Japanese director Masaki Kobayashi came of age in the postwar moment, a time when filmmakers were at the vanguard of dissident expression in that country. Drawing upon a rich history of protest in Japanese cinema, which had fallen dormant during the war and occupation years, filmmakers seized the opportunity to challenge those institutions that remained wedded to the nation’s feudal past. Of this generation of directors, none was as passionate as Kobayashi. Every one of his films, from The Thick-Walled Room (1953) to the feature-length documentary Tokyo Trial (1983) to The Empty Table (1985), is marked by a defiance of tradition and authority, whether feudal or contemporary. Kobayashi found the present to be no more immune to the violation of personal freedoms than the pre-Meiji past, under official feudalism, had been. “In any era, I am critical of authoritarian power,” the filmmaker told me when I interviewed him in Tokyo, during the summer of 1972. “In The Human Condition [1959–61], it took the form of militaristic power; in Harakiri, it was feudalism