Harakiri ★★★★½

Harakiri is a tightly composed samurai drama that subverts many expectations of the genre. IIt begins when a forlorn, masterless samurai named Hanshiro arrives at a noble house looking for a place to commit ritual suicide. The inhabitants of the house tell Hanshiro that another man had arrived recently with a similar request, but hey soon discovered that his true motivation was a desire for sympathy and a gift of money. They then forced this visitor to follow through with his proclaimed desire to commit suicide, under threat of death. This scene is show in brutal flashbacks. His gruesomely bloody death is acted to perfection, looking about as painful as it possibly could. My stomach hurt just watching it - not only from queasiness, but with a visceral physical empathy. Hanshiro seems unmoved by this story. In the ritual suicide, a second is chosen to finish the task by beheading. Hanshiro requests several specific members of the household to carry out this role in his act, but the ones he requests are all absent, apparently due to sickness. In the time they spend waiting for messengers to return bringing this news, Hanshiro tells the gathered household samurai the tragic story that led him to this point. Through all of this the actors speak to each other from a distance, sitting and standing stiffly, falling in line with the sharp geometry of the house. Even when they talk their mouths barely move. The allows the few moments of action to cut through the stillness. As Hanshiro tells his story, it is revealed that he young man who was forced to commit suicide was his son-in-law. His daughter and grandson had become sick (the man’s wife and son), and hearing that some households were offering gifts of work and money to those who desire to kill themselves, the son-in-law had left seeking aid for his family. He had even sold his swords, the most precious samurai possessions, and so was forced to commit his final act with weapons made of bamboo. Although honor and the blade are central to the samurai’s soul, this young man gave them up for love. In the beginning, he seemed to be portrayed as a coward, a selfish trickster at best. Hanshiro seemed obviously more honorable than him. But now we see that he sacrificed everything for love, making him the truly honorable man. In front of the watching samurai, Hanshiro proclaims that the whole samurai code is a façade, a false front of honor that disguises a system of hideous and callous cold-heartedness and can only be preserved through lies and forced suicides. He then reveals that his three requested seconds, who were all involved in the death of Hanshiro’s son-in-law, are not actually sick; they are ashamed because Hanshiro has tracked them down and bested them in individual duels, finalizing their humiliation by cutting off their top-knots. This revelation is too much for the listening samurai, and, drawing their weapons, they converge on Hanshiro. This leads to an intense battle, choreographed to perfection throughout the entire house. It makes perfect use of the domicile’s fragile construction, letting the combatants crash through walls and windows. The editing – both visual and sound – during this scene is flawless. Overall a really incredible, starkly beautiful film. The plot points are woven together with satisfying grace, delivering a poignantly tragic story of love and compassion struggling to overcome the confines of ritual honor.