Masaki Kobayashi Harakiri (1962): Moral Conundrum and Ethical Hypocrisy

In this article, Faiz reflects on how Masaki Kobayashi, a lifelong pacifist, visualizes a concept of Bushido in one of his greatest works, Harakiri (1962). For those who are interested in exploring Kobayashi’s films, Harakiri is among top 5 in our list.

According to Wikipedia, Bushido means “A Japanese collective term for the many codes of honour and ideals that dictated the samurai way of life”. It’s a set of moral values necessitating a samurai to maintain a sense of honour as they go about their lives with their surroundings. That sense of honour itself contains a lot of meanings. To adopt one meaning while ignoring the other means a samurai doesn’t fully uphold the belief of bushido. Director Masaki Kobayashi smartly takes this moral conundrum and crafts a tale of ethical hypocrisy, as we see 3 samurai with flawed and naked logic of the term “bushido” get stripped of their honour by the one samurai warrior who knows that bushido is not just about strictness, or steadfastness in faith, but also compassion.

Bushido a set of moral values necessitating a samurai to maintain a sense of honour as they go about their lives with their surroundings.

A fight scene in Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri (credit: Shochiku / High on Films)

It is the Edo period in 1630. In a period of relative peace, a wandering samurai figure, ronin, arrives at the domicile of the House of Lyi, one of the noble houses under the Tokugawa Shogunate. His name is Tsugumo Hanshiro (Tetsuya Nakadai). Shabby and beaten-down, Tsugumo comes before the Head of The House, Saito Kayegu (Rentaro Mikuni) to humbly request arrangements for an act of seppuku, or harakiri, which he wishes to do in the House’s forecourt.

Tsugumo wants to commit suicide because he feels worthless as a jobless samurai, and without a sense of purpose. A samurai commonly willing to commit seppuku and dies on his own terms should be a commendable act worth considering, but Saito has other ideas.

This is not the first time a samurai figure has come and requested this courtesy however, and normally they have other motives. There has been news of Ronin being hired to work in houses upon requesting to commit seppuku due to the House Leaders being impressed by their resolve. As a result, plenty of samurai have come before them citing the same purpose, but with the intention of gaining the same favour. Saito, however, tells Tsugumo that the Houses have wised up to the act, and encourages Tsugumo not to take up the act because of this. Little does he know that Tsugumo’s resolve for suicide is sincere, but that doesn’t mean he has no hidden motives behind his presence. These motives are slowly revealed, layer by layer, as in front of the troops of the House, in his suicidal ceremony, Tsugumo tells everyone of his story, of how he became who he is, and that story has everything to do with certain samurai called Motome Chiijiwa (Akira Ishihama).

This setup frames the movie’s story, and it is almost ritual-like in its depiction. He is offered the courtesy of choosing his own executor, since an act of harakiri requires that one be beheaded upon disemboweling oneself with his sword. Tsugumo’s story progresses as we await the arrival of said executor.

Tetsuya Nakadai played as the infamous Tsugumo Hanshiro in Harakiri (credit: Shochiku / Filmaffinity)

Kobayashi was a lifelong pacifist. He served in World War II but had such a staunch belief in peace that he refused promotion to the officer class.

Having seen Kobayashi’s other works such as the masterful The Human Condition Trilogy as well as Samurai Rebellion (1967), it is interesting how much Masaki Kobayashi is fascinated with the idea of compassion, and its inevitable clash when put against a rigid societal and moral structure. The Human Condition sees its main character, a conscientious objector, repeatedly having a moral dilemma in the face of the violence he sees. Meanwhile, Toshiro Mifune’s character in Samurai Rebellion sees his official responsibility as an affront. Harakiri is no different. It goes out of its way to expose the sham of the House of Lyi’s self-proclaimed samurai code of honor while it is incapable of protecting the people it should protect.

It is interesting to look at not just Masaki Kobayashi Harakiri, but also the two former above-mentioned films from the perspective of Kobayashi’s personal experiences. Kobayashi was a lifelong pacifist. He served in World War II but had such a staunch belief in peace that he refused promotion to the officer class, and chose to take his chances with the conscripts. Making these films must have been cathartic for him. All things considered. I can easily say I feel it, too. Harakiri is a masterstroke.

The legendary Masaki Kobayashi during a press conference (credit: Nihon Cine Art)

Masaki Kobayashi Harakiri was released in Japan in 1962. The film won the Special Jury Award at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival. Streaming available on Criterion Channel.


Faiz Aziz, Jakarta Cinema Club

Also read: Meiko Kaji: Manis seperti Dendam

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