Hara-Kiri (Masaki Kobayashi, 1962)

Suicide is a tragedy in America, a deeply disturbing act that elicits responses of regret and anger. Why did he/she commit suicide? What thoughts, actions, events forced them to such a hopeless and dreadful ending? Suicide is about the psychology of a person, and in American society, more than not, about the neglect of society towards an individuals demons.

So it is not implausible to say that the ancient Japanese tradition of hara-kiri, or it’s much more prestigious and formal synonym seppuku, practiced for hundreds of years by samurai warriors, will be looked upon by Americans as a barbaric and inhumane, possibly insane ritual and tradition. But suicide is essentially, “the way of the samurai”. A proper way to die, honorably, by ones own brave volition. Or is it? As a background, I should mention the ritual of hara-kiri or seppuku is that a samurai is dressed in all white, kneels down on a white mat and using his own sword, disembowels himself by slicing open his stomach, once horizontally, and then, vertically. Now, he doesn’t have to handle this pain for long because before he even commits the act, he must elect a “second”, another samurai who, immediately after the vertical disembowelment, swiftly slices off the head of the kneeling samurai, thus sending his spirit to return to the natural world.

Masaki Kobayashi’s deeply insightful, heartbreaking, and overall brilliant film Hara-kiri, is an examination of the tradition of the samurai, and in that, it also reveals the dichotomy between tradition, belief, and that so awful word everyone wants to avoid dealing with… reality. The film begins with a lone samurai named Hanshiro Tsugumo, down on his luck, and with nothing left to live for (after all, he is a warrior, and these are times of peace and harmony in Japan), arriving at the doorstep of the Iyi clan’s house, willing to perform ritual suicide in their courtyard. However, when meeting with the house’s counselor (who is formally titled kokaro), Hanshiro hears that many down-trodden samurai have come to their doorstep pretending to want to commit suicide, but only so that they can make the house feel sorry for them and give them money. This type of trickery and mocking of emotions is of course shameful in the samurai culture… a samurai is a man of determination, of honor. When he says he wants to commit seppuku, he should damn well mean it. Kokaro tells a particular tragic story of a young samurai who came in intending to play to the counselor’s emotions.

These dialogues, stories, and battle of morals occur throughout the film… Hanshiro himself recalls his past and the events leading up to his own decision to commit honorary suicide. Kobayashi the director, questions the morals of the “samurai code”. Is it a farce? A hoax? Does it have no sympathy, does it never waver in its conviction? The narrative plays devils advocate with these themes, represented through the conversations between Hanshiro and the Kokaro. Even in the film’s title and synonyms itself, Kobayashi displays both a respect and a disdain for the suicide ritual (the original Japanese name of the film is Seppuku, the formal and prestigious title, but also referred now formally as Hara-kiri, the crude, cruel, and violent name for the act). We battle in our minds throughout the film, what culture really means, and is ‘tradition’ enough of a reason to maintain the status quo of a society?

When does tradition become outdated, or does it ever? Yes, the idea of honorable suicide is embeded in Japan’s history and while we don’t have such a tradition in America, suicide here is nontheless a matter of culture… a culture of neglect. If someone is depressed we just tell them to ‘cheer up’, if they’re mopey, we tell them to get a grip. It is embedded in American DNA to press on and move forward, and we expect everyone to do it just as easily as we do. In the end the argument does boil down to the dichotomy of tradition/belief vs reality. Can we learn to get rid of our perceptions for the betterment of other people?

Kobayashi’s Hara-kiri is important even today when we consider these arguments, and in its conclusion and ending (which you need to watch to truly grasp and I implore you to do so), shows us how much of a double-edged sword the argument really is, and how unforgiving its outcomes can sometimes play out.



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