In 1962, Masaki Kobayashi directed a film with the controversial practice of harakiri, or ritual suicide by disembowelment, as its primary focus. The film operates in 1630s Tokugawa Japan: a time of great social and economic change and uncertainty with repercussions not unlike those Japan experienced after the end of World War II. With the battles of Osaka castle 15 years in the past, daimyo had little need for samurai protection, and thus, many samurai found themselves unemployed as ronin, or masterless samurai. At the same time, many merchants, artisans, and peasants enjoyed increased incomes and possibility for social mobility. Further, the increased instrumentalization of social relations (Weber’s “iron cage of social relations”) and need for profit maximization created concerns for stability of a social identity tied to Japanese history and custom. These concerns led to higher suicide rates within the samurai class. Kobayashi’s film portrays some of these changes in the early Tokugawa period in an effort to highlight similar problems in the then-contemporary situation of Japan.
The film begins with the image of an ornate piece of samurai armor enveloped by smoke and shadows. These images evoke a mythologized conception of a Japanese past as mysterious and sublime, though enshrouded by the passage of time, which limits one’s comprehension. It also evokes the practice of many auteurs in the art film industry of its time in its use of objects as thematically symbolic, and the use of smoke and shadow as obfuscation in the generation of aesthetically pleasing images. These images reflect the view of reality favored by such early auteurs as Ingmar Bergman and Carl Dreyer, as well as a Daoist and even Buddhist view of reality as dream and the filmic medium as the most powerful tool in the realization of this truth.
The first character introduced is the samurai Hanshiro Tsugumo, automatically relating him contiguously with the image of the samurai armor. Tsugumo sojourns to the House of Iyi to speak with Lord Saito Kageyu and gain his permission to perform harakiri in his palace. Tsugumo relates that one pronounces his name “Tsu” for harbor and “gumo” for cloud. Thus, from the very outset of the film the viewer receives everything important therein. Tsugumo is a samurai who lost his position due to the shift in the economic and social situation in Japan. He is tied to his social position as a samurai (the “harbor”), but has no official position or job (the “cloud”), and is, as such, a ronin. He wishes to perform harakiri, but his social situation prevents him from doing so in an ill-fitting manner, which forces him to defer his will to that of one in a higher station. Thus, from the outset, the viewer understands the social situation as well as the particular situation in the film, and knows of the primary conflict.
To test Tsugumo’s resolve, and to make sure he was not trying to extort money from him, Lord Saito relates the story of a ronin who came to his court seemingly for the same reason as Tsugumo. Motone Chijiwa went to the House of Iyi and asked for permission to perform harakiri there, the Lord reflected on his merit as a samurai and entertained hiring him. However, to test the man and make sure that such a result was not his initial purpose, the Lord called upon Motone to kill himself that day. When Motone expressed his surprise and attempted to escape the palace, the Lord and his samurai forced Motone to perform harakiri. Motone did not have a real sword, but instead only a fake one made of bamboo, which the Lord forced him to disembowel himself with. The pain was unbearable, and as such, Motone bit off his own tongue to quicken his death.
This story does not shake the resolve of Tsugumo and he sojourns to the courtyard to perform his harakiri. There, he relates to the Lord and his samurai that Motone was his son-in-law, and that due to social and economic dislocation he was unable to find a job as a samurai for a Lord. This difficulty made it impossible for Motone to support his family and he even sold his swords to rich merchants in town in an effort to so. When Motone’s wife Miho and son Kingo became deathly ill, he resolved himself to extort money from the liege Lord at Iyi in a desperate attempt to gain money and purchase medical care for his family. Kingo died two days after Motone’s plan failed. Miho soon followed. As such, Tsugumo lost his daughter, his grandson, and his son-in-law in the span of five days. Later, in an act of revenge, Tsugumo defeated and forcibly removed the topknots (a status designation whose loss often compelled samurai to perform harakiri out of severe shame) of three elite samurai directly involved in the brutal death of Motone.
At the courtyard of Iyi, Tsugumo tosses the topknots of these three men to the ground and questions Saito’s harshness in his treatment of Motone. He concedes that Motone’s behavior was ill fitting for a samurai, but recognizes the moral weakness of Saito and his top samurai in choosing such a merciless path, claiming, “This thing we call samurai honor is ultimately nothing but a façade.” He then proceeds to kill 4 men and wound 8 others in a drawn out battle in which he sustains many injuries (unlike the super samurai portrayed in many chambara or even that of Sanjuro in Akira Kurosawa’s film “Yojimbo”). Before his death, Tsugumo breaks down a wall in the inner House, revealing the ornate samurai armor shown at the beginning of the film. He grabs this armor and ritually disembowels himself just before a group of warriors unceremoniously presents the coup de grace in the form of three musket shots. This final scene strengthens Tsugumo’s identification with the samurai armor, again, contiguously, but also performatively through Tsugumo’s honorable death.
Kobayashi’s film expresses the deep social ills inherent in a time of rapid social and economic change. These changes in the early Tokugawa period also reflect Kobayashi’s contemporary period wherein those soldiers who re-appropriated- during the Meiji period- the Bushido code of samurai ethics of such texts as Tsunetomo’s “Hagakure” or Musashi Miyamoto’s “Book of Five Rings,” received harsh appraisal by the postwar Japanese. The way of the warrior, or Bushido, became anathema to those intellectuals who had previously supported this ethical system up to the very end of world war two. As such, the way of warrior was no longer a tenable position in modern Japanese life, and those who carried on concern for this tradition (e.g. the novelist Yukio Mishima) received appraisals as mere eccentrics or lunatics.
Further, the increasing westernization and industrialization of Japan led to continued dismissal of ancient Japanese customs and ways of relating to other persons. This instrumentalization of social relations and rapidly changing dynamic of modern life eclipsed- almost totally in some places- old ways of life. Although those of lower social status enjoyed increased economic benefits and standards of living, and in the case of the Burakumin outcaste group, increased social standing, those at the higher registers lost much legitimacy in the eyes of the public. Even Emperor Hirohito relinquished his claim to divine right at the behest of General Douglas MacArthur.
It is difficult to say which period generated greater social change. However, it is safe to say that in any situation wherein social disequilibrium occurs, there will manifest great suffering on the part of many individuals. Kobayashi takes no moral stand in “Harakiri” on whether or not such social change ultimately generates the greatest utility, for his interest is not in utility. Rather, in this film he conveys some of the systematic ills generated from rapid social change, and as such, this film is not an outright populist or Communist film (although it does support such a conclusion) centered on the critique of capitalist systems as generating constant disequilibrium, but is, instead, a deeply humanist vision centered on the realistic portrayal of existential pain.