HARAKIRI (SEPPUKU) 1962 | REVIEW & ANALYSIS
Updated: May 1
Masaki Kobayashi’s Anti-Samurai Masterpiece! (Tatsuya Nakadai)
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Ishihama, Shima Iwashita, Tetsurô Tanba, Masao Mishima
Simply put, Harakiri is one of the best Japanese films ever made. It was beautifully shot and inventively structured. The acting was fabulous, and the epic dialogue fiercely criticized Japanese values. No one matched the uncompromising filmmaking of Masaki Kobayashi.
Harakiri could be paused at any time, and the image would make a great print for your living room wall. But visual virtuosity was far from all Harakiri had to offer; it was a swift cut at the underbelly of Japanese society.
«After all, this thing we call samurai honor is ultimately nothing but a facade.»
– Hanshiro Tsugumo –
Harakiri’s suspense was built by razor-sharp dialogue and non-linear storytelling. Because of this, some have argued that it influenced Quentin Tarantino. Plausible as it seems, JCA can’t confirm this rumor. We can’t even find any interview where Tarantino mentioned Harakiri.
That said, both the storytelling and action have much in common with Tarantino’s filmmaking, especially the outrageous monologues. It’s hard to believe that Harakiri was Kobayashi’s first period film and that it was made from a secondhand, rejected TV script.
Masaki Kobayashi | A Traditionalist With Authority Problems
Although Masaki Kobayashi grew up in a quiet fishing «village» and went to a reputable university, he was a born rebel. He spent much of his career criticizing Japanese society, which resulted in censorship and underrated masterpieces like Harakiri.
In 1942, Kobayashi was drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army. He disapproved of their actions, however. In protest of the war effort, he refused to become an officer. This was his way of condemning the military class that dragged Japan into the Pacific War.
As such, Kobayashi faced the dangers of war head-on and was taken prisoner towards the end of WWII. After that, he spent a year in a detention camp. Fortunately, he survived to criticize Japanese society after the war.
«I suppose I've always challenged authority.»
– Masaki Kobayashi –
In the postwar years, Kobayashi was the first director to openly criticize Japanese militarism and the atrocities that occurred in China before WWII. In particular, his film trilogy The Human Condition voiced concern about the further course of humankind.
Harakiri also took a stab at Japanese authoritarianism. With Tatsuya Nakadai in the lead – who also starred in The Human Condition – Kobayashi lashed out at the conformist hierarchies that ruled Japanese politics and society.
Kobayashi’s nonconformist attitude was at odds with the Japanese film studios and remained so till the end. In other words, his filmmaking career was an uphill battle. His work was impeccable, though, and Harakiri was the pinnacle of it all.
Plots & Cuts | Harakiri Story Summary
Compared to the samurai dramas of its time, Harakiri told an unexpected story. The protagonist was a proud samurai, or so it would seem until he pulled a sneaky scam to earn a few coins from the Iyi Clan.
In the 15th century, the samurai profession was quickly downsized. Sword slingers were no longer needed in a peaceful and modernizing Japan. So the samurais came up with a dastardly ploy to cope with unemployment and poverty.
The ruse was simple. Masterless samurais would pay visits to wealthy households and ask to borrow their courtyards to perform ritual suicide. In this way, they could die by the sword and maintain their samurai honor.
Most households would turn away the samurais with a few coins in hand rather than deal with the beheading and disposal of the remains. However, this household had had it with the fake suicides and bid the visitor welcome.
The Iyi Clan had recently exposed another suicide pretender and forced him to fall on his fake bamboo blade. When they told the visitor this, he started to tell his own story about the loss of his closest ones.
One by one, he put the cards on the courtyard gravel. Soon enough, it was revealed that he knew of the harsh treatment of the previous belly-cutter. As it turned out, his visit was not a sly scam at all but a moment of reconning for the Iyi Clan and their unjust ways.
The story’s twists and turns after that are best left for your viewing experience. All you need to be aware of is the protagonist’s disgust with samurai ethics. He could not abide forced suicide upon a lowly samurai. No one even asked why he resorted to such a shifty scam.
Harakiri Production | 1960s Japanese Cinimalism
The story was atypical for a 60s samurai drama, and the narrative equally so. Over the film’s two hours and thirteen minutes, dialogue and flashbacks slowly laid the foundation and built the plot brick by brick.
