Early seventeenth century Japan (the beginning of the Edo period) and the Tokugawa Shogunate now rule the country, bringing a period of relative peace to the previously war torn country. Masterless samurai struggle to stay alive and with no wars to fight or retainers to pay them, they turn to everyday jobs or worse, they drink, gamble and fight amongst themselves.
One such masterlass samurai, Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai), arrives at the house of the Iyi Clan’s requesting that they let him commit seppuku there. An official of the clan, Kageyu Saito (Rentaro Mikuni), is suspicious though believing that this may be a ruse intended to extract money from the clan, a common occurrence at the time. He therefore tells Hanshiro the story of Motome Chijiiwa (Akira Ishihama), a samurai who arrived on their doorstep also requesting a place to commit seppuku but who was actually seeking a hand-out from the clan. The clan humiliated Chijiiwa and made him go through the ritual disembowelment with his bamboo sword, a replacement for the real sword he sold in desperation.
So begins the first of multiple stories told by Saito and then later Hanshiro, a structural choice that helps make Harakiri stand out amongst a large number of similarly set period films made in the 60s in Japan. The unravelling screenplay (from frequent Kurosawa collaborator Shinobo Hashimoto) upon which director Masaki Kobayashi crafts a thoroughly engrossing film is one of the film’s many strengths, but it is the accumulation of so many perfectly attuned individual elements (the score, the editing, the cinematography, the performances etc) that makes the film really quite special.
Kobayashi and cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima’s attention to detail in the framing of scenes subtly conveys information to the viewer, the way in which the camera moves around and towards the characters, dodgy but very of-the-time zooms aside, and the razor-sharp editing all add satisfyingly to an already thrilling story.
Toru Takemitsu’s score is also sublime, with his customary approach to traditional instrumentation and modern experimentation finding a perfect fit within Kobayashi’s sixties infused period chanbara.
The film was made in the sixties, also a post-war period for Japan, and this appeared to inform the approach to the themes explored greatly and the film’s damning indictment of the public perception obsessed ruling classes in post-war 1630 Japan was clearly something pacifist and left wing Kobayashi found modern parallels in.