If you tell me that you don’t like this movie, I might have to cut myself.
I’m a big fan of samurai movies. This is probably because of their relatively subdued nature which masks the underlying intensity that builds up via the characters and the cinematography. Basically, what is shown and how it is shown are in constant dissonance and produce a hot-and-cool final product. So style, so swag.
Sadly, I have only seen a handful of samurai movies. Pretty much all of them come from Japan, and most film collections are super expensive. But I have a long wishlist and I hope to slowly pick them up one by one (thanks to Criterion Collection and Janus Films, now if only you shipped to Japan). Look forward to more reviews as I see more.
One of the films that has been on my wishlist the longest was the 1962 Masaki Kobayashi film Hara-kiri. I had actually intended to see it a long time ago but I mistakenly watched the remake instead. Thankfully, it has been so many years since then, and I forgot a lot of the story. This gave me the chance to watch it with no spoilers, and I did so a few days ago. Here are my thoughts.
Hara-kiri takes place during a time of peace for Japan, when the Tokugawa Shogunate, relatively recently installed, reigns over the country. The story begins with a ronin (masterless samurai) named Tsugumo from Fukushima who appears at the front gate of the Iyi clans manor and asks for permission to use the front courtyard of the estate to commit seppuku. Tired of living hand-to-mouth and disgusted with his inability to live as a samurai, he seeks to at least die like one. The Iyi clan is wary of ronin who claiming their intent to commit seppuku, as it is becoming more common. Most clans, rather than deal with the inconvenience, simply give the ronin money and tell them to be on their way, but this only encourages more ronin to try the same. The Iyi clan is especially wary, as they received a request similar to Tsugumo’s quite recently, also from a Fukushima ronin. How they handled it left quite a bad taste in their mouth and they would prefer to avoid being put in a similar situation. However, Tsugumo insists that his intentions are pure and that he has every intention of committing seppuku. The Iyi clan capitulates and grants him access.
What follows is a painful walk through the lives of both Tsugumo and the house of Iyi. We see what depths humans will go to to protect that which they feel is honorable, as well as the depths one will go to in order to protect that which he holds dear. Hara-kiri is by no means a tale for the soft-hearted. It is deeply emotional and dreadfully dark at times. The movie tries to shine a light on the proud heritage of the samurai at this particular moment in history. It poses the question of whether the pride of the samurai was indeed the source of their strength, or if perhaps it was a curse which made them blind to why they wanted to become strong in the first place.
One of the things that makes this movie great is the sheer simplicity of it’s premise that betrays a far deeper story. The concept of, “One day, a man knocked on the front gate” explodes into so many different things after a few minutes. It’s as if you start in one concentrated point of space and time, but are then continuously exploding back into the past and future through the characters and the stories they tell. “One day, a man knocked on the front gate” can be so much more than just those few words, and playing on the beauty of that simplicity is what this movie does so well.
Apart from the story itself, this movie also has terrific acting. Tatsuya Nakadai plays the role of Tsugumo perfectly. A broken-down, disheveled man who looks as if he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. This is not easy to portray, but he does it perfectly. Not only that, but you can really track the progression of the tension in the film through his eyes and his body movements. When he first appears, his eyes are ¾ open, his shoulders are sagging and he hunches a bit. His vocal patterns are low and dull and he overall just seems tired. As he tells his story and you slowly realize what is really going on, everything begins the sharped. The eyes widen, his lazy brow is now tense and his shoulders and full apart. The corners of his mouth no longer sag and he sits upright with purpose. Simply through visual cues and body language, the film is both portrayed by and portrayed through Nakadai’s acting. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the movie is centered completely around him, in a visual sense. The focus is him, and his fight against the world.
Overall, it’s a really cool flick that explores an unsavory side of the samurai we know and love and tries to pull back the curtain on history, as if to say, “What we know of history is written by the winners, but the truth of what it means to be a man will always exist within is.”
Thanks for reading and have a great day!
This picture is not too big, the internet is just too small.