Hara-kiri is a samurai film primarily concerned with the lengths a man will go to fulfil their vows according to the warrior’s honourable code of bushido. The film is a humanistic one, as it problematises the relative importance of time-honoured tradition versus human values like compassion. It is a film where you also have to keep in mind the importance of reputation, and saving face, in Japanese culture.
The year is 1630, and an old rundown ronin, Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai) has come to the mansion of the prosperous clan Li, requesting a place on the grounds in which to commit ritual suicide, or hara-kiri (AKA seppuku). He explains that he is a former loyal samurai of the house Geishu, which Japan’s ruling Tokugawa Shogunate abolished some years beforehand. Since then, his fighting skills unemployable in peacetime, he has become destitute. The head of the Li clan, Bennosuke, grants the samurai his wish to carry out hara-kiri, but firstly Hanshiro tells a tale in flashback that has massive repercussions for the Li clan.
Nakadai, who was in Yojimbo and Goyokin, is the star of Hara-Kiri as the noble Hanshiro. When he explains his request, Bennosuke tells him “your grim determination is awe-inspiring”. Bennosuke asks Hanshiro if he knows of another former samurai of his house who had also come to commit hara-kiri on their grounds, a young man named Motome Chijiwa (Akira Ishihama). Hanshiro claims he doesn’t, and Bennosuke proceeds to explain that many poor former samurai have turned to extorting the remaining prosperous houses by threatening to commit suicide on their grounds unless they are paid off. Cleaning up the mess alone is deemed a worthy reason to pay the samurai, even if they only offer them a pittance.
It turns out that the young man Chijiwa had come to the house of Li as he was in a truly desperate state. Chijiwa was so poor that he only had a bamboo sword and knife. “No half measures for us!” says Bennosuke, explaining that if someone comes to their clan threatening seppuku they make them carry it out. Bennosuke and his men forced the young Chijiwa to carry out his suicide, the Li clan men claiming to uphold the samurai traditions as formally as possible. In flashback, young Chijiwa requests a few days leave to put his affairs in order, but this is not granted. “To plead for days of grace – the sign of a true coward!” yells Bennosuke.
The scene where Chijiwa is forced to commit hara-kiri with his bamboo knife is possibly the most shocking thing I have seen in an old black and white film. The ritual is presented in vivid and gory detail. A Second, who is basically a headsman, stands there ready to behead the person performing the ritual, once he (the Second) is satisfied that the bowels have been opened with the blade, as per tradition. The bamboo knife is too blunt to puncture Chijiwa’s abdomen, so the young man impales himself on it to start the ritual. Blood spews out onto the mat on which he sits, cross-legged. Then he tries to saw away with the bamboo knife to split open his sides, but the bluntness of the knife means he can’t do it. A normal knife would allow him to quickly perform the necessary cuts to open his bowel and then the Second could finish the job quickly by beheading him. This would minimise the pain suffered by the person performing the ritual. Young Chijiwa pleads to be beheaded, and we see his sweaty, pained expressions in extreme close-ups of his face, but the Li clan Second Omodaka (Tetsurô Tanba, from Goyokin and You Only Live Twice) tells him he must finish the ritual with his bamboo knife. With no other option, the young man bites his tongue and swallows it. Blood pours down out of his mouth, and Omodaka finally performs the beheading (thankfully off-screen).
Back in the present day, sitting on the same mat in front of an audience of Li clan samurai, Hanshiro reassures Bennosuke that he has come with real blades to commit suicide. As he is not a prisoner and is voluntarily offering to perform the exalted samurai ritual, Hanshiro is allowed to choose his own Second from the Li clan. He then drops the bomb that Motome Chijiwa was actually “a lad of some slight acquaintance”, and tells the court his life story while awaiting the appearance of the Second of his choice. Hanshiro had a daughter he was raising in peacetime alongside another widower, Jinnai (Yoshio Inaba), who was the father of young Chijiwa. In detail, Hanshiro explains the story of how his own Geishu clan was abolished as a warning to the Li clan. He implies the need for compassion and empathy, as such similar misfortune could strike any samurai.
His friend Jinnai committed hara-kiri upon hearing the news of his clan’s abolition, as a mark of respect and obligation to his lord and clan. In a death note to Hanshiro, he said of his 15-year-old son “I beg for him your future guidance”.
Hanshiro married the boy to his daughter Miho when she turned 18. Miho worked making fans and umbrellas, while Motome tutored local school children to make a living. They had a son, Kingo, for whom Hanshiro enjoyed being grandfather. Over time, a life of “drudgery” didn’t suit Miho’s frail body, and when Kingo developed a fever they were too poor to call a doctor. Motome left the house with a plan to loan some money, asking his father-in-law to look after Kingo, as Miho was bed ridden and couldn’t really help. “Each hour seemed as long as an autumn day”, said Hanshiro about the wait for Motome’s return.
