Harakiri (1962)




Director:     Masaki Kobayashi.

Starring:     Tatsuya Nakadai (Hanshiro Tsugumo), Rentaro Mikuni (Kageyu Saito), Shima Iwashita (Miho Tsugumo), Akira Ishihama (Motome Chijiiwa).

 Japanese period film dealing with the plight of the poor end of the samurai spectrum and much more, 1630.



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie.

1630, May 13.  Entry in the Iyi Clan journal by the Counselor.  Fair Skies. Master Bennosuke (son of Lord Doi) pays a visit to the Kandabashi mansion of the Honorable Lord Doi.  No other official business. 

Hanshiro Tsugumo, former retainer of the Fukushima Clan in Hiroshima, appears at the Ivy Clan gate.  He tells his story.  His master's house fell in 1619.  So he came to Edo (the future Tokyo).  He has been living in a back ally tenement and he can endure it no further.  He asks permission to use their forecourt to commit ritual suicide. 

The Counselor is informed about Hanshiro.  The Counselor says "Not again."  Hanshiro enters to tell his tale once more.  His master was Lord Masnori Fukushima of Hiroshima.  The Counselor introduces himself as Kageyu Saito, senior counselor of the House of Iyi.  The Counselor is skeptical about Hanshiro's motives.  He asks him if he knows a young man named Motome Chijiiwa.  Hanshiro says there were 12,000 retainers and he certainly can not know everyone of them.  The Counselor wants to tell Hanshiro the story of Motome. 

Flashback.  Yazaki tells the Counselor to blame it on what the Sengoku Clan did.  They took in the ronin (i.e., unemployed samurai) as a back-room retainer.  So with Motome, they should give him a little money and ask him to leave.  Ever since the Battle of Sekigahara, this has been an increasing problem. 

Umenosuke Kawabe, member of Lord Lyi's mounted guard, talks with Motome.  The Lord's son, Bennosuke, gives Motome harakiri robes.  Motome is shocked.  The young man asks:  "Where's my audience with Bennosuke?"  That will not be granted.  (It seems obvious that the young man does not want to commit suicide.)

Back to the present.  What do you think? asks the Counselor.  Hanshiro tells him not to worry.  He will go through with the ritual suicide. 

Flashback.  Motome asks for a brief respite of a day or so.  The respite is denied.  Then a group of samurai appear to insure that Motome does not run away.  Master swordsman Hayato Yazaki is the main samurai who has the responsibility of stopping any Motome escape.  They do this, says the Counselor, for the honor of the house, as well as that of the Tokugawa family and of the samurai code itself.  Motome has to proceed to the forecourt for the suicide ceremony.  The samurai find out that Motome has very cheap swords.  (Actually they are fake swords, made out of bamboo.)  And yet still they go on with the ceremony.  Motome must cut himself across his belly from the left to the right and then make an up-and-down cut from the top of the belly to the bottom.  Then and only then, will the second cut off his head.  They demand that Motome use his own short sword for the act.  But the knife is way too dull to do a clean cut.  He repeatedly tries to penetrate his skin, but cannot.  He finally places the base of the sword on the floor and throws his belly onto it.  It makes a cut and blood starts coming out.  Motome asks to have his head cut off, but the second refuses.  Motome must finish the traditional cuts before his head can be cut off.  The poor guy suffers greatly trying to pull an embedded bamboo stick across his belly.  The samurai are disappointed when Motome bites off his own tongue (probably from the pain and effort to cut himself). 

Back to the present. The Counselor asks:  "Who in his right mind attempts harakiri with just a bamboo sword?"  He then tells Hanshiro that he may quietly take his leave.  But again, Hanshiro tells him not to worry.  He is given the harakiri robes, but he rejects them.  He says that for a miserable ronin like himself the robes are too good for him. 