The narrative technique made the storytelling incredibly gripping. The audience put together the pieces of the puzzle alongside the characters. It was a stroke of genius that kept everyone at the edge of their seat.
The script for Harakiri was a hand-me-down from screenwriter Hashimoto Shinobu who had worked with Akira Kurosawa on Rashomon and Seven Samurai. Shinobu was too busy to write a new script for Kobayashi, but he had an old one lying around.
Initially, the script was intended for TV, but the TV companies turned it down one after the other. However, unlike the TV executives, Kobayashi was immediately fascinated with the controversial tale of corruption within the samurai orders.
Tatsuya Nakadai (Yojimbo, The Sword of Doom, Kwaidan) starred as the masterless samurai Hanshiro Tsugumo. From start to end, he carried the film on his shoulders and delivered some of the most memorable monologues in the history of Japanese samurai films.
In fact, the dialogue was such a central part that Harakiri fell outside the confines of the samurai genre. The sword slinging was iconic but sparse, to say the least. However, few samurai flicks ever delivered such depth or dealt such an impactful blow.
We’ll get back to that in the analysis. But, first, let’s talk about how the story was underpinned by unusual cinematography for 60s period dramas. It was Kobayashi’s first attempt at the genre, but the style of Harakiri impacted film fans forever after.
Presumably, Kobayashi got the affinity for nature photography from his upbringing in Otaru, a rural, seaside Hokkaido town. Harakiri was characterized by low-paced camera work, shots from above, symmetric composition, and stark lighting.
«I was keenly attracted to the stylized beauty of our traditional forms.»
– Masaki Kobayashi –
At the time, Kobayashi felt that his pursuit of realism had gone as far as possible. He was ready to explore unknown territories. This freed him to take inspiration from theatrical art forms such as Kabuki, Noh theater, and scroll paintings.
Kobayashi coupled his inspirations from traditional Japanese art with old-fashioned, dialogue-based storytelling. This time around, his inner rebel opposed realistic film conventions, which was further strengthened by the traditional tunes of the Biwa.
Monumental nature shots, eerie score, long-winded monologues, and slowed-down storytelling made Harakiri theatrical. Yet somehow, it never got unbelievable or lacking in excitement. Therein lied Kobayashi’s genius.
The melodrama was tuned to the max but balanced out by a gripping story, dazing dialogue, and impeccable acting. It was groundbreaking but, in hindsight, not entirely unexpected. Traditional art was, after all, a staple in Japanese filmmaking.
Harakiri took after traditional Japanese aesthetics. As such, Kobayashi utilized key traits of the Japanese film paradigm (Japanese Cinimalism). For instance, he applied lots of slow or static camera work, which resulted in a long average shot length.
However, since the traditional aesthetics functioned as a tool to criticize Japanese society, it is hard to assess whether the style was applied for artistic or political purposes. Probably a little bit of both, but where to draw the line is anyone’s guess.
The slow pace, for one, was partly caused by Kobayashi’s use of real swords, even though sharp weapons were strictly forbidden. As a result, the pace was slowed down in certain action scenes to keep the actors safe.
Kobayashi's inspiration from traditional arts was a very conscious choice. Therefore, when he applied key features of Japanese Cinimalism, it almost seemed like a pastiche. That said, Harakiri reinforced the Japanese film paradigm like few films ever before.
Anti-Samurai Space & Time | Harakiri Analysis
The central message in Harakiri is as anti-samurai as they come. Yet, ironically, it has been marketed as one of the best samurai films in history. Kobayashi’s protagonist, however, opposed the samurai order and, by extension, Japanese society.
Though Japanese traditional aesthetics attracted Kobayashi, he applied them to make a point about Japanese rigidity. For instance, the highly symmetrical and stylized interior design symbolized oppression and enforced order.
The same was the case with the courtyard that resembled a Zen Garden, the poetical dialogue, and the strictly controlled framing. As much as Japanese traditions amused Kobayashi, they became weapons of resistance in his hands.
The protagonist’s confronting of the Iyi Clan called into question the concept of bushido (the way of the warrior). As such, the clan’s empty suit of armor – shown at the beginning and end of Harakiri – symbolized the empty values of society.
A young samurai was forced to mutilate himself because his honor code mandated that orders must be followed without question. It was a meaningless consequence of a world built by hierarchies. In this world, honor trumped human decency.
