The Dishonorable Poor: “Harakiri”

It’s 1630. A desperate, aging ronin arrives at the gates of a big estate and asks permission to commit harakiri in the courtyard. The estate’s counselor lets him in and tells him a story: the story of the last samurai who came there, not too long ago, with the same request.

This is the arresting opening to Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 Harakiri, a tense, tragic movie which includes the requisite crazy samurai fight scenes and discourses on the nature of bushido, but goes far beyond those elements in its depiction of poverty and the willingness of the rich to judge the choices of the poor. It seems that pretending to be about to commit seppuku has become a way for ronin to get employment: Impressed by their honor and resolve, or simply pitying them, the households they appeal to give them a place to stay and work. The Iyi Clan is disgusted by these cowardly freeloaders and decides to hold them to the strictest, cruelest standards. The plot and characterizations reminded me less of, say, Throne of Blood, and more of that Al-Jazeera piece about welfare fraud. There’s even a scene of huge crowds jostling for construction jobs, in case you were wondering about the story’s contemporary relevance.

The older ronin is played by Tatsuya Nakadai, who has a Christ or El Greco face and a truly sepulchral voice. There are a lot of close-ups of trembling, agonized or furious faces in this movie. The near-empty, symmetrical spaces of the estate allow for a lot of long shots with one or two figures centered–or, unnervingly, off-centered–in isolation. The backstory uncoils slowly as the horror of the situation is revealed.

I don’t remember why I put this in my Netflix queue, but it was a really stunning movie–a huge, tolling, unstoppable bell.

About Eve Tushnet

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