The harakiri ceremony is set up.  The second for Hanshiro will be Ichiro Shinmen.  But Hanshiro says that he wants Master Hikokuro to be his second.  But the man is ill.  The Counselor sends a messenger to the man's house to tell him to come for the ceremony.  Hanshiro takes advantage of the lull to suggest that while they wait he will tell them a little about himself.  Now he says he did know Motome Chijiiwa.

Flashback.  He knew Motome as a lad of 15 years of age.  Motome's father was Jinnai.  And there was his daughter Miho, 11 years of age.  This was 11 years ago.  June 1619 his master was ordered into exile at Kawanakajima.  This created 12,000 ronin.  Jinnai committed harakiri.  His last request was for Hanshiro to take care of Motome. 

Back to the present.  The messenger returns to say that Master Hikokuro has a severe illness with a high fever and severe pain in his joints.  So Hanshiro asks for Master Hayato Yazaki.  But he is also absent.  So now Hanshiro picks Master Umenosuke Kawabe as the second.  This causes the Counselor to retreat into the building.  He says to his staff that Hanshiro is up to something.  He doesn't know exactly what it is, but he's up to something.  All three men mentioned as possible seconds had something critical to do with the death of Motome.  The Counselor will force Hanshiro's hand and make him commit harakiri.  He then asks Yazaki to find out exactly why all three possible seconds are ill-disposed.   

The Counselor returns to Hanshiro.  He tells him that since all three men are not accessible, he will have to accept the house's choice for second.  Ichiro Shinmen will be the second.  But Hanshiro says:  "I must protest!"  Then the Counselor responds:  "Are you deaf?"  He has already explained to the ronin that the three men are not accessible.  But Hanshiro is adamant and says:  "I must call off my harkiri for now."  This enrages the Counselor who tells him:  "You are a fraud; a disgrace to our class. . . . Insolent dog!"  Hanshiro, however, refuses to back down.  He says "Wait!"  He hasn't finished his story yet.  Besides, if they try to force him to finish the ceremony, some of the Counselor's own men might be hurt or killed undeservedly.  It would just be easier to let him finish his story.   The Counselor asks him to give his word that after he finishes his story, he will finish the ceremony.  Hanshiro gives his word.  Then the Counselor adds:  "Make it short."

Flashback.  Hanshiro moves to Edo where there are lots of ronin.  Miho became an 18 year old woman.  To make money she made fans, while dad made umbrellas.  The landlord comes to Hanshiro to ask about the rent.  Hanshiro asks for a delay.  Then the landlord asks why dad doesn't accept his offer.  Hanshiro says that his daughter would be sent to Lord Sakakiban as his concubine six months after being adopted by another family. 

Matome ekes out a living teaching Chinese classics to private students.  Hanshiro asks the young man to take Miho as his wife.  Matome says that he is too poor:  "How can I take a wife?"  But Hanshiro persists, because he knows Matome loves Miho.  The two young people marry.  After two years, Miho gives birth to a boy they name Kingo.  One day Hanshiro tells Matome the news about a ronin who tried harakiri at the Sengoku Clan's gate.  His name is Shume Ooi. Matome says that it's a shameful turn of events. 

Kingo is the center of family life in the house.  Miho starts coughing up blood.  Her frail body has been overworked.  Matome starts to panic.  He tries to get jobs not meant for samurai and is turned away.  Matome starts selling his items of value to a pawn shop.  Things get even worse.  Kingo comes down with a high fever.  Hanshiro wants to know why no doctor was called.  There just isn't enough money.  Hanshiro says to the little boy:  "There's nothing we can do, Kingo."  Miho cries.  Matome tells Hanshiro that he has to go out.  He has to go to the money lender who is famous for charging way too high interest.  The situation is so desperate that he feels he has to go.

