Updated: Jul 21, 2020
Simply put, one of the best Japanese films ever made!
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Ishihama, Shima Iwashita, Tetsurô Tanba, Masao Mishima
Related films: Samurai Rebellion, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Twilight Samurai
Many Japanese samurai dramas are beautifully filmed, but few have the aesthetic sensibilities of Harakiri. The film could virtually be paused at any given moment, and the image before your eyes would make an amazing print for your living room wall. Still, the aesthetic virtuosity of the director is far from all Harakiri has to offer.
The narrative structure is innovative and the suspense is masterfully kept throughout the dialogue-based story-line. In fact, the sword-slinging is kept to a bare minimum, and no-one misses it for a second. The building of tension via monologues and storytelling is not unlike that applied by Quentin Tarantino. Being the film aficionado he is, it is not unfair to assume that he at some point or other was influenced by Harakiri.
Compared to Japanese samurai dramas of the early 60's, Harakiri's story is unusual to say the least. In the 15th century samurais all over Japan experienced downsizing, as the usefulness of their profession deteriorated in the midst of a rapidly modernizing society. To cope with poverty and unemployment, a dastardly ploy came to fruition; a scam to earn some small earnings from the few surviving houses with lords.
As such, a samurai would present himself to a household, asking to borrow their courtyard to perform a ritual suicide, to maintain his honor as a warrior. In most cases the households wouldn’t be bothered and sent the samurai packing with a few coins. This one day however, to end this series of scams once and for all, the household decides to make an example of the visiting samurai.
Considering the wildly original approach to the samurai drama, the equally original narrative seems fitting. The story is built up by various flashbacks, slowly filling in plot holes during the two hour and thirteen minute run time.
The master-less samurai protagonist is portrayed by Tatsuya Nakadai (Yojimbo, Ran). His performance is a key element of the building suspense, as much of it depends on his long monologues. It might appear a risky move by the director, but not really, as Nakadai easily gives one of the most memorable samurai performances in the history of Japanese samurai cinema. His monologues are some of the best to ever grace the genre of Japanese samurai drama.
The utilization of flashbacks brings Kurosawa’s Rashômon (1950) to mind. That being said, even if Harakiri might seem to derive some influence from western cinema, it is clearly leaning towards traditional Japanese cinematic style to a much higher degree than Kurosawa’s classics.
Harakiri could arguably be compared to both the modern style work of Kurosawa and the über-traditional style of Kenji Mizoguchi, but Harakiri seems to have more in common with the latter than the former. Still, a comparison to Mizoguchi isn’t entirely appropriate either, as the style in Harakiri is much less conservative and somber.
Kobayashi somehow managed the impossible. He combined the best of both worlds - the aesthetics of Mizoguchi and the entertainment value of Kurosawa - and by doing so he made a timeless Japanese classic. Harakiri is mandatory viewing for all samurai genre aficionados.