#10. Harakiri (1962)
Directed by: Masaki Kobayashi
Written by: Shinobu Hashimoto, Yasuhiko Takiguchi
Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai, Rentaro Mikuni, Shima Iwashita, Akira Ishihama
The Japanese samurai film is one of my all-time favorites because of how varied and diverse the genre is. Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 film Harakiri is one of the most unique I’ve seen to date, telling an intricate and tragic story, but delivering visceral action scenes and presenting a twist that rivals those found in modern blockbusters. Harakiri follows disgraced ronin Tsugumo Hanshiro (Tatsuya Nakadai) as he arrives at the gates of the Li Clan estate, where he wishes to commit ritual suicide. After being told a tale of a young ronin in a similar situation who was forced into suicide by the Li Clan, Hanshiro is granted his wish. Before he can go through with the ritual, he tells the Li Clan officials that he must first tell them the story of how he came to be in such a disparate situation. From there, the story takes a drastic and surprising turn that must be experienced firsthand – no writeup can possibly do it justice. Kobayashi’s film is one of the most thrilling and unexpectedly great films I’ve ever seen – going into it with absolutely no preconceived notions only added to my overall enjoyment. The tone and mood of the film is solemn and mysterious from the start – only ramping up in its urgency after the story of the first disgraced samurai Chijiiwa Motome is told. Motome’s story is both pathetic and heartbreaking, and it completely works to flip the perceptions of the Li Clan in the eyes of the viewer. Writers Shinobu Hashimoto and Yasuhiko Takiguchi tackle daunting themes about the inherent hypocrisy of the samurai way of life, and criticize the entire idea of seppuku. The dramatic nature of Harakiri’s story and compelling period setting would have been wasted on cheap melodrama in the hands of a lesser director, but Kobayashi elevates the material and turns it into a poignant, exciting, detail-oriented samurai film that also happens to have a great deal of drama at its core. Kobayashi directs the entire cast to stoic, intense performances that work to make samurai films so much fun – Tatsuya Nakadai’s performance being the most notable. Nakadai’s turn begins as an ashamed ronin who has lost his master and sees no way out besides committing suicide, and ends as a vengeful, violent spirit of a man who has nothing to lose. Ultimately, Harakiri is a truly difficult film to write about without giving away the intricate and thrilling details that push the story forward. It’s a meditative, intense, and emotionally moving film about revenge, hypocrisy, and honor, and stands as one of the greatest samurai films ever made.