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Film / Harakiri

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"Chijiiwa Motome was a person of some acquaintance to me."

Harakiri is a 1962 Jidaigeki film directed by Masaki Kobayashi and starring Tatsuya Nakadai. It was made as a Deconstruction of the glorified samurai code of honor usually associated with that genre.

Set in the aftermath of Japan's Sengoku Period, with the whole of the country united under the Tokugawa shogunate, many Samurai are left destitute in an era of peace that no longer needs them. Some turn to an ignoble method of making money: They ask permission to commit Harakiri in the courtyard of one of the great nobles' houses, but with no intention of going through with it, instead hoping they will be given alms and sent on their way.

The story begins in 1630 with a ronin named Hanshiro Tsugumo arriving at the gates of the Ii clan, asking to use their courtyard to commit seppuku. Suspicious of Hanshiro's motives, they initially receive him with mistrust and contempt, but as he tells his story it becomes increasingly clear that he's more of a threat to them and their beliefs than they could have imagined.

In 2011, Takashi Miike directed a re-make titled, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai.

Not to be confused with the trope Harakiri, which features prominently.

Harakiri provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Adaptational Nice Guy: While still unquestionably cruel, the Ii clan in the remake treats Motome's eventual suicide with slightly more respect than in the original, no longer mocking his bamboo blades in front of his family, and honoring his request for the money he needed, sending it to his family along with his body, though too late to make any difference.
  • An Aesop:
    • There's a big difference between looking honorable and actually being honorable.
    • Also, you can't eat honor. People are driven by material needs, not fancy words and high-faluting ideals.
  • Arch-Enemy: Hanshiro has the beads of the Ii clan, who killed his son-in-law.
  • Best Served Cold: Hanshiro could have simply attacked the Ii clan in a rage after his son-in-law, daughter and grandson died. Instead, he planned his revenge carefully, forcing them to face the truth that when pushed into a corner they were no better than Motome.
  • Big Bad: Saitö Kaguya, senior counselor and acting head of the Ii clan in their daimyo's absence, is the antagonistic authority figure who serves as Hanshiro's ultimate foe. While the retainers Hikokuro, Hayato, and Umenosuke were the ones who carried out Motome's punishment, they were acting under the counselor's orders, and it is from him that Hanshiro demands an explanation.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Hanshiro dishonours the samurai who killed Motome, and they all end up committing harakiri offscreen. However, the other Ii retainers shoot him as he, cornered, tries to commit honorable suicide, and the deaths of the disgraced retainers are covered up as "illness." The clan's handling of Motome and Hanshiro's harakiri requests—or rather, the version they tell others—increases the reputation of their house throughout the land and earns Bennosuke words of praise from Lord Doi—at least for the immediate future.
  • Bookends: The film begins and ends with a shot of the red armor on display, and narration from the Ii clan's official chronicle of events.
  • Break the Haughty: The Ii clan has a very high opinion of its devotion to the code of Bushido and insistence on Honor Before Reason. Hanshiro tears these illusions to pieces before their eyes until their only choices are to lie and forsake their honor or tell the truth and suffer a crippling loss of face in the eyes of samurai society. They choose the former.
  • Bulletproof Human Shield: Hanshiro wrestles a spearman between himself and an incoming sword and continues to use him as a shield for a bit longer because it didn't kill the guy outright.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Hanshiro is not above using underhanded tactics in his battle with the Ii Clan, throwing gravel in the faces of the enemy warriors and taking one of his attackers as a Human Shield.
  • Conservation of Ninjutsu: Hanshiro's sword dual with Hikokuro is a fairly realistic one between two highly trained fighters. In contrast, his final battle with dozens of Ii retainers lasts far longer than realistically possible, with him killing four trained samurai and seriously wounding eight others and only being killed when the Ii bust out guns after he starts to commit seppuku. This is partially Justified by the themes of the film: Hikokuro is established to be one of the only Ii who actually adheres to bushido at all, while the rest of the retainers are shown to be cowards who have never seen real combat.
