Tatsuya Nakadai, Rentaro Mikuni, Tetsuro Tamba

Directed by Masaki Kobayashi

Written by Shinobu Hashimoto, Yasuhiko Takiguchi

Yasujirō Ozu was the most traditional of the island of Nippon’s directors, and Akira Kurosawa has earned the mantle of not only Japan’s greatest director but one of the most influential ever , but as far as “chanbara” (Samurai films) is concerned, no one did it better than Masaki Kobayashi.

Harakiri, or known in Japan as Seppuko, is the perfection of Japanese cinema’s efforts to show the hypocrisy of what we know today as the vaunted, mythic samurai honor. In The Last Samurai (2005), Tom Cruise travels to Japan as an American captain set to train the inexperienced Japanese Imperial army in the coming crush of the samurai during the Meiji restoration. Cruise is captured by the samurai during a rout, and becomes completely enamored by their culture. In the face of the technologically advanced West, insensitive to the honorable ways of the samurai, Cruise defects and leads them to a last stand. What caused many Japanese filmgoers to shake their heads when viewing the movie – which isn’t to detract from the film, which is powerful and ecstatic movie-making from veteran director Edward Zwick – is that never in Japanese cinema have the samurai been shown in such an unabashed good, near-divine light.

In Japanese cinema, especially in Kobayashi’s chanbara films, questioning the true integrity of a society so fogged in the chivalric and honor-bound traditions of the time has been commonplace. These films rarely showed the samurai as heroes, rather as fascist regimes ruled over by totalitarian daimyos, sapping the livelihood from its retainers while waging war for their own personal interests.

In Harakiri, handsome Japanese icon Tatsuya Nakadai (sporting a shaggy ronin beard) plays a samurai who comes to the fortress of his lord Kageyu Saito, to ask permission to commit harakiri. He is informed that another samurai named Chijiiwa made the same request earlier in the year. Saito coldly tells a purposely discouraging story, that Chijiiwa came to the daimyo disguising his true desire – alms – by threatening harakiri, something which apparently has become increasingly common in the Edo area, what Saito sees as cowardice and sought to end the charade by using poor Chijiiwa as an example. Chijiiwa was told that his permission was granted, which surprised the young samurai, proving that that honorable suicide wasn’t his true intention. Begging for a day of leave, Chijiiwa is refused, the daimyo and his retainers force him to disembowel himself with the sword he carried, inexplicably made of wood, the most painful and dishonorable harakiri a samurai could have.

After the story of Chijiiwa – made effective with strong flashback elements to parallel the main narrative- Nakadai’s samurai reveals his true intentions and his own story, which proves to be one of great tragedy demanding revenge. It is an engrossing story, a narrative peppered with intrigue and thought-provoking themes that make the viewer wonder what facet of such a society represents true honor.

Kobayashi isn’t secretive in his own views. Five years later he would release Samurai Rebellion, starring another Japanese acting icon Toshiro Mifune, whose family is repeatedly disgraced by his daimyo, and after taking abuse after abuse he makes a violent stand in the name of his house’s lost honor. Family and a father’s sacred duty to to them and protecting their dignity represents true honor in these films – virtue and righteousness – not the flimsy and convenient pretexts of honor used by the daimyos.

Kobayashi’s films are tragic in that the evil depicted is revealed, but never vanquished. Harakiri is bleak in its ending, but its point is proven. True honor is goodness, compassion, not for use as an excuse for face-saving and power-mongering.

Images courtesy of netflixcommunity.ning.com and dvdbeaver.com, respectively.