Justin Peterson’s review published on Letterboxd:
Criterion Collection Spine #302
(Foreign language film)
My least favorite kind of movies are melodramas, but at least this one is about Samurais.
"After all, this thing we call samurai honor is ultimately nothing but a facade."
Harakiri is the kind of slow burn story where every time something interesting is about to happen, one of the characters says there is more to the story we must hear first. There is even a quote toward the end where the main character Hanshiro Tsugumo admits that he has been long winded about this whole ordeal.
This is the first film I have seen from Director Masaki Kobayashi and from a technical standpoint it was excellent, with extremely rich looking black and white photography and shot composition. The majority of the film just involves characters talking in rooms and is shot conventionally, so it was interesting when the violent parts did come around and were shot at 'dutch angles' to increase the sense of unease.
Harakiri is the story of Hanshiro who goes to the Lyi clan and says he would like to perform an honorary samurai suicide ritual known as Harakiri, where he will stab himself in the stomach and then pulls the blade across his belly. Apparently this was common in 17th-century Japan because no war was going on, which left these warriors without any work. The story points out that many Samurai who committed to performing this ritual, did so with the expectation that the clan would turn them away and give them some money out of sympathy, but not the Lyi clan.
They tell Hanshiro about a recent instance where a samurai named Motome Chijiiwa came to them not expecting to actually have to kill himself. What made matters worse is that he was so poor that he sold his sword blade and replaced it with a bamboo one, which made his ritual suicide a much more excruciating affair. I keep seeing people say this bamboo harakiri was one of the most disturbing deaths they have seen in a film. I admit it was pretty intense, but IMO its not as gut wrenchingly disturbing as how people in podcasts make it out to be.
Despite how well made the film is both visually and thematically, I would have enjoyed it more if it was not so drawn out. Its not until the last half hour or so when the revenge element comes into play when you finally get a pay off after going thru all this overly dramatic Japanese dialogue. I suppose if the circumstances of these characters pulled at my heart strings more and did not feel so melodramatic, I may have felt more invested. But honestly, I was getting as impatient with Hanshiro's story as the clan was.
So you come to find out that Motome is Hanshiro's son in-law, and he is so disgusted that they made him commit suicide with a bamboo blade. So to get back at them he has come up with this whole scheme to pretend that he was about to commit Harakiri, in order to shame three of the clan's Samurai by dueling with them and chopping off part of their hair known as a 'top knot'. These showdown duels are the best part of the film, especially the scene of the samurai walking thru this huge cemetery. Also the use of shadows during the scene where Hanshiro was stalking a samurai was really neat to see.
Kobayashi set the movie during this period of time to deglamorize what Hanshiro calls the facade of the samurai. Where ultimately all this cool armor and rituals are hallow, when you have a clan like Lyi refusing to have compassion for their fellow man.
Motome being in this rock bottom position is layered on really thick, as we see that not only is he poor, but his wife and child are dying from sickness. I did enjoy two emotional character moments from Hanshiro in his home, including the joy that we see him having as he plays with his grandson. I also enjoyed the moment when he becomes disenchanted with samurai when he notices that Motome sold his blades in order to help the family, but he still had his. So he is overcome by the regret that Motome could have had his real blades, and been spared from the agony of the bamboo blade.
In the end Hanshiro must eventually kill himself when he is surrounded by members of the Lyi clan. It would have been cool to see an elaborate blood smeared Harakiri moment here, but Kobayashi denies this scene as the main character dies off camera. I did really like what happens after that, as the leader of the clan explains how they will cover up this embarrassing tragedy by having the samurais who were defeated commit harakiri, and claim that those who were wounded had fallen ill. You will notice this cover up is subtly visualized as we see the courtyard which is covered in rocks where the story unfolded, be swept back into order to remove any trace that it ever happened.
I am curious to see more of Kobayashi's work like 'The Human Condition' and 'Kwaidan', so next time I will just have to come in expecting more of a slow burn drama about humanity.
- Daniel Plainview
Happy movie watching ... SKOL!