  • Defiant Stone Throw: Barely able to stand and facing the inevitability that the troops surrounding him will put him down, Hanshiro manages to grab the precious red armor that symbolizes the clan's ancestors and military pride, throw it to the floor, and run himself through the stomach before the bullets end him.
  • Defiant to the End:
    • Subverted with Hikokuro, who tried to pull this off in his fight with Hanshiro when his katana broke. He pulled out his wakizashi rather than back down, even though he knew it wouldn't do anything against his opponent's long sword. Hanshiro had no intention of letting him die fighting, and instead lopped off his topknot.
    • Hanshiro starts out the film adamant that he is going to kill himself and he does—but in the most defiant way possible, fighting off a mob of samurai and only turning his blade against himself when they're forced to bring out guns to kill him.
  • Doomed Moral Victor: To an extent. Hanshiro goes into the Ii clan knowing, one way or another, he will never walk out again. He also knows what happens there will be entirely up to the Ii clan to report. Yet before he dies, he gets his revenge by revealing the hypocrisy of the clan before every retainer at court that day, forcing them to lie and forsake any self-delusion of valuing honor above all or risk losing Tokugawa support and winding up on the streets like the Rōnin they view with such contempt—and he gets to take a few with him, proving that the Ii are far weaker and more cowardly then they try to convey.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Motome seeks alms from the Ii clan by showing up at their gates pretending to want to commit seppuku, and to their disgust has sold his steel blades for bamboo substitutes. As a message to anyone else who might try the same, they force him at swordpoint to go through with it, using the dull bamboo blades.
  • Driven to Suicide: Naturally, considering the title of the movie, this applies to a lot of characters.
    • Hanshiro starts the film appealing to commit harakiri due to being a ronin with no source of employment. We find out over the course of the film that he's been in those straits for many years—the thing that drove him over the edge was the death of literally everyone he loved and a desire for revenge on the clan responsible for most of their deaths.
    • Hikokuro plays this more straight, killing himself voluntarily after being disgraced by his defeat.
  • Dutch Angle:
    • Used repeatedly on Motome during his involuntary harakiri ceremony to convey a sense of stomach-sickening horror.
    • Later used at the climax of the sword fight between Hanshiro and Hikokuro. The skewed, close-up framing of the shots raises the tension by eliminating any sense of distance between the swordsmen.
  • End of an Era: The problems of the main characters, and that of many other ronin, ultimately stem from the fact that with Japan's Sengoku period being over and the Tokugawa shogunate being firmly in control, the various daimyo no longer have any need (or can no longer afford) to employ large numbers of samurai. This, in addition to those clans which have been dissolved altogether, has resulted in large numbers of ronin with only limited job opportunities on account of the social order still being structured around a society at war despite such a state of affairs being increasingly outdated as time goes by.
  • Faux Affably Evil: All over the place with the men of the Ii clan, who hide their cruelty and condescension behind polite speech and mannerisms.
  • A Handful for an Eye: After being disarmed of his spear, Hanshiro momentarily blinds several attackers by throwing gravel in their faces.
  • The Hero Dies: Hanshiro is gunned down by some Ii men after he has made his point and taken several enemies with him.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Not surprisingly, it's appropriate to note that, as far as we know, no such incident as Motome's forced seppuku happened on record amongst the Ii clan, loyal and well-reputed Tokugawa Shogunate retainers. However, their clan would gain infamy for being the face of shogunal repression (and hypocrisy) under the regent Ii Naosuke, one of the many motivators behind the participants to the Meiji Restoration.
  • Honor Before Reason: Probably one of the most thorough Deconstructions of this trope as applied to the Japanese Code of Bushido ever made.
