More than a few samurai films take place on the eve of the 1868 Meiji Restoration that irrevocably modernized and Westernized Japanese society, adopting an elegiac, even nostalgic tone with regard to the earlier feudal period ruled over by the Tokugawa shogunate. Not so the riveting and ruthless Harakiri. Set in the early days of shogun supremacy, Masaki Kobayashi's film sets out to show the system was corrupt from its inception. The "famous red armor" of the Iyi clan, glimpsed on display at the beginning and end of the film, provides an objective correlative for Harakiri's estimation of the samurai honor code: imposing, fearsome even, yet utterly empty.
Structured with intricacy and precision, the storyline alternates between present and past, using its extended flashback sequences to delay and then detonate narrative revelations like so many time bombs. A penniless and masterless samurai, Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai), enters the demesne of the Iyi, seeking permission to commit ritual suicide in their forecourt. Before he can do so, clan counselor Saito (Rentaro Mikuni) regales him with a cautionary tale concerning one Motome Chijiiwa (Akira Ishihama), another samurai from the same defunct clan as Tsugumo, who approached the Iyi with a similar request. Thinking it little more than an extortion scheme, trading on samurai honor for an easy handout, Saito and his underlings used the intractable protocols of court etiquette to shame Chijiiwa into following through on his intention then and there. Because he has hocked his sword, he has to commit hara-kiri with a cheap bamboo substitute. A brutal sequence follows, as Chijiiwa tries repeatedly and vainly to pierce his abdomen. Finally, falling on his sword in Roman fashion, he barely succeeds in impaling himself. Only then does his "second," Omodaka (Tetsurô Tanba), deliver the mortal blow by severing his head.
Preparing for his own suicide, Tsugumo begs permission to recount his story. Kobayashi shoots the exchanges between Tsugumo and Saito from either a high angle that pins Tsugumo into place on the hara-kiri platform, or a deep focus two-shot with an elevated Saito glowering down at the samurai from his dais, foregrounding the literal and figurative distance between the two men. Tsugumo's account reveals that Chijiiwa was in fact his son-in-law, who sought alms from the Iyi because his wife and child were deathly sick. After Iyi retainers returned Chijiiwa's body to the household, his wife and child succumbed to their illnesses. These events have compelled Tsugumo to his present course of action. But his tale isn't finished yet. In the days before coming to the Iyi estate, Tsugumo tracked down the three men he held responsible for his family's death, taking their topknots in revenge rather than kill them outright, a consummate disgrace that plays on the proprieties of self-presentation, since for a samurai not to sport a topknot means wearing his hair down like a woman's.
These scenes of revenge are the first to really engage the chanbara, or sword-fighting, genre on its own terms; indeed, they could just as easily have been lifted from, say, Akira Kurosawa's superb Yojimbo. Delaying these episodes until late in the film shows just where Kobayashi's priorities lie: playing with generic expectations, shifting narrative weight on to character and situation, yielding richer harvests of social criticism. Nevertheless, it's also the case that the confrontation between Tsugumo and Omodaka is spectacular: In a tidy reversal, Omodaka tracks Tsugumo down, showing up at his doorstep, where he issues a challenge to fight. But the quarters in Tsugumo's peasant hut are too cramped, so the camera follows along as they trudge through close-packed cemetery and dense bamboo grove before engaging in a hilltop duel under a lowering, ominous sky.
Shifting back to the Iyi courtyard, Saito, weary of this prolonged disruption, orders his men to cut down Tsugumo where he stands. As close-quarters fighting with sword and spear erupts, the staging stresses the weapons' brute force and heft, laying on the slashing and blood spatter fairly thick. Battling his way from the courtyard to the interior, Tsugumo dares to use the suit of red armor as a shield, but it's a useless expedient, and he ends up hurling it at the approaching samurai in impotent fury. Confronted by three riflemen, Tsugumo commits hara-kiri rather than be shot down. The Iyi clan's hypocritical use of custom and ritual to advance their own ends is matched only by their willingness to employ any means necessary to eliminate a perceived threat.
The caustic coda shows counselor Saito preparing the official story, a newly revised standard that reflects the Iyi clan's self-satisfied sense of decorum. All their own casualties are put down to illness, and Tsugumo's death is recorded as a proper ritual suicide. Menials eliminate any lingering traces of struggle, raking the gravel courtyard back into some semblance of order. The final shot literally closes the book on events. Not only is it the case that history is written by the victors, it seems to be recorded in erasable ink.
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Criterion's 1080p Blu-ray boost renders Yoshio Miyajima's monochrome cinematography richer and sharper than ever: black levels are deep, even in low-key-lit indoor scenes, whites are vibrant, and the grays in kimonos and ornate wall hangings are dense and textured. Toru Takemitsu's terrifically discordant score, embracing both Western and Japanese instrumentation, comes across with frenetic intensity, in particular abrupt bursts of the biwa that provide dramatic punctuation.
Carried over from Criterion's 2005 DVD, the HD-upgraded supplements are less bountiful than for other recent offerings; nevertheless, they provide a necessary window onto the political history and production history behind Harakiri. Donald Richie, a noted scholar of Japanese culture, provides a video introduction that delves into both aspects. A 10-minute interview with Masaki Kobayashi, filmed in 1993, is filled with pregnant pauses while the director puffs away at his pipe, before dispensing words of praise for everyone involved. Though not terribly informative, it's a welcome glimpse at the man behind classics like The Human Condition and the haunting Kwaidan. "A Golden Age" is an interview with star Tatsuya Nakadai, briefly covering his introduction to the Japanese film industry and subsequent involvement in nearly every iconic Japanese film of the late '50s and '60s, before zeroing in on his preparations for, and experiences during, the filming of Harakiri. "Masterless Samurai" spends 15 minutes with scriptwriter Shinobu Hashimoto, who discusses the process of adapting Harakiri for the screen, working with Kobayashi, and the film's premiere at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival, where it lost the Palme d'Or to Luchino Visconti's The Leopard.
A deathtrap slowly closing around its characters, Harakiri exhorts the viewer to come and see the violence inherent in the samurai system.