Harakiri is directly translated as “belly cutting,” and is the name best known in the West for Seppuku, a traditional act of suicide that was considered an honorable method of death amongst the Samurai. This film is also part of the Criterion Collection and is regarding by many as a classic. Criterion has recognized both the importance and the excellence of Harakiri, and put forth a DVD worthy of the film. So, I watched the movie and well… I loved it. The day after watching it I told my friends about it and I found most people hated the movie. Not because it was a bad movie, but because of how it made people feel about themselves. Directed by Masaki Kobayashi, the film deals with ONE individuals attack against the corruption and arrogance of the state.
I do not want to ruin the picture for anyone by giving anything away. The viewers are allowed to look closer at the noble Samurai code of behavior and to reflect on how its abuse impacts the fate of an individual and the society in general. The film shows us some historical background. Thousands of ex-retainers had been thrown out of their positions, made into ronin, by the Shogunate’s abolishing of clans. This film raises many issues. It is Kobayashi’s impassioned protest against rigidly militaristic societies that uphold hypocritical codes of bushido while disdaining what that term really means. In regards to the aftermath of both World War II and the Tokugawa shogunate, Kobayashi points out that the individuals of the lower socioeconomic levels suffer far worse than those in power, as those in power always find away to bend the rules to their favor.
This is Nakadai’s finest performance in a long and distinguished career, a tour de force of naturalist minimal acting. The director paces the film very slowly – by comparison, many Kurosawa and even Ozu films are breezy, and of course contemporary American films move approximately 800x faster. Although slow in pace, Kobayashi does not shy away from showing the darker aspects of feudal Japan. This leads to a massive bloody battle on the grounds of the house, destroying any honor left in the Honor of Iyi. Even more outrageous is the subsequent massive cover-up of the incident by the house leader. In the end, the House of Iyi proves to be even more dishonorable than the man they persecuted and their honor proves to be superficial, which to them is better than being known to be dishonorable. As the story leads to its bloody climax the daring father in law reveals that he has taken the top-knot of three samurai who directly handled his son’s execution.
This action vividly portrayed that the House of Iyi, and possibly other houses, was corrupt and had no honor. This movie should be in every serious cinephile’s collection, based solely on the strength of the acting and story telling. Harakiri is an awesome story of revenge told with devastating effect. By the time you know what the story is really about, you yourself have cast judgement on the characters. Then things turn on you, and nothing appears as it did before. An excellent movie concerning issues we all deal with near or far, in any language or country, regardless of time or space. Dark, moody and gripping, Harakiri remains as a perfect example of excellent Japanese filmmaking.