Samurai are often exploited by filmmakers to deliver grand sensationalism that would provide a wondrous escape of present reality to a time where such great and discipline figures exist, although some of its stories carried on a profound message that is able to resonate to its contemporary audience, the first attribute that still comes to mind is the spectacle and artistic skill of it all, the depiction of a once respected profession, performing his duties that serves an individual’s personal greed or for the dignity of others.
Films like Seven Samurai have resonated over time and attained such a valuable status in cinematic history due to the sensationalist direction of it all, Akira Kurosawa allowing seven individuals to be represented with a larger than life persona that correlates with the environment and narrative’s grand design, highlighting its innovation and sense of stimulation in the moments of confrontation that envelopes its audience in the spectacle and tension; an approach that appeals to the more visceral nerves of the individual, a pinnacle to the ability of cinema to induce escapism.
Masaki Kobayashi has taken upon himself to penetrate the concept of a Samurai, set upon conditions that places their existence as obsolete — or at the very least in the process of being — as peace has now filled the Japanese towns, with no war to be foreseen in the horizon; thus placing such swordsmen into great desperation. Taking upon themselves to request entry of local clan houses, in order to perform an honourable death, Harakiri, a self sacrifice that would end their wandering suffering of starvation and aimlessness. What was once an honourable act has turned into a pitiful trend that allows hope for desperate men to secure employment, one by the time we enter upon the film, has reached its limit and has taken great measures to act upon such circumstances; allowing these desperate Samurais to complete their upon their request, to die “honourably” with a spectating audience.
This was a circumstance that fell upon the young Motome Chijiiwa, who has hoped to earn a reward for displaying such brave qualities, only to insult them after revealing the falsity of his integrity, a man who has entered upon their residence with a sword constructed out of Bamboo, a weapon that was laid in front of him to use in taking his life. It is here that Kobayashi emphasise greatly on the weight of respect and honour, how one man’s word means more to another than anything else.
Motome’s fate was a tale told upon in a flashback after the arrival of another Samurai with a similar request, a much older and disciplined man by the name of Hanshiro Tsugomo, whom even upon hearing the story, is persistent in proceeding with the task. In the length of his stay, we find him slowly revealing his true intentions of his arrival, creating upon curiosity when he requested for his “second” — a term that refers to the individual assisting in the death of the performer — are those who were personally involved in Motome’s harsh fate. Told upon flashback, Hanshiro’s past life is revealed and bit by bit we begin to understand the pure intention of his visit. It is through this that Kobayashi not only penetrate the character, but provides a profound exploratory glimpse in the struggles that he and his family had to endure, how the calmness of their society have forced them to take upon medial employment that less often provides enough to fill the mouths of an entire family.
It was here that we find the connection between Hanshiro and Motome, and the befalling of illness upon their family that would lead Hanshiro to be a vengeful loner; a man attempting to make sense of the world that surround him and attempts to find direction, one that has ultimately lead him to the doorsteps of the Iyi clan with such a familiar request. Kobayashi establishes empathy through the melodramatic qualities of the character’s circumstance, engaging us with the purer human qualities of a Samurai rather than the code and skill that they are commonly defined with; and in its latter portions, we find Hanshiro question the ethics and integrity of such a code, labelling it as a facade, which by its end is truly justified. It forces us to expand our views upon such great figures, attempted in a contemplative manner that ensures to not intrude upon the dramatic core of its narrative.
Harakiri eventually finds itself in a typical showdown between Hanshiro and the many guards of the Iyi clan, but it never for a moment glorifies its central character to such extreme heights that the concept of vengeance and redemption is inevitable; one can see Hanshiro fighting for his life, pulsated ragingly only by the aching tragedies of his past, to instil a sense of justice for the cruel ways of the clan’s actions. The act seems more sorrowful rather than sensational, the audience doesn’t feel gripped by the massacre that is about to unfold, but instead instilled with fear and anxiety towards the fate of its protagonist, a redeeming act that is truly earned but only to be buried by the encapsulating walls of the Iyi compound, for which they were commended for by their Shogun.
Kobayashi provides his audience in a finale that truly feels like a bamboo sword to the gut, one that is far from glorious but inherently tragic and mournful; emphasised earlier through his deep exploration of the physical struggles of a masterless Ronin, an outlook into the profession that is rarely shared or is sharply stabbed by other films of its kind.