It’s the early 17th century and Japan’s Shogunate government has begun cracking down on many of the smaller houses and clans, abolishing them with little rhyme or reason. As a result, thousands of people are left without any livelihood, and many samurai are now wandering the countryside as ronin, or masterless warriors. Some try to eke out a living the best they can, but many others, concerned with their honor, seek to commit harakiri, or ceremonial suicide.
One such man, Hanshiro, appears at the gates of the honorable Iyi Clan’s castle, asking that they provide him with the facilities necessary to commit harakiri. Although suspicious at first, since many other ronin in a similar situation have tried to blackmail the clan for some money or a new job, Hanshiro manages to convince them that he really does wish to commit harakiri. While waiting for the arrangements to be made, the clan’s head recounts a similar story that took place earlier that year.
Another ronin, Chijiiwa, appeared at their gates with a request similar to Hanshiro’s. But unlike Hanshiro, he lacked the resolve to go through with it. What’s more, Chijiiwa’s status as a samurai was even doubtful to begin with; he carried bamboo swords, something no true samurai would do. Ultimately, Chijiiwa is forced to commit harakiri in order to prove his honor, and in the film’s most shocking scene, disembowels himself with his bamboo blade.
After Chijiiwa’s story is done, Hanshiro prepares to go through with his ceremony. But before he does, he tells his story, one that is inextricably linked with Chijiiwa’s. At first, it’s the tale of a poor, clan-less warrior trying to eke out a life for himself, his daughter, and the son of his best friend. But soon, it becomes a scathing indictment of the cruelty and harshness of bushido, the samurai code of honor.
Although the samurai strive to be paragons of honor and virtue, compassion and mercy are beneath them, and they have nothing but contempt for those who don’t match their lofty standards. But that contempt masks hypocrisy — samurai are still human after all, with all of the normal failings and weaknesses — and as Hanshiro’s story comes to an end, the truth about the “honorable” Iyi Clan is revealed.
While perhaps not as recognizable as Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai was one of Japan’s greatest samurai actors, appearing films like Sword of Doom, Sanjuro, and Samurai Rebellion. Nakadai absolutely owns Harakiri from beginning to end, delivering a riveting and gripping performance as Hanshiro. At first, he seems to be a common warrior looking to save face, but as the movie goes on, his aura grows deadlier and more menacing as he exposes the Iyi Clan for what it truly is.
Those expecting some crazy hack n’ slash adventure à la Shogun Assassin might be disappointed with Harakiri. The film moves pretty fairly slowly at times, especially with the constant flashbacks, but it’s not long before you find yourself totally drawn in. The dialog might seem too melodramatic at times, even silly, especially when characters praise the virtues of a proper disembowelment and debate the meaning of honor with flowery dialog and grim expressions. But that’s the point. By comparing such scenes with the samurais’ cold and callous actions, it exposes their hypocrisy. It’s hard to call someone honorable when they compliment a man for using the proper disembowelment technique while, in the next room, his sickly child lay dying.
The film inevitably marches towards a final showdown, and all of the tension and bitterness just explodes in the movie’s final 15 minutes or so. Again, Nakadai is just amazing to watch. There’s a steely glint in his eyes that’s riveting, and when he marches towards his opponents, with his arms crossed across his chest and katana ready to strike… well, let’s just say his foes are going to need some clean undergarments. If their heads are still attached to their bodies, that is.
Harakiri may not be as famous as Kurosawa and Mifune’s samurai pictures, but it’s a great one nonetheless, well worth the time spent seeking it out. While films like Mifune’s Samurai trilogy espouse the glories of bushido and how it can help a cruel, base man find honor and decency, Harakiri exposes bushido’s dark side. Harakiri’s samurai are not noble men. Rather, they are men who follow bushido instead of their conscience, instead of their heart. Their sense of honor is nothing more than a veneer, a way to justify dishonorable, and even evil actions. The film’s final scene chillingly drives home that idea. There is no happy ending, but simply a warning against the evil that can be done, all in the name of honor and righteousness.
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I've also written for Christ and Pop Culture, ScreenAnarchy, Filmwell, and Christian Research Journal. I pay the bills by creating beautiful user interfaces and websites for Firespring and Red Bicycle.