    • The social hierarchy under the Tokugawa shogunate places the daimyo and their retainers at the top, while members of the warrior class who have lost their masters are left as ronin living from hand to mouth. In spite of their poverty, they are still pressured by society to uphold rigid standards of behavior and prevented from pursuing more profitable occupations such as farming and commerce. Hanshiro and Miho spend long days making fans and umbrellas—one of the few crafts that ronin were allowed to practice—while Motome earns a pittance teaching children the Confucian classics. When Motome desperately needs to get money to pay a doctor, a construction foreman looking for laborers turns him away because he would get in trouble for employing someone who wears two swords. Motome sells the swords for money (something Miho's own father is too proud to do, to his regret), but even then continues to cling to the status of a samurai by wearing fake swords.
    • Motome becomes desperate enough to go to the Ii compound and pretend to be set on committing harakiri. The Ii are so offended by this latest example of dishonorable 'extortion'—and so eager to scare away future pretenders while maintaining their reputation for martial honor—that they force him to commit suicide despite his pleas for mercy. They even make him cut his stomach open using the dull bamboo blades he came with. Not even after Hanshiro explains Motome's motivations do they change their mind about Motome being a despicable coward for selling his swords and forsaking his samurai honor in the hope of saving his wife and son.
    • Subverted, ultimately, when the Ii clan is put to the test. Their three best warriors pretend to be ill so that nobody will find out they had their samurai topknots taken, instead of immediately committing harakiri to atone for their disgrace. When the clan is unable to stop Hanshiro by conventional means, they resort to deploying arquebusiers to gun him down — a dishonorable move as ranged weapons like matchlock rifles were seen as underhanded. After Hanshiro's rampage, the clan covers up the whole incident because they can't admit to the world that some half-starved ronin managed to inflict such casualties on their ranks. In the end, they are hypocrites who only care that other people think they're honorable and are willing to violate their own morals in order to save their hides and reputations.
  • Human Shield:
    • Hanshiro takes a spearman hostage for a bit while fighting in the courtyard.
    • When he gets his hands on the red armor, he drags it with him as if he were holding a human shield. The armor is so important to the Ii retainers that they act as alarmed as if he had taken their clan leader hostage.
  • Hypocrite:
    • A tragic example. When Hanshiro brings up the subject of all the ronin who are going to noble houses asking to commit seppuku in the hope they'll be paid to go away, Motome remarks that no matter how hard-up one may be, it's a disgraceful thing to do. He doesn't imagine when he says that the suffering of his wife and son will soon make him desperate enough to do such a thing himself.
    • Hayato, Umenosuke, and Hikokuro are all disgusted with Motome's behavior, each being firm believers that a Samurai must accept death before dishonor. Yet when Hanshiro defeats them in battle and cuts off their topknots, a shame for a samurai that can barely be made right even through seppuku, they pretend to be ill and wait for their topknots to grow back. Only Hikokuro manages to subvert the trope at the last minute by voluntarily committing seppuku.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Miho suffers from a sudden and particularly bloody one before she dies of tuberculosis.
  • Internal Retcon: Imposed by Saito in the aftermath of the film's events. To admit that a lowly Ronin defeated three of the Ii clan's most important retainers and took their topknots, killed and wounded several more in the fight in the Ii clan courtyard, threw their clan armor to the ground, and eventually forced them to use a weapon as dishonorable as a gun to put him down for good would mean a disastrous loss of face. So he orders two of the three retainers to commit seppuku (the third already had) and lists them and the other men who died as having 'died of illness.' Hanshiro Tsugumo is recorded as having committed harakiri honorably, and this is treated as if it were unrelated to the deaths of the 'ill' retainers. Despite these edicts, someone still collects the labeled topknots of the dishonored samurai, implying the truth might still get out.
  • Jump Cut: From a medium shot to a close-up of Motome's face at the ceremony, as he stares at the blade.
  • Katanas Are Just Better: The Ii certainly seem to think so, given by their proclamations that katanas are the souls of samurai and expressing disgust when it turns out that Motome had to pawn his. In practice, however, katanas do not merit such praise. Hanshiro breaks Hikokuro's katana with one precise blow, and he himself is helpless against arquebuses.
