Harakiri ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Watched as part of my November 2018 Challenge.

A film by Kobayashi Masaki:

"This house boasts of its red armor and martial valor, but it seems that even in the great House of Ii, samurai honor is nothing more than a facade."

In the first shot of this film, the camera zooms on a traditional samurai armor carefully and reverently stood up on a pedestal. More often than not, samurais - and Japanese culture in general - are portrayed in popular culture with that same utmost reverence and honor. Most of them feature people frequently honoring centuries-long rituals and traditions as sacred things, with warriors that live their lives by a code that allows no deviation. Where an enemy is seen as an opponent worthy of respect, and the defeated are treated with dignity. But what if it was all pretension? a facade? That's what Kobayashi Masaki questions in his 1962 film.

Set in Japan, during the Edo period (17th Century), Harakiri follows Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai), a disheveled samurai with no master ("ronin") that presents himself at the Ii clan estate asking for permission to commit harakiri in their courtyard. Before giving him permission, the clan's senior counselor (Rentaro Mikuni) shares the story of another ronin that came months before asking the same. Meanwhile, Tsugumo himself shares his story with the clan, forcing the counselor and the audience to wonder: are his intentions true? Will he perform the deed or does he have other motives?

This is my first Masaki film, but what a treat it was. One thing that immediately got my attention was how beautiful and precise was the direction. Masaki doesn't move the camera a lot, relying instead in some impeccable framing. But when he moves it, his use of great tracking shots and slow zooms is very deliberate and neatly used. There is a particularly powerful scene in the first act where a character is shown committing a very painful sepukku that was probably one of the toughest scenes I've seen on any film. But Masaki lets the camera linger well enough for us to absorb the tragedy and pain of what's happening, without it feeling gratuitious. In addition, the climax features two very different, but equally impressive sword fights.

But if the direction is impressive, more impressive is the depth of the story, which serves as a deconstruction of the whole "samurai" mystique I mentioned above. Masaki takes his time to slowly build the story, but he doesn't back down from showing how the mere adherence to rituals and ceremonies just because, can end up being more dishonorable than the alternative. How meaningless are those rituals, if they're done for emtpy purposes?

Most of that tragic turnover of the usual tropes of the genre are perfectly carried by Nakadai's performance, who manages to portray the erosion in the beliefs of an honorable man and how it slowly turns into the desperation of a man that has nothing to lose. Mikuni is also great as the cold and stoic leader of the Ii clan. The great performances are rounded up by Akira Ishihama, who plays Hanshiro's son-in-law, and Tetsuro Tamba, who plays one of the main swordsmen of the Ii clan.

In a climatic scene towards the end, a character is seen taking that revered samurai armor we saw on the first shot, and defiantly tosses it across the room. The armor and their rituals are just that; a facade. One can say that Masaki does just the same with the genre, tossing it aside, stripping it away of its usual tropes while presenting us with a story of tragedy and depth. In the end, he shows us that honor doesn't necessarily go hand in hand with traditions and rituals, and that usually, the latter is just that: a facade.