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Harakiri - 1962

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Chris Hertzog
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Harakiri - 1962

The Tokugawa Shogunate and the Samurai tradition seems to continually have a draw on and universal appeal to on modern audiences.  The most recent re-make of “The Magnificent Seven”, leading back to original 1960s Hollywood version of the original Japanese story and 1954 film, “The Seven Samurai”.  In addition, to these films there is the increasing popularity of Anime, much linked to the Samurai tradition.  “Attack on Titan” is just one example of a recent comic series and television series that has gained world-wide popularity.


The film I viewed and am reviewing is Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 film “Harakiri”.  “Harakiri” is in the same genre or style like “The Seven Samurai” and other heroic warrior films, but it takes a different approach than most and it takes a very critical look at the nostalgia, supposed honor behind the warrior tradition or “bushido” of the Tokugawa period.  Perhaps this is also a parallel expression of thinking during post-war Japanese culture that was also critical of the Samurai code wrapped up in Japanese militarism and nationalism in the 1920s to 1930s and into World War II.


The main character is an out of work Samurai, or Ronin, who is looking to take care of his family and keep the honor code, despite the fact that nobody want warriors anymore, especially ones who are out of work, which means they are not honorable.


His family must move into a slum area and his son-in-law and daughter and grandson die due to the poor conditions and this becomes too much for the hero, the out of work shamed Samurai.  He decides to seek revenge on the clan house that is connected to his loss of face and job and he asks to commit suicide or seppuku in their house and be beheaded by one of their “true” Samurai warriors.  When the hero arrives and convinces the clan leader to let him die in honor in his warrior’s house the clan leader asks him who he would like to behead him after he disembowels himself.  He names three Samurai from the house, who the leader sends messengers to find, but they are all sick.  They are not actually sick, their top knot, or symbol of their bushido honor has been cut off by the hero before all of this takes place.  For a Samurai, losing the topknot is the most dishonorable thing to have happen, death is preferred than this dishonor.


Our hero then throws their hair knots into the courtyard and laughs and mocks the whole system and their supposed bushido or honor code in a speech to the clan and samurai surrounding him.  The clan leader calls on his warriors to kill this crazed ronin who has brought this attack on his house and a fight to the death ensues.   No spoilers on the ending, but it is a reversal of roles and a great critique of nationalism, social pride and intolerance.  


I have shown pieces of this film in my high school classes to give a visual of the Tokugawa time period and the social issues within.  Great for covering nationalism, ethnocentrism, the power of honor code within a feudalistic society.  The film is in black and white, but very stylized and very “anime” like so the students get into it.  Overall the film is rather long, so I just show the final fight scene, which is not very bloody, but very emotional and striking.  Highly recommended film.