The verbal duelling is as hard-hitting as the climactic battle in this exquisite 1963 samurai tale.
The year is 1630, three decades after the battle of Sekigahara has ended the Civil War between Japan's different feudal Clans, paving the way for an era of prolonged peace under the Tokugawa Shogunate. But this peace comes at a price. Many of the old Clans have been dissolved, leaving thousands of samurai retainers masterless and unemployed.
At the beginning of Kobayashi Masaki's Harakiri (or, as it was originally called, Seppuku), one such ronin arrives at the mansion of the still-thriving Iyi Clan with a desperate request.
This is the aging and impoverished Tsugumo Hanshiro (played by Kobayashi regular Nakadai Tatsuya) of the erstwhile Fukushima Clan in Hiroshima, and he seeks formal permission to redeem his lost honour through an act of ritual disembowelment (or harakiri) in the Iyi forecourt.
"Oh no – not again," is the weary response of the Iyi Clan's senior counsellor Saito Kageyu (Mikuni Rentaro) when informed of Tsugumo's request – and sure enough, much as Tsugumo is shown standing before a large doorway which frames a second door which in turn frames a third, here the narrative itself is constructed as an echoing edifice of stories within stories.
It hardly comes as a surprise that the screenplay was written by Hashimoto Shinobu, who also penned Kurosawa's masterpiece of narrative modernism Rashomon (1950) as well as the classic Seven Samurai (1954). Here, too, swords will eventually cross – but not before there has been an equally thrilling clash of words.
In an attempt to dissuade Tsugumo, Saito tells him a cautionary tale of another Fukushima ronin, Chijiiwa Motome (Ishihama Akira), who had come not long ago to the Iyi gates with a similar request. Convinced that Chijiiwa was really just an extortionist who, if paid off, would soon be followed by countless others, Saito and his council decided not only to call, but also to force, the young ronin's bluff, making him carry out his stated intentions, and even cruelly insisting that he use only the blunt bamboo 'swords' that he had brought with him.
"You are an example for all samurai," Saito declares to Chijiiwa with grim irony, "a true warrior." Now, sure enough, Chijiiwa's painful, sadistic and unseemly end serves as a warning to ronin like Tsugumo that the samurai code of honour is taken very seriously in the Iyi house.
Undeterred by this tale, Tsugumo remains determined to go through with his ritual suicide, but first, kneeling before the assembled Iyi retainers in the courtyard, he tells his own tale – a tale of fluctuating fortunes and family tragedy that exposes the Iyi's much-vaunted bushido code, their reputation, and their sense of honour and entitlement, as an empty façade, stripped of all humanity. Soon the best of the Iyi will find themselves outwitted, outclassed and outfought by a mere 'half-starved ronin' who knew Chijiiwa very well and is now on a righteous path of vengeance.
Set in one postwar period and made in another, Harakiri shows how quickly the values of the past can be eroded as the official version of history becomes a hypocritical story only half-told. It also celebrates the unsung heroism of marginalised outsiders, whether (like Chijiiwa) compromising all else for what they truly value, or (like Tsugumo) clinging fast to out-moded principles even at the cost of their own lives.
It offers a harsh, ultimately cynical account of Japan's fallen glory and forgotten casualties (note that both Chijiiwa and Tsugumo hail from Hiroshima), as well as a barely veiled attack on the hierarchical power of Japan's emerging corporations.
Yet even if Kobayashi's first period film is an exemplary tale speaking as much to our own times as to Japan's feudal era, it is also a ripping yarn, keeping the viewer gripped with its jigsaw structure and intense performances. Tsugumo may long delay the unsheathing of his sword, but he is engaged in a verbal duel with Saito from the start that is, in its shifting dialectic of life-or-death morality, every bit as mesmerising as any blood-letting to come.
Meanwhile, although the Iyi household's veneer of respectability and refinement is captured in the elegantly staid cinematography of Kobayashi's regular DP Miyajima Yoshio, it is also constantly undermined by the discordancy of Takemitsu Toru's biwa-based score.
As Tsugumi enters the Iyi mansion intent on tearing down the Clan's (and the nation's) heavily codified structures and laying bare the underlying rot, be prepared to see the hypocrisy and barbarism of Japan's traditional values thoroughly eviscerated – if perhaps less graphically than in Takashi Miike's 2011 remake Ichimei (in 3D!).
From the director of The Human Condition trilogy and Kwaidan...
The verbal duelling is as hard-hitting as the climactic battle.
Though exquisitely mounted and framed, this is a wilfully unpretty picture of codified hypocrisy and compassionless privilege.