become a film of tremendous nuance. Up until this point, it’s implicit that those in power, the Iyi clan, are the ones on the right side of history. Especially when you consider the norms of Japanese cinema. They’re the ones who, for want of a better phrase, have their shit together while Motome quite clearly doesn’t. In one of the most unsettling sequences in any film, the clan coerces Motome into committing harakiri in the most traditional way that he could possibly could, by his own blade. Except, they know that his blade has been sold and replaced with bamboo. What follows a gut-wrenching (literally and figuratively) death that is far more difficult to watch than any of the intense spectacles of violence in other examples of the genre.
The rest of Harakiri is an exploration of the morality of what’s happened. The beauty of it depends on the conventions of the genre that come before it. We’re so used to the adherence to an honour code being shown as something to aspire to and draw heroism from that we naturally side with the Iyi clan. Their suspicions appear well-founded and their actions seem reasonable because of it. It isn’t until the film presents further layers to it all that it becomes clear that we’ve become complicit in exactly what Kobayashi is critical of. The way that it does this is through Tsugumo Hanshirō, another rōnin who turns up at the estate with the exact same request as Motome before him. We actually meet Hanshirō before we meet Motome, but his request prompts Saitō Kageyu, the daimyō’s senior counsellor, to recall the story of what had happened before he arrived. At first, Hanshirō claims that he doesn’t know Motome and that it’s just a coincidence that the two of them should arrive in such similar circumstances and pursue the same end. This is where the narrative flips. In some really wonderfully written scenes between Hanshirō and Kageyu, it’s revealed that Motome wasn’t just a random name to him after all. He was, among other things, his son-in-law. Having received news of his harakiri from three of the samurai who coerced him, Hanshirō takes the situation in a very different light.
With the news that Motome had sold his blades and replaced them with bamboo, Hanshirō is overcome with emotion at the idea that his son-in-law would do such a thing. But rather than feeling the disdain towards him for it that the Iyi clan do, Hanshirō can’t believe that Motome was driven to such lengths to provide for his wife, Hanshirō’s daughter, and his son, Hanshirō’s grandson.
This is where the context from the beginning of the film is important. Motome is in this position through no fault of his own, and actually, he’s in this position because of something that should be celebrated. If it wasn’t a time of peace, there would be no samurai forced into positions where they’re having to sell their blades or attempt quick scams in order to get by. The heroic samurais that we see in Kurosawa’s films are indeed heroes, but they’re only allowed to be heroes because they have an opposition. In Harakiri, the opposition doesn’t exist, and with that, neither does the opportunity to become a hero.
There are some reviews scattered around Letterboxd and on Reddit that mention Harakiri as being the greatest revenge film ever. There is some substance to that reading, Hanshirō does indeed enact revenge on the three retainers from the clan who bring Motome’s body home along with the story of how he was forced to commit harakiri with a blunt bamboo stick, but it is also a misrepresentation of sorts. The point of Harakiri is never to be a revenge film, rather the revenge facilitates something far more important. Hanshirō’s course of action in this is to take the topknots of the three samurai, something considered a fate almost worse than death. If a samurai loses his top knot, the next course of action would be to commit harakiri in order to die in a way that at least restores some of their lost honour. Except unbeknownst to the Iyi clan, these three samurai are all feigning illness, hiding away until their topknots grow back. The three who were so intent to uphold the honour of the samurai tradition to its cruellest extreme are the ones who are now more interested in saving themselves than they are in this code that they were so adamant about enforcing on someone else.
Hanshirō then reveals this information to Kageyu which starts the big finale. The Iyi clan is beyond the point of allowing Hanshirō to commit harakiri, something he still seems committed to doing, and instead descend upon him in what would have been perceived as quite a straightforward attack. But Hanshirō fights back for as long as he can, causing a number of fatalities and injuries on his way. Before he eventually meets his demise, he smashes a ceremonial suit of armour which is used as a motif throughout, representing the authority of the honour code that the Iyi clan adheres to. In smashing it in front of them he reveals exactly what the clan is - a facade of grandeur with absolutely nothing below the surface.
To further prove the idea, once Hanshirō is dead, Kageyu asks for a quick breakdown of how many of the clan have been lost. Upon hearing the numbers, and the news that even more were injured, without blinking he orders a cover-up. The ones who died didn’t die at the hands of a weak rōnin, they died as a result of a short, unexpected illness instead. Kageyu is so intent on maintaining the clan’s honour that he’s happy for it to become dishonourable for the sake of its outward appearance. What’s even more relevant, however, is that Hanshirō, the man without a clan who essentially came here to call the samurai a bunch of dickheads, is the only one among them who manages to die with his honour firmly intact.
In Hanshirō’s world, everything that he’s just been through counts for very little. The Iyi clan has covered up the events of the day and no one is ever likely to know what’s gone on. But in our world, Kobayashi has given us a film that chronicles why it’s important to fight a losing battle. This isn’t a film that’s confined to the historical problems of the samurai, it’s a timeless commentary on power structures and the intrinsic faults that come with them. Hanshirō’s sacrifice probably meant very little in his world, but Harakiri showing us the forgotten story of it means that it might just have the power to change something in ours.