Hanshiro wonders what is taking Matome so long to return.  He said he would be back by the evening.  But Matome never returned.  Then at 9 p.m. his dead body was brought home from the house of Iyi.  The Iyi spokesmen say that both parties (both Matome and they) acted in an exemplary manner.  They then show Hanshiro that both of Matome's blades were made of bamboo:  "No one must accuse us of having changed the blades."  Hanshiro says that surely Matome must have borrowed one of the Iyi swords.  No, is the answer.  The spokesmen mention that the whole thing was an unsightly affair.  The second has the nerve to laugh heartily.  They then leave the house. 

Hanshiro and Miho are in absolute shock.  She gets up and throws herself on top of the body of her husband, screams and then cries.  Miho weeps and weeps and weeps.  Hanshiro realizes that Matome sold his blades for Miho's sake.  He is amazed because Hanshiro himself would never have done such a thing.  It had never even occurred to him. 

Kingo dies two days later.  And five days after that Miho dies.  And Hanshiro finds himself all alone. 

Back to the present.  The counselor asks:  "Is that all?"  Hanshiro says that what Matome did was inexcusable. But the house of Iyi could have handled the situation in a much better way.  Matome had asked for a brief delay to tell his father-in-law, Miho and his baby good-bye.  A simple inquiry of the young man would have given them the reason he asked for the delay. But "not a single one of you had the consideration to ask."  The Counselor, however, just doesn't get it.  He says:  "Enough of your self-serving excuses."  Matome had reaped what he sowed. The man was a craven coward.  The Counselor adds that one might even say that Matome had gone mad. 

Hanshiro agrees with the Counselor's last statement.  With all the pressure and sadness bearing down on Matome, the young man went mad.  "Thanks to the Shogunate's ruthless policy of wiping out the provincial lords", many ronin were created.  The ronin were cast out to wander the depths of hell.   Then Hanshiro delivers his final word:  "After all, that which we call samurai honor is ultimately nothing but a facade."  This causes the Counselor to laugh.  He scoffs at Hanshiro for saying the honor code is just a facade.  And he says that what they did with Matome was the policy of the house of Iyi.  (Actually, the house didn't have any specific policy.  Things were worked out in an ad-hoc manner.)

Now it is Hanshiro's turn to laugh at them.  He tells the Counselor that he can hardly wait to die.  He adds that a single word of consolation from the house of Iyi would be something he could tell Matome to console his soul.  He then asks them to forgive him for his long winded tale. 

And now for the surprise.  The three who are unavailable to serve as his second are in this status because of what Hanshiro did to them.  He starts throwing out the top-knots of the three samurai.  No he did not kill them.  He just took their top-knots.  He then reminds the assembled samurai that to take a top-knot is a serious matter.  The loss of the top-knot can scarcely be atoned for even by death.  And yet the three would-be seconds hide and pretend they are sick.  It is indeed all a facade. 

The Counselor calls Hanshiro:  "Maniac!"  He then tells his samurai:  "Cut him down!"  And then follows a long scene of sword-fighting.  Hanshiro performs very well.  He is able to stop many of the samurai from killing him.  He then goes to the room where the ancestors of the house of Iyi are venerated.  He virtually commits a sacrilege by destroying the model of a samurai war lord in full regalia.  Finally, three samurai appear with rifles.  At this point, Hanshiro thrusts a sword into his belly.  Following this, the riflemen fire their weapons. 

The Counselor asks for the casualties.  Four dead and eight seriously wounded.  The Counselor says that all these men died or were victims of illness.  Yazaki returns to the Counselor with the news that one of the three would-be seconds committed harakiri.  This angers the Counselor and he asks why Yazaki didn't demand that the other two men also commit harikiri.  He tells Yazaki to take some samurai and return to the two men and demand that they commit ritual suicide.  If they don't, the samurai are to kill them.  All the dead died of illness.

The Counselor recounts that the news of the martial rigor of the house of Iyi went all around (the future) Japan.  In the Iyi journal for the date of May 16, he writes that Lord Doi praised his son for the handling of the two situations involving suicide and the forecourt. 


