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'Harakiri': Revisiting A Samurai Classic

02/09/2015 8:20 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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(GERMANY OUT) Japanese films Swordplay of the samurai - scene from the movie 'Harakiri' (Seppuku); director: Masaki Kobayashi - 1962 - Vintage property of ullstein bild (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Harakiri, directed by the late master Japanese filmmaker Masaki Kobayashi and starring the Japanese movie icon Tatsuya Nakadai, won the Special Jury Prize at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival. The movie, set in the backdrop of the 17th century Japan, presents the epic tale of an elderly ronin (a samurai without a master), Hanshiro Tsugumo, who requests for a rendezvous with a feudal lord of Iyi Clan seeking his permission to commit Seppuku, also known as Harakiri--a Japanese ritual suicide performed by disembowelment with a sword, starting from left to right and then finishing from top to bottom, formerly practiced by the samurai as an honorable alternative to disgrace under the code of Bushido.

Before examining the movie's plot more closely, it must be understood that a samurai relied on the factory called 'war' to earn a livelihood. Unfortunately for him, the glory quickly faded away in the days of peace, for his services were rendered useless and his exploits were forgotten. The movie's plot is based in the early seventeenth century Japan when, after years of unremitting war, peace had finally prevailed. During the time, the unemployment among the samurai was at its highest; the powerful surviving clans would get inundated with unsolicited requests from ronins seeking the permission to perform Harakiri--a mere display of bravado with the ulterior motive of getting rewarded by the master. However, it was a given that no samurai would feign the desire to perform Harakiri until and unless he was left with no other choice.

When Hanshiro Tsugumo first shows up at the lord's house, the lord's counselor tries to intimidate him by narrating the story of a young ronin, Motome Chijiiwa, who was manhandled and ultimately forced by the samurai retainers of the house to fulfill his promise of performing Harakiri. Chijiiwa had hoped that his threat would be considered an act of valor and that he would be rewarded accordingly by the lord of the house, but, to his dismay, he is forced to perform Seppuku. When, even after having listened to Chijiiwa's pitiful tale, Hanshiro Tsugumo remains unperturbed, he is finally granted the permission to perform the ritual suicide in the royal courtyard. But, from the very moment he takes his position in the court, his hitherto expression-less grizzly visage gains a rather somber countenance, which, further accentuated by his steely gaze, gives him an aura of a man possessed. As he begins to narrate his tale, it becomes obvious that there is more to him than meets the eye. What ensues is a tantalizing battle of wits which gives way to one of the most graphic and exhilarating climaxes ever choreographed in the history of cinema.

Samurai cinema, which is more commonly referred to as 'Chanbara' or 'Chambara' cinema, can best be perceived as the Japanese equivalent of the Western genre. While it was the Japanese maestro Akira Kurosawa who had introduced Chanbara cinema to the West through a series of swashbuckling movies like Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and Rashomon, Masaki Kobayashi, with movies like Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion, succeeded in bringing to the fore the dark side of the Samurai way of living by highlighting the endless uncertainty, hardships, sufferings, and sacrifices associated with it. Thanks to Kobayashi's unbiased camera and his cutthroat storytelling style the hitherto glorified, coveted, and resplendent life of a samurai appears less appealing and more realistic with each passing frame as resplendence makes way for austerity and glory makes way for humility.

Overall, Harakiri serves to be an unparalleled cinematic achievement that adds a whole new dimension to Chanbara cinema. Today, Harakiri is widely regarded as one of the greatest movies of all time. It is deservedly featured in late American film critic Roger Ebert's list of 'Great Movies'. The flashback sequences in Harakri vaguely remind one of Citizen Kane and Rashomon. It becomes certain while watching Harikiri that no modern-day gimmick comes close to matching the raw power of unadulterated, pristine cinema. The direction, cinematography and editing are all topnotch. The same can be said of acting, especially Tatsuya Nakadai's portrayal of an elderly Samurai wherein he goes through an entire gamut of emotions. Harakiri is highly recommended to all those who don't want to be spoon-fed as viewers and are inclined towards cinema that has the power to make them contemplate beyond the length of the movie.

This article was first published at A Potpourri of Vestiges.

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