  • Kick the Dog: It was one thing to force Motome to commit harakiri with the dull bamboo blades in order to make his death agonisingly slow and humiliating as possible, since the whole idea was to make sure nobody would ever dare to do what he did again. But it was another thing for the three retainers to deliver his corpse to his family and laugh about it, throwing the bamboo blades at his body. That’s just being mean for the sake of it.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: The three men most responsible for forcing Motome to commit harakiri out of their contempt for his dishonorable ways are ultimately dishonored themselves, yet like Motome two of them have to be forced at swordpoint to commit harakiri in atonement.
  • Master Swordsman:
    • Hikokuro is the finest swordsman of Clan Ii, which is ostensibly why Hanshiro asks to have him as his second in committing hara kiri. Nevertheless, Hanshiro serves him humiliating defeat.
    • Hanshiro himself is more skilled with his sword in real combat than the samurai who grew up in peacetime could ever be.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: The Japanese trailer emphasizes the final battle instead of all the talking scenes that lead up to it.
  • Noble Demon:
    • Hikokuro is one of the three men most responsible for Motome's suffering, as he was the one who argued that he should be made to commit harakiri, and refused to chop off his head until he had dragged the bamboo blade across his stomach. Yet compared to Hayato and Umenosuke, Hikokuro does a much better job of actually living up to the Bushido code he claims to live by. After the other two are defeated, he goes to Hanshiro's house and challenges him to a formal duel instead of trying to kill him right there. After losing his topknot, he is also the only one of the three to ultimately realize how dishonorable it was to lie about being ill. He is thus the only one of them to commit seppuku of his own volition, while the others have to be forced to do it.
    • In the remake, Saitö Kaguya is depicted as more of an honorable villain than in the original. When he sees that Hikokuro is refusing to end Motome's suffering, he finally decides that this grotesque display has to stop, and decapitates Motome himself. Afterwards, he sends two ryo back with Motome's corpse as a grim way of honoring his plea for charity. And finally, compared to the original version, he is significantly less disrespectful to Hanshiro when he refuses to apologize for how the Ii clan handled Motome's suicide.
  • Old Master: Hanshiro, in spades. He has fought in wars most of his life where younger samurai have only learned swordmanship in training bouts. He beats Master Swordsman Hikokuro because of it.
    Hanshiro: Swordsmanship untested in battle is like the art of swimming mastered on land.
  • Old Soldier: Hanshiro. He is old enough to have fought in actual battles, including the Siege of Osaka of 1615, which is generally considered the last major battle of the sengoku jidai. This is another reason why he manages to outfight many younger samurai who have only known peace.
  • One-Man Army: Hanshiro manages to hold his own against the entire Ii Clan, managing to bring down four and wounding eight others before finally being put down. Not bad for a ronin whose skills had been dulled in peacetime.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Both Miho and Hanshiro. Hanshiro's narration reveals Miho outlived her son Kingo by 3 days, and her father Hanshiro outlives them both. In addition, Hanshiro raised his son-in-law Motome as his own son, meaning he may consider himself the victim of this thrice over. Part of why Hanshiro is so willing to commit seppuku is his despair at being the last of his family.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: The Ii clan presents a strong classist vibe, with Saito even apologizing to the clan's ancestors for allowing the courtyard to be defiled with "unworthy ronin blood."
  • Poor Communication Kills: Hanshiro blames the Ii clan for not asking why Motome asked for a day or two's respite, but it's really the Ii clan's and Motome's fault equally for him not explaining that he needed to check up on his deathly ill wife and son, and he was trying to scam money out of the clan in order to pay a doctor who could save them. This might've delayed Motome's harakiri and removed Hanshiro's motivation to exact vengeance on the Ii clan, and possibly saved Miho and Kingo, too. Of course, the Ii’s clan lack of reaction to learning the truth demonstrates that even if Motome explained the situation, the clan would never accept it and persist in forcing Harakiri.
