BY Sam Hall
THERE are many forms of pride. Some are positive, some egotistical. Sometimes pride has honest intentions but clouds vision. in HARAKIRI, Masaki Kobayashi explores the flaws in a society that prides honour above all else, but cannot see the wood for the trees. The film, set in 17th century Japan during the long calm of the strictly conservative Tokugawa shogunate, tells a rigid, simple story of two men bound to a fate they do not deserve.
The Ii clan of Edo province are a secure feudal house during a time in which the Shogun is dismantling other clans in order to create a more homogeneous Japan. The Fukushima clan from Hiroshima is one such casualty. The Shogun’s policies have left in its wake whole armies of leaderless Samurai called ronin, unemployed and unable to reintegrate. In order that they may reclaim their honour, many ronin seek to carry out seppuku, a form of ritual suicide, inside the walls of a feudal lord’s keep.
Enter Hanshirõ Tsugomo (Tatsuya Nakadai), one such ronin with no family, no money and nothing to live for. He approaches the senior counsellor of the Ii clan, Saitõ Kageyu (Rentaro Mikuni), to regain his lost honour. However, all is not what it seems with Hanshirõ. Most of the film’s narrative takes place within the same four walls with just one samurai surrounded by warriors ready to finish the job if Hanshirõ does not go through with what he has promised. Yet, as Hanshirõ slowly reveals his motives, the cracks in House Ii’s solid image begin to deepen and their desperation intensifies. HARAKIRI, as well as a story of a corrupt society, is also a lesson in how difficult it can be to avoid corruption no matter how carefully one might tread. Although the Ii clan’s intentions may not have been entirely good natured, the logic of their actions certainly are. Yet it is only when the true nature of their mistake is unveiled that Saitõ feels forced to stain his hands with dishonour in order to cover up the crimes he was previously unaware of.
The House of Ii harbours the age-old teaching that pride comes before a fall. The clan are represented by an emblematic suit of armour, a signifier of the stability their values and honour bring to the society they watch over. Towards the film’s climax, it is Hanshirõ who smashes the armour a part, just as he has torn the clan from their foundations of strength. In the end, they resort to betraying their values to ensure their legacy remains but we have witnessed their shame with our own eyes. The damage has already been done.
Kobayashi may not be hailed as one of the masters of Japanese cinema like Kurasawa, Ozu or Mizoguchi, but HARAKIRI certainly deserves exposure. Although most of the film centres around a clash of egos across various dialogue-driven scenes, there are several touching moments and impressive choreographed sword fighting that hold up to almost anything in a Kurasawa classic. It is as powerful a film now as it was almost 60 years ago.