Terrific movie.  I have almost constantly reiterated the theme that the terrible wars between the numerous war lords in the future Japan created a culture that was cruel and inhumane.  This culture was continued even after Japan had become highly industrially developed.  And it was this culture that made it so easy for the Japanese in World War II to commit cruel and terrible atrocities against citizens and prisoners of war.  Japan had an almost maniacal culture that would and did lead to big trouble.  This movie takes the same stand.  The samurai and their code were so militant and unfeeling that the samurai would act dishonorably toward the ronin who were virtually begging for assistance.  The house of Iyi deliberately killed Matome.  It was plain from the virtual start that Matome did not want to kill himself (at least not at this time), but the house of Iyi forced him to kill himself.  They would not let him leave their house.  They even brought forward their master swordsman to insure that if Matome tried to leave he would be killed.  Then they even refused to let Matome kill himself with a real knife, not a bamboo one.  And after all this cruelty and callousness, the samurai still don't get it.  They are so blinded by their worship of themselves through their code of honor that they are no longer humane human beings.  They are monsters.  Killers.  Men with hearts so hard they readily ignore the suffering of others.  And this all became so apparent in the war crimes and atrocities committed by the Japanese in the 1930s and 1940s.  The Japanese had created a nation and a culture that was inhumane and that had to be destroyed by the use of monstrous force.  (To the Japanese credit, after the war there was a rejection of that samurai war nation and culture.)  (But I wonder if the old traditions still doesn't attract a lot of disturbed youths to commit terrible acts of aggression as we see in the movie about the life of Mishima.)

Yes, it was all a terrible, horrific facade.  And thanks to this movie, the world of film states clearly that the samurai code was inhumane.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:

Tokugawa period 1603-1868.

1543-1616  --   lifetime of Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate. 

1600  --  his victory over the western daimyo (warlords) at the Battle of Sekigahara gives him virtual control of all Japan.

1605-1623  --  reign of Tokugawa Hidetada (1579-1632), the third son of Tokugawa Ieyasu and the second shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty. 

1615  --  the Toyotomi stronghold at Osaka is destroyed by the the Tokugawa army.

1619  --  Ieyasu's granddaughter was made an imperial consort.  This was done to ensure close ties between the imperial clan and the Tokugawa family.

1616  --  foreign trade restricted to Nagasaki and Hirado, an island northwest of Kyūshū.

1616  --  Tokugawa Ieyasu dies.

1620  --  Imetzu quarrled with his lover, 21-year old Sakabe Gozaemon, a childhood friend and retainer, and murdered him.

1622  --  120 missionaries and converts were executed.

1623  --  Hidetada abdicated the post of shogun in favor of Tokugawa Iemitsu, but continued to rule as Ogosho (Retired Shogun).

1623-1651  --  reign of Tokugawa Iemitsu as the third shogun.

1626  --  in Kyoto Shogun Iemitsu and Retired Shogun Hidetada visit Emperor Go-Mizunoo along with Empress Masako (Hidetada's daughter and Iemitsu's sister) and Imperial Princess Meisho.

There was a desire to lessen the between the Emperor and religious circles.  In the Purple Clothes Incident Emperor Go-Mizunoo was accused of having bestowed the honorific purple garments on more than ten priests, in spite of the existence of a ban on this clothing for two years.  This led to a deterioration of the relationship between the Emperor and the Shogun. 

1633  -- the third shogun forbids travelling abroad and reading foreign books.

1624  --  the Spanish were expelled from Japan. 

1629  --  thousands of Christians were executed.

1635  --  with the Closed Country Edict the Japanese were prohibited from traveling outside Japan.  If any left Japan, they could not return. 

1636  --  the Dutch were restricted to Dejima (which was not true Japanese soil because it was an artificial island), located in Nagasaki's harbor.


Four classes of the society:

1)  the samurai on top (about 5% of the population) were on the first level;

2)  the peasants (more than 80% of the population) on the second level;

3)  the craftsmen were on the third level. 

4)  the merchants were on the fourth level.


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