Shockingly, the house Li members appear with Motome’s body and say that he will serve as a good example to other houses and ex-warriors trying to “extort a pittance by threatening hara-kiri”. The Li clan men clearly are blinded by a class-based bias, and cannot empathise with the plight of these poor former samurai. One man laughs about the “hapless youth’s” use of a bamboo blade, reminding us that a real samurai uses steel. This drives home the indignity and horror of what the young man went through in death. Motome had been forced to sell his swords, so desperate for money as he was. Pathos is built up strongly in these scenes: Miho’s wail when she hugs her husband’s body is potent, feels genuine, and tugs at the heartstrings of the audience.
Back at the Li house in the present day, all three men Hanshiro has requested to act as his Second have come down with mysterious ailments, and cannot be summoned. “How odd indeed!” says Hanshiro, before laughing loudly. The three men all played a part in the painful forced suicide of Motome, and Bennosuke knows this, questioning the intentions of Hanshiro. “If I were a common extortioner, would I be sitting here so placidly?” asks the noble samurai. Replies Bennosuke: “Hara-kiri was not your intention, insolent dog!” Hanshiro is set upon by Bennosuke’s men, but talks them down. He asks that they hear his story, and then he will kill himself, “But for now I entreat you to hear me out until the end”.
They allow him to proceed, and he explains that only a few days after Motome’s death, without medicine young Kingo died, and then his mother followed him soon after. Regarding the question of why Hanshiro didn’t sell his swords to fund the purchase of medicine, he said angrily that “In my ignorance, I clung to these useless symbols” – meaning the iconic weapons of the samurai. After telling his tale, Hanshiro says that on reflection, though it is wrong for a samurai to extort money by threatening to kill himself on their premises, the Li clan were wrong to not let Motome have his wish of a few days’ grace to sort his affairs. In that time he could have at least said goodbye to his family. The clan’s lack of compassion is what has motivated Hanshiro to present himself to them.
Hanshiro believes now that the samurai code’s strict guidelines about honour and reputation are ultimately worthless, as “a samurai cannot live on dignity alone”. Therefore to Hanshiro, Motome was heroic in trying to stand up for his family. Hanshiro admits wants the Li clan to admit they were wrong with the way they treated Motome, as that would somehow restore some honour to the boy’s name. He explains how he actually defeated the three greatest warriors of the clan, and that is why they are absent and cannot act as his Second. In flashback we see the battles, and Hanshiro defeats each one, but spares their lives, instead just cutting off their pony-tails or ‘top-knots’. “To lose one’s top-knot is equivalent to losing one’s head” it is explained. Hanshiro understands, of course, that by attacking the honour of the Li clan he has done more damage than actually just killing the men out of revenge for Motome and his family.
Hanshiro is set upon by the full force of the Li clan, perhaps 50 men, and he slays four men and seriously wounds another eight before they finally bring him down. Interestingly, though he has disavowed the symbols of the samurai code, while dying Hanshiro is drawn to a suit of armour on display in the Li armoury, and drapes himself over it. Riflemen – symbolising the end of the samurai era – finally come to finish him off, but just before they do Hanshiro plunges a sword into his belly to commit hara-kiri, as he swore he would.
Afterwards, Bennosuke tries to fabricate history, by saying that Hanshiro committed hara-kiri while his own men suffered from a mystery illness. He doesn’t want anyone to know that his men were defeated at the hands of the impoverished ex-warrior, as this would be shameful. Of the three main culprits in allowing young Motome to commit seppuku with the bamboo blade, it turns out that one committed suicide because of the shame of having his top-knot cut off. The other two men still feign illness, and they are ordered to kill themselves by their lord, but in case they aren’t brave enough, skilled men from the clan are sent to see it is done. “Should they refuse, they are to be slain on the spot!” Hanshiro has had the last laugh by avenging his son-in-law’s painful death by testing how far the Li clan would truly honour the samurai code. Bennosuke avoids looking like a hypocrite by making his own men commit hara-kiri, but knows that his clan’s inflexible commitment to the bushido code has backfired.
At the end of Hara-Kiri, voice-over narration claims that in the annals of the house of Li, the two instances of hara-kiri by the ex-warriors of Geishu house served to enhance the honour of the Li clan. This was probably because of their generosity in allowing the samurai ritual to take place on the premises. The ending has a satisfying irony, as Hanshiro and Motome’s “noble” deaths are written into the official history of clan Li in place of the clan’s once-exalted warriors. Their lives will be forgotten in time, while Hanshiro and Motome’s live on.
Hara-Kiri screened as part of ACMI’s Samurai Cinema program.
 The Tokugawa Shogunate mistook repairs to a castle to be a threat to its power, and decided to abolish the Geishu clan as a result. Now masterless, 12,000 loyal retainers became instantly unemployed.