This is a Japanese samurai film set in the seventeenth century, where the Shogunate’s breaking up of the various clans forced thousands of samurai out of work. One of these samurai goes to a clan’s house to request their premises to commit hara-kiri, a ritual suicide considered honourable by the samurai when they felt they could no longer live with honour. This is just the start of a complex story involving many flashbacks, and making important points on what honour really is.
The main character, Hanshiro, is played by Tatsuya Nakadai. The character is an ‘ex-samurai’ who has fallen on hard times as a result of the destruction of the clan for whom he worked. The lord at house Iyi is suspicious of his motives, as there are stories of impoverished samurai turning up at great houses and making such claims, when what they actually are hoping for is the clan to feel sorry for them and give them money. Nakadai plays the character with great presence. I was particularly struck with his movements, very slow and measured as he enters the house, and his focus and silence. He reminds me of another great Japanese actor, Toshiro Mifune, in his ability to create presence on screen without speaking. For the early part of this film, the character does not say much, but the viewer’s eyes are drawn to him. As the film continues, and the plot slowly reveals itself, he has more to say, and his presence builds with each word. The flashbacks to his past, and his side of the story, illustrate two different sides to his personality. First is the ex-soldier who has made the best of his circumstances, and the love he shows to his daughter, his son-in-law, and his grandson. The second is the soldier, who plans and executes a rather elegant and clever scheme of revenge. For many movies of this type, the expectation would be that Hanshiro is wanting to kill the people he feels are responsible for the death of his son-in-law, and by extension the rest of his family. What makes this film interesting (spoilers) is that Hanshiro doesn’t want to kill, but shame them. His method is brilliant.
An indication of the character’s difference from the more well-off samurais that surround him is that he is a veteran of war, and the younger men he faces have never fought in battle. This is most clear when he confronts the last of the three men he holds most responsible for the death. When speaking of their fight, he says his opponent is very well trained but has never fought in battle, which is a flaw. Hanshiro then adds that he has not fought in battle for sixteen years, admitting that this might even the playing field to some extent. He laughs at the lord of the house and scorns him and his men. This is what he wants – to make House Iyi lose face.
The son-in-law, Motome Chijiiwa, is played brilliantly by Akira Ishihama. His tragic story and his death are very important, not only as a catalyst for Hanshiro’s actions, but because he is the real honourable man in this story. He has understood that samurai honour is not as important as the honour of a man who will use whatever means necessary to look after his family. He is shamed and killed by House Iyi, who insist he is the dishonourable one by breaking the samurai code. He has sold his swords for money to look after his sick wife. The samurai only see the relinquishing of the swords, and do not care for reasons. Motome also has never fought in war, but he has understood that honour is a lot larger than the samurai code.
The theme, the meaning of this film is quite simple – these aristocrats talk up their code and even kill over it, but when they need to face the consequences and die by the same code they run and hide instead. The three men that Hanshiro defeats (and does not kill, but shames) should by the code have themselves suicided by hara-kiri. Instead, they are hiding in their homes and pretending they are ill. Hanshiro throws this in the face of the lord in front of his men, showing that they have not lived by the code they killed Motome for violating, and illustrating that their devotion to their honour is nothing more than lip-service.
There are very few fights in this film, which might surprise if you have watched other samurai films and are used to a lot of fights. It is a slow burner, and I read a review on this that called it an ‘anti-samurai’ film. The finale makes up for the slowness with a very good one-against-many battle, and leads to the final symbol of this film. Earlier in the story the lord has prayed in front of a shrine in his house, for his ancestors. There is an effigy of a warrior to whom he prays. Hanshiro pulls it down, and there is nothing inside it – it is an empty suit of armour, indicating the hollow sham that their honour has become.
The lord is, of course, no more honourable than his retainers. He covers up the clan’s shame, has his servants write false statements in the family records, and has all traces of the fight cleaned up. He erases Hanshiro and his family, so he can go on pretending his clan is honourable. So, what the film brilliantly illustrates is the corruption of those in power, who will use the law or the rules to condemn those who are powerless, but which they themselves will not live by. They talk the talk, but do not walk the walk. And that, sadly, is a very common occurrence in societies since the dawn of time, until today.
“Hara-kiri” is not a cheerful movie. It is not an action movie really, even though it is often described as such. It is a psychological drama, with a brilliant central character, illustrating the hopelessness of poverty and the corruption and hypocrisy of the rich. Hanshiro stands on his principles in a world that has apparently forgotten them. It is not a comfortable story, and it may hit too close to home for some. It has a complex and layered narrative, and will reward the viewer who likes intelligent, true to life, timeless film.