Harakiri – Seppuku   Leave a comment

Harakiri – Seppuku (1962)
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Country: Japan
Runtime:  133 minutes
Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Rintaro Mikuni, Akira Ishihama, Shima Iwashita

What befalls others today, may be your own fate tomorrow.

After watching Akira Kurosawa’s classic movies: “The Seven Samurai”, “The Hidden Fortress”, “Yojimbo”, “Rashomon”, I stumbled upon this movie “Seppuku” directed by Masaki Kobayashi. It really stirred my inhibitory neurons and also experienced a horrible nightmare. Nevertheless, the movie is an absolute masterpiece and the images will remain etched forever in my mind.

According to samurai bushido honor code, Seppuku or harakiri is a samurai ritual where samurai cuts his belly open with a small sword and makes a cross in his flesh and like this a samurai will die honorably.

The basic ritual of Seppuku.

The samurai enters the temple and bows to the witnesses and walks slowly to a raised platform in front of the altar. He then sits in seiza on the altar with the Kaishaku (the second) crouching on his left side. An official comes forward bearing a stand holding the shoto (a short sword, nine and a half inches in length). The samurai receives the shoto and reverently raises it to his head with both hands, placing it in front of him. Allowing his robe to slip down to his hips and remaining naked to the waist, carefully according to custom he tucks his sleeves under his knees to prevent himself from falling backward. (According to custom, a noble Japanese gentleman should die falling forward.) He then takes the shoto in his hand and stabs himself deeply below the waist on his left side. He draws the blade slowly to the right side and turning it in the wound cuts slightly upwards. The supplicant should never show any facial expression during his self-disembowelment. Drawing the shoto out, he leans forward and offers his neck. At that moment, the Kaishaku, still crouching, stands and severs the head with one swift stroke of his sword.

Significant features during Tokugawa shogunate reign (1600-1867)

  • During the Tokugawa shogunate Japan was divided into 264 provinces, ruled by Daimyo (lords), who while having some freedom in making laws, were under the strict supervision of the shogunate.
  • Japan was divided by a caste system (shi no ko sho) and basically only samurai had rights. Non samurai were forbidden by law to travel or to have family names.
  • A samurai was a warrior employed by a daimyo and to give one’s life to serve was the only way to die for a samurai.
  • As a result of the shogunate, many samurai became unemployed and thus became ronin.
  • The first generation samurai under Tokugawa were fighting men, who really did nothing else than kill and go to war. To live in peace was painful and frustrating for them.
  • Many ronin would seek temporary employment at a daimyo, thereby becoming samurai, in order to commit seppuku.

Tsugumo Hanshiro, a samurai from an abolished clan who has now become a ronin appears at the Ii clan gate where Kageyu Saito is a Daimyo. He wishes to commit seppuku to which the lord Saito questions the reason because the news is that hundreds of starving ronin have been making such requests in order to get some monetary help. Saito suspects the same of Hanshiro and to know the reason asks him whether he is aware of a ronin by name Chijiiwa Motome who is from the same clan, to which Hanshiro nods. He then tells the tale of this ronin in an attempt to discourage Hanshiro.

Motome had approached Saito with a request to commit seppuku, but had carried bamboo sword blades  that made clan retainers very angry because according to the code, the sword is samurai’s soul and without the sword, samurai is no longer a samurai. The clan decides to force Motome to commit seppuku with his own bamboo blade. Motome asks the lord to postpone the ritual, give him two days and he would return but the lord promptly says no and calls him a coward. Motome dies a violent, agonizing death.

After listening to this, Hanshiro still maintains his stand of committing seppuku and the Ii clan prepares for his ritual. Hanshiro tells his own life story to the lord of the house and his retainers. His daimyo’s house was abolished by feudal lords, his best friend, committed seppuku and asked him to look after his son, who turns out to be Motome. He and his daughter Miho make umbrellas and fans for living, Motome teaches children and they all continue to live on in deep poverty.

Motome and Miho marry and have a son:Kingo. Miho and Kingo both suffer from illness. Neither Hanshiro nor Motome can afford a physician. Motome desperately attempts to get a laborer job and since he’s a samurai he doesn’t get it. Motome does the extreme: sells his samurai sword. He still fails to make any kind of progress to make ends meet.  Out of desperation he appears at a clan gate, in order to request seppuku; with the actual intention of receiving some aid. Saito and his retainers force him to commit seppuku with his own bamboo blade. Eventually, Miho and Kingo too succumb to death.

Before coming to this house Hanshiro explains how he got revenge for Motome, Miho and Kingo indirectly, instead killing all of them he slashes the top knots off of the three most gallant retainers of Iyi. The three who involved with the harakiri of Motome. Suffering from sheer embarrassment Saito orders his retainers to kill Hanshiro. A fierce battle rages between Hanshiro and the Iyi retainers. He tears down the ancestral armor of the Ii clan, some of the retainers bring rifles to shoot Hanshiro but he eventually stabs himself with his own sword thus keeping his word unbroken. Saito tells his historian to write that “The ronin from Hiroshima, Hanshiro Tsugumo, committed hara kiri. All our own men died of illness. The house of Iyi has no retainers who could be felled or wounded by some half-starved ronin.”

The screenplay, acting, cinematography outstanding!  The movie does raise questions on many social and political issues also on hypocrisy in dealing with the same. What is true honor? true sacrifice? Even in miserable conditions; the burden one has to undergo in order to pursue and maintain honor, ethics, and dignity. Also, to the  fact that their own leaders do not pursue it and have double standards. Why one has to respect and conduct himself to the code of the social order even though it doesn’t make any sense? The movie illustrates how a more complete truth can totally change the meaning of a true story.

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