One against all: Tatsuya Nakadai faces all comers in Kobayashi's masterpiece.
I had no idea what I was getting into when I popped Harakiri into the DVD player, and as soon as I learned it was set in 1630 feudal Japan I feared the worst: war, battles, helmets, two hours that would feel like two weeks. What I got instead was a brilliantly-executed drama that gripped me from first shot to last. Working from a superb script by Shinobu Hashimoto (who also wrote Kurosawa's Rashomon), Director Masaki Kobayashi's 1962 tale of honor and vengeance is a model of precision storytelling that becomes a polemic against military bureaucracy and the glorious lies that perpetuate ideas of heroism. It's a modern fable set in medieval times, and it may be the most perfect anti-war film I've ever seen.
Samurai warrior Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai) arrives at the House of Iyi with a strange request: now that war has temporarily ceased, he is without work, and wishes to honorably commit harakiri in a formal ceremony. The master of the house isn't impressed; according to him, this has become a popular extortion scheme among the unemployed ronin to gain work or money. In hopes of scaring off Tsugumo, the master tells him (in flashback) about the tragic fate of the last ronin who pulled this trick: Motome Chijiiwa (Akira Ishihama), who was forced to kill himself when the house called his bluff. The story doesn't faze Tsugumo, and here the plot turns: Motome was his son-in-law. In appearing to seek the same fate, Tsugumo is actually taking one more step toward enacting a most ingenious (and suicidal) plan to bring down the House of Iyi. Tsugumo takes us back into the past, telling us of the circumstances that forced Motome to take desperate measures; in so doing, he pokes through the feudal lord's constant assertions of valor and bravery to show they are built on little more than thuggery and official lies.
There's a great deal of brilliant swordplay throughout -- first in flashback and later in the present moment of the story -- and Kobayashi, too, as a director, comes across as rather a brilliant swordsman in the way the film is shot and edited. He likes to zoom in, linger and cut, accentuated by the sound of a biwa. Then there are the fight scenes between Tsugumo and his foes, either individually or as a group, all of which are masterfully choreographed and brilliantly violent in that Japanese way, where the blood isn't so much excessive as it is theatrical.