  • Rōnin: Hanshiro and Motome, without a trace of the usual romanticism associated with the concept. For these samurai, having no master means having no food, no medicine, and no future.
  • Seppuku: The whole movie is about the culture around this quintissentially Japanese form of ritual suicide, and explores the social injustices and hypocritical norms that make it necessary in the first place.
    • Hikokuro discusses the history of the ritual in some detail at the ceremony for Motome, describing how in days of old the second would only chop off the suicide's head to spare him further pain after he had made the crosswise cuts in his abdomen, but how in the current era it is common for them to strike off the head as soon as the suicide reaches for the knife, or even to replace the knife with a fan. He says this debased form doesn't deserve the name of hara kiri, and that he will not cut off Motome's head until he's seen him cut his stomach open properly.
    • Hanshiro's friend, Jinai Chijiiwa, kills himself in order to accompany their master in death after he also kills himself.
    • Hanshiro, after being backed into a corner and throwing the red armor to the ground, runs himself through the stomach and begins to drag it from left to right as the bullets finish him off.
  • Signature Move: Hanshiro's special stance, in which he holds his sword in one hand while crossing his arms in front of him.
  • Smug Snake: Hayato and Umenosuke are very smug and mocking when they return Motome's body to his family, feeling he got what he deserved for dishonoring himself so badly. When actually forced to fight for their own honor against Hanshiro, they're all but wetting themselves in terror, and when defeated they lie and pretend to be ill rather than live up to the standards of honor they were so quick to impose on others.
  • Take That!: Kobayashi was a pacifist forced to serve in the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. His contempt for the Bushido code the Japanese army claimed to believe in, and the hypocrisy of the men who espoused it, very heavily influences the film's plot.
  • The Ugly Guy's Hot Daughter: When he entreats Motome to marry his daughter, Miho, Hanshiro self-deprecatingly says that Miho looks more like her late mother all the time, and that surely she wouldn't have been such a beauty if she'd taken after her father.
  • Villain Has a Point: Even Hanshiro admits that Motome shamed himself by using harakiri in a ploy for charity from the Ii without actually being willing to follow through. Hanshiro just takes issue with the cruelty of their punishment and with their hypocrisy, since the Ii also are selective in their adherence to bushido.
  • Villain Respect: Early on, Saito begins to admire and respect the sincerity of Hanshiro’s commitment to harakiri, offering him several chances to rest inside and indulging in his storytelling. This rapidly vanishes once he realizes Hanshiro’s true intentions.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Saito has one after Hanshiro has finally been put down, angrily chewing out his advisor for failing to ensure that the two remaining retainers who had feigned illness to hide their lost topknots have committed seppuku.
  • What You Are in the Dark: The Ii clan has multiple opportunities to demonstrate true honor or compassion. And they fail each and every single one of Hanshiro’s tests, from failing to commit harakiri after losing their topknots, to refusing to admit wrongdoing and provide Hanshiro with an apology to offer the deceased Motome, and finally to covering up their failures to maintain their own reputation. By the film’s end, the clan is keenly aware of their own hypocrisy and are forced to live with that shame for the rest of their lives.
  • Wooden Katanas Are Even Better:
    • Horrifyingly Inverted when the Ii force Motome to cut into his stomach using the dull, flimsy bamboo blades he substituted for the ones he pawned.
    • Not just played straight, but exaggerated in the remake, when Hanshiro fights his way through the estate using the same kind of flimsy blade—which isn't even a proper 'wooden katana'—against his opponents' steel.
  • Written by the Winners: The sad thing about the ending is that the truth about Hanshiro's deeds will be lost to history because the only account will be written by his enemies. Though one of the laborers tasked with cleaning up the bloody mess takes one of the labeled topknots, implying the truth might still get out.