The retainer log book for the Official Residence of Lord Iyi reports that at midday on an otherwise uneventful day on the thirteenth of May 1630, during the absence of the Honorable Heir Bennosuke, a gaunt, former retainer of the Lord of Geishu arrives at the mansion gates and is granted an interview with the Iyi clan elder, Saito Kayegu (Rentaro Mikuni). The solemn and enigmatic ronin (masterless samurai), Tsugumo Hanshiro (Tatsuya Nakadai), has led a dire life of poverty since the abolition of the Geishu clan in 1619, and now expresses his desire to die with dignity and commit harakiri (ritual disembowelment) in the sanctity of warlord grounds. However, in an era of peace with few employment prospects for samurai in the dwindling local feudal clans that were allowed to remain after the centralization of power by the Tokugawa shogunate, the request has become commonplace. Spurred by reports of generosity and benevolence towards the destitute ronins among the surviving clans, many desperate samurai have insincerely requested admission to commit harakiri with the expectation of being turned away with a small pittance. Saito cautions Tsugumo against making such a request, citing a pathetic and tragic incident involving another Geishu retainer, Chijiwa Motome (Akira Ishihama), who insincerely threatened harakiri as a ruse to obtain charity, and was compelled by the Iyi retainers to carry out the agonizing ritual using only a bamboo blade – the empty tokens of his privileged class pawned long ago to provide for his family. Undeterred, Tsugumo reaffirms his determination to perform the sacred act of seppuku (the disembowelment ritual performed in the presence of a second officiate swordsman who carries out the final head cutting), and requests the services of swordsman, Omodaka Hikokuro (Tetsuro Tamba), to act as his second officiate. Upon learning that Omodaka has taken a leave of absence, Tsugumo names two other Iyi retainers to carry out the task, Kawabe Umenosuke (Yoshio Aoki), then Yazaki Hayato (Ichirô Nakaya), to no avail. As Tsugumo waits for the indisposed retainers, he proceeds to recount the story of his disillusioned life that led to this fateful day.
Based on a novel by Yasuhiko Takiguchi, Harakiri is a scathing indictment on the hypocrisy, repression, and barbarism of codified behavior. Using rigid rectangular framing against fluid tracking shots and exquisitely composed long shots that delineate class station and social disparity, Masaki Kobayashi visually reflects the oppressive confinement and regimentation of the samurai bushido (code of conduct): the title sequence presented against shots of the empty passageways that lead to the sacred chamber of the Iyi clan’s ancestral armor; the isolating, diagonal shots of Saito’s interviews with Tsugumo and Chijiwa; the repeated image of Tsugumo on a ceremonial mat encircled by retainers. By illustrating the class stratification and imposed social conformity fostered by the Tokugawa shogunate (1600-1867) as a means of retaining and centralizing authority, Kobayashi presents a harrowing indictment of the ingrained cultural legacy of coercive, outmoded rituals, chauvinism, and blind obedience that resulted in the inhumanity and senseless tragedy of the Pacific War.
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