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Film around the world: Japan’s Harakiri

It is not The Godfather or The Shawshank Redemption or any Hollywood epic that is the highest rated film on the app ‘Letterboxd’ (a popular film social media app). Instead, it is Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 samurai film Harakiri that around 100,000 critics and users have judged to be the best film ever made. There are problematic aspects of ranking one piece of art against another. Yet, as humans, we like statistics that help us quantify things. As Harakiri is so highly rated, I wanted to investigate what made it so special. 

The first and only hurdle was actually finding somewhere to watch the film. It is very difficult to find. Amazon has some DVDs for sale, but the film is unavailable on any streaming platform. Luckily, over the vacation I managed to find a cinema showing it in London. Harakiri is part of the Japanese golden age of cinema. This includes realist classics like Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story and samurai epics like Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Harakiri brilliantly combines both genres to create an unromanticised samurai film that depicts the poverty and desperation of the lives of masterless Samurais, also known as ronins.

The film starts with Tsugumo Hanshiro, a middle aged and jobless ronin, arriving at the estate of the Iyi clan. Tsugumo asks to commit harakiri – ritual suicide through disembowelment – on the clan’s estate. Before agreeing to his request, the clan elder tells him the story of the last samurai, Chijiwa Motome, who requested to do the same. The film is told through a series of flashbacks about the life of Chijiwa. Initially, I thought the film would just focus on Chijiwa’s story, but what followed was better than I could have imagined. Without spoiling it, the film also explores Tsugumo’s past and critiques the Bushido Code. The Bushido Code was a code of conduct for samurais that prized bravery and honour whilst disdaining dishonour and defeat. These principles of valour remained ingrained in Japanese military culture until after the second world war. 

All I can say is that the film lives up to its acclaim. The cinematography is phenomenal. It successfully brings to life exciting action scenes, heartfelt moments, and artistic natural shots. This is accentuated by the acting. Like in a lot of classic Japanese cinema, significant emphasis is placed on close ups which draw attention acting grounded in the expressiveness of faces and eyes. The score is brilliantly menacing. Simply rewatching the trailer sends chills down my spine. This is not a short film, but it does not feel as long as it is. The ending may be slightly drawn out but it serves to heighten Kobayashi’s storytelling. 

Kobayashi’s excellent direction perfectly captures the subjectivity of flashbacks and the re-telling of events. The audience is initially ignorant, adopting the clan’s view of Chijiwa as cowardly. However, the flashbacks are presenting  the clan’s version of the story, not Chijiwa’s. It is only later in the film, when Kobayashi reveals other flashbacks featuring Chijiwa, that we understand and sympathise with him. Yet by the end it is the clan who write and rewrite history. They have the power to sweep over any imperfections. This is epitomised by the film beginning and ending in the same way: with a shot of the beautiful but haunting armour of the Iyi clan’s ancestor. It is not Chijiwa who is the coward, but rather the clan. We, the audience, know the real story. But do the history books?

The film presents a society that is cruel to the individual, prizing elitist social convention above humanity. Honour is of greater value than life itself. Through depicting the hypocrisy of the Iyi clan Kobayashi invites the audience to question the narrative status quo. The filmmaker was a pacifist. This is reflected in his critical portrayal of the Iyi clan. Despite being set in the Japanese Edo period; the film is relevant to modern life. It questions the historical narrative and challenges traditional value systems like the Bushido Code. They should not have had a fraction of the importance they did when they were invented –  so why are they still preserved? 

I recommend this film without hesitation, no one could ever replicate Kobayashi’s masterful storytelling.

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