Harakiri was set in 1630, forty years before the Meiji Restoration (1868) and the downfall of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Kobayashi chose the 1630s to emphasize that the Japanese system was corrupt before Tokugawa took power.
Japan was peaceful in the 1630s. The need for samurais declined long before the Meiji Restoration. Kobayashi’s condemnation of the Iyi Clan symbolized something more significant. It voiced opposition against something rotten in the Empire of Japan.
Something vile stunk up Japanese society before the Tokugawa Shogunate, and Kobayashi saw it in post-war Japanese society as well. His finger pointed at unquestioning submission, strict hierarchies, and «financial cliques» (zaibatsus) built on corrupt, feudalist values.
The cinematography underlined the connection between past and present. Harakiri was drenched in traditional aesthetics. Kobayashi took age-old ideas and juxtaposed them with modern film techniques such as rapid cutting, fast pans, and close-ups.
Kobayashi made one of the most picturesque films the world ever saw. His cinematography was a work of art, and the dynamic made Harakiri immensely powerful. The contrast between cinematic beauty and human decadence left an everlasting mark in film history.
Takashi Miike’s Remake of Harakiri & Other Parallels
The flashbacks and nonlinear narrative bring Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) to mind. Kurosawa got the idea from Japanese writer Ryûnosuke Akutagawa. However, where Kobayashi or Shinobu got the idea for the narrative play in Harakiri is unknown.
The script was based on a story called «Ibun Ronin-Ki» by Yasuhiko Takiguchi. Unfortunately, JCA couldn’t find a copy of this story. The narrative might have been shaped by Kobayashi, Shinobu, Takiguchi, or a combination of the three.
Kobayashi also took influence from abroad, but not nearly as much as Kurosawa. The ritual nature of the Harakiri had as much in common with Russian Montage as it did with Hollywood Cinema.
In any case, Harakiri had most in common with Japanese filmmaking. It took after the modernized tendencies of Kurosawa to some extent. Even more so, it paralleled the über-traditional style of Kenji Mizoguchi’s The 47 Ronin.
Perhaps, it is not so strange since both Mizoguchi and Kobayashi used Japanese traditional aesthetics to comment on Japanese society. Their messages were polar opposites, though, since few films showcased Japanese nationalism like The 47 Ronin.
In 2012, Harakiri became more contemporary than ever when remade by Takashi Miike. Kobayashi and Miike might be kindred rebel spirits, but Kobayashi’s key feature was storytelling depth.
Miike, on the other hand, was the Japanese directors’ equivalent of a shock rocker; substance was not his forte. Harakiri had already proven to stand the test of time. Yet, ten years later, Miike’s remake was largely forgotten.
That is not to say that Miike’s rendition of Harakiri was terrible but rather unnecessary. Miike’s version lacked solid social critique and the building narrative brilliance.
That said, the story was timeless, and the visual spectacle, though different in tone, was equally impressive in both films. Miike’s sword slinging was far from original. Still, it was a vast improvement on the frantic action in his previous samurai remake: 13 Assassins.
Final Verdict for Harakiri
No matter where Kobayashi found the motivation to make Harakiri, the result was a masterpiece. It was a perfect example of art triumphing overall. When the storytelling magnificence kicked in, the politics of Harakiri faded away.
Harakiri was as beautiful as any Mizoguchi film and as entertaining as the best works of Kurosawa. The theatrical performance never got pretentious. Instead, it enhanced some of the best-written dialogue in any samurai film, either before or after.
The few understated sword fights are top-notch. But first and foremost, Harakiri is about character development, acting, and stellar filmmaking. Tatsuya Nakadai delivered the role of his life and turned Harakiri into an iconic piece of Samurai cinema.
Sometimes I am asked, «what is your favorite Japanese film?» Usually, I answer Seven Samurai, but Harakiri is always in the back of my mind. For fans of Japanese cinema, Kobayashi’s anti-samurai masterpiece is a mandatory curriculum for sure.
Criterion: Harakiri: Kobayashi and History
Morrison, Christopher S: Sword, Bamboo, and Death: An Analysis of Seppuku (Harakiri) (1962) directed by Masaki Kobayashi
Rutherford, Anne: ‘Volatile Space, Takemitsu and the Material Contagions of Harakiri’
Senses of Cinema: Kobayashi, Masaki
The Cine-Files: Affect and Material Contagion in Harakiri