Dir. Masaki Kobayashi. Starring Tatsuya Nakadai, Rentaro Mikuni, Akira Ishihama
I’m not usually a person who cares very much about spoilers, but I’ll grant that there are certain movies where it’s hard to imagine the first viewing being as good with information as it is without information. Recently, Parasite has become the standard-bearer for folks like me, because if you don’t know what’s going to happen when the Kims get up for the doorbell, the reveal is part of the filmmaker’s art. It’s a moment that lands with enormous force because it’s crafted beautifully. There’s a similar reveal in Harakiri, and as Bong Joon-ho does almost sixty years later, Kobayashi transitions the all-important reveal into an emotionally resonant moment.
For a movie which, in the style of Greek tragedy, takes place in one day and uses flashbacks as necessary, Harakiri is longer than I expected. It’s because the first act of the movie is given not to Hanshiro (Nakadai), the ronin who comes to the estate of Lord Iyi in order to commit seppuku in the courtyard, but to another ronin, Motome (Ishihama). Motome is given to Hanshiro as a cautionary tale by Saito (Mikuni), the seneschal. Like Hanshiro, Motome comes from the service of a fallen lord in Hiroshima, and like Hanshiro, Motome appeared at the gates of the Iyi estate intending to kill himself, even using the same words as Hanshiro does in the opening minutes. Saito asks Hanshiro if he knew this Motome Chijiiwa, to which Hanshiro replies a little coldly that there were at one point 12,000 others like him in service of the same lord; it would not be possible for one man to know each of the others. This is such a reasonable answer, and Hanshiro such a stoic figure, that it doesn’t occur to us to question it. We follow Motome’s story in painstaking detail. The Iyi samurai piece together pretty quickly that Motome has come to be begged off. In other words, he’s lying about intending to commit ritual suicide, and instead he intends to pocket whatever change these people will give him out of pity. They decide to make an example of Motome. He has dishonored the samurai code by telling a lie so heinous, intending to sacrifice his honor for tin, and so in order to scare off other ronin (like Hanshiro, presumably), they force him to kill himself in their courtyard, wearing white robes, and insensible to his plea for a day or two of patience. As all this is happening, it’s easy to judge Motome, easy to pull for the ruthless retainers who will not brook any further dissent or stay. You will complete your suicide in the traditional fashion, Hikokura (Tetsuro Tamba) tells him. In our times, too many samurai simply reach for the sword and are then decapitated by the second. You, he insists, will disembowel yourself totally, and it is only when I am satisfied with your progress that I will deliver the death blow. The buzzwords are all there: honor, tradition. The belief that one’s word is one’s bond, even if that means ceremonial death by one’s own hand. All the while, Motome is clearly terrified. They have him, as it were, dead to rights.
When we discover that Motome is carrying bamboo weapons instead of steel ones that we begin to feel for his poverty, and only when the Iyi samurai insist that he commit seppuku with his bamboo implements instead of being given a steel knife to finish the job. Even after Hikokura explains that a samurai’s sword is his soul and that it would be wrong for him to kill himself with someone else’s sword, it’s not an explanation that feels particularly humane. Nor does Kobayashi shy away from Motome’s suicide, which even in black-and-white is strong medicine. Motome has to tug the blade across his belly, his face screwed up with pain and humiliation. The camera sits low, practically on the mat so we can see the entire bloody business. When Hikokura does decapitate Motome, it’s a relief; the suffering is absolutely unmistakable. It’s not until after Saito’s long story is complete that Kobayashi drops the hammer. By now sitting in the same place where Motome died, Hanshiro makes a confession. I did know Motome, a little, he says. Even that is an understatement. Motome was his best friend’s son, and after Jinai (Yoshio Inaba) committed suicide to preempt Hanshiro’s own, Hanshiro took guardianship of Motome. After a few years, Hanshiro convinced (“convinced”) Motome to marry his daughter, Miho (Shima Iwashita). The story that Hanshiro has listened to is not the story of some anonymous ronin, then, but the story of his son. It is a jaw-dropping moment, and as Hanshiro tells his story to the court, I felt an emotion I don’t often feel when I’m watching a movie: shame. Kobayashi played me, as I imagine he has played most viewers in the intervening decades, and I was ashamed at how quickly I’d rushed to judgment of Motome, a man who was honorable enough to kill himself with a bamboo sword, and who died trying to get any money for his ailing infant son. The House of Iyi has successfully acted the part of honorable men, but they are not honorable, more invested in the charade of self-righteousness than they are in living honorable lives.
That much becomes clear as we see how Hanshiro has played Saito as completely as Kobayashi played me. As the future suicide, Hanshiro has the right to choose his second. Over the course of many minutes, he offers up the names of three prominent samurai, all of whom are absent from the courtyard and, as it turns out, unable to even be seen at home. Hanshiro has settled accounts before he walked into the courtyard. He has engaged each of those three men in combat, and as much training as each of those men have, he scoffs at their relative ineptitude in actual combat. He tosses their topknots onto the sand in front of him, a gesture which could hardly have been more aggressive if he’d tossed their severed heads in the same manner. One of the men, it turns out, has done what he’s supposed to do and killed himself in the shame of losing his topknot; the other two are feigning illness, hoping to stay out of sight long enough to regrow their hair properly. Hanshiro laughs bitterly at the irony: the samurai of the honorable House of Iyi, refusing to act honorably. It’s a moment every bit as damning as the reveal that Motome was Hanshiro’s son-in-law; honor is for other people, not these samurai, and the implementation of that honor is for suckers, not for men who do not fear the unemployment and degradation of the ronin. After have gotten the gas about the cautionary tale of Motome Chijiiwa, Hanshiro provides a very different one for the samurai of the House of Iyi. First he tells his story of the past decade, and then, when he’s set upon by the opposing samurai, he kills some and maims more before he ultimately succumbs. (The Iyi kill him with muskets as Hanshiro, wounded and surrounded, is trying to commit seppuku. It would have been more honorable for those three to literally stab him in the back than to resort to the cowardice of bring a gun to a sword fight.)
As samurai films go, this is talky one, to be sure. The great action scene is not the one at the end where an army descends one-by-one in order to bring down Hanshiro, but the duel in Dutch angles between Hanshiro and Hikokura. They fight haltingly, as if Hikokura is not quite sure how to manage Hanshiro, where Hanshiro is not actually trying to kill Hikokura and thus has a much more difficult job on his hands. It’s shot with a stormy backdrop, and the two men are so different in appearance—Nakadai is small and has a thick beard, where Tamba is clean-shaven and looks absolutely huge—and approach that even though we know how the battle will end, it’s still an entrancing, balletic battle. It’s the talk that stands out, though, and it has a surprising number of a gentle domestic scenes. When Hanshiro goes to the Iyi estate to kill himself, he’s not lying about his intentions. He is such a model of Bushido that he can no more imagine selling his weapons than he can imagine pawning his arms. (The scene where he realizes that Motome put his child above his station sends Hanshiro reeling, and it is the only time that someone acts more sacrificially than he does over the course of the movie.) He has come to those gates to meet death, and his taciturn bearing does not much resemble the man of a few months before. He sings to his grandson, Kingo; even though neither he nor Motome has much money, he still lavishes little gifts on the family, and his delight in his grandson is nothing short of tragic. Motome’s death at the Iyi estate is followed shortly by Kingo’s, and Kingo’s by Miho’s. The man who comes packing three topknots has nothing else to live for but a good death, and that, at least, he can win for himself.