Masaki Kobayashi made his debut in the samurai genre with Harakiri, delivering a film as bracing in its aesthetic qualities as it is bold in its political leanings. A denunciation of the tradition inherent in samurai code and its harmful rigid standards, Harakiri is a thrilling tale, told with supreme economy of action and an effortless nonlinear structure.
Tatsuya Nakadai stars as Hanshiro Tsugumo, an elder samurai whose clan has recently fallen, leaving him in the position of a disgraced ronin. As the film opens, we see him approaching the manor of the powerful Iyi clan, seeking permission to commit hara-kiri (or seppuku) — a samurai’s ritual suicide — on its grounds.
His request does not initially fall on sympathetic ears, as a series of flashbacks reveals that a number of clan-less samurai have been making similar requests, hoping they would simply be shooed off with a little money for their trouble. Hanshiro hears the tale of Iyi’s last samurai visitor (Akira Ishihama), whose ruse failed and was forced to eviscerate himself with the bamboo blades he’d replaced his peddled real blades with.
Kobayashi shoots the suicide with grim tenacity, and the visceral power of the images is barely blunted by the gurgling blood’s lack of color. Shifting back and forth between narratives, Kobayashi gracefully glides through time just like his camera floats through expertly blocked, impeccably staged scenes.
The film soon settles in to Hanshiro’s tale of how he came to the manor, and while Harakiri is likely one of the talkiest samurai films, it’s anything but stagnant. As his hosts discover Hanshiro’s intentions maybe aren’t what they seem, Kobayashi counters the ritualistic solemnity with a variety of dynamic camera moves.
Of course, like any samurai film, there are sword fights — and the ones here are exceptional — but Kobayashi elicits just as much visual energy out of static storytelling scenes.
Just as Hanshiro reveals himself to be much more than meets the eye to his skeptical hosts, Harakiri spins a simple premise into a forceful, gripping tale of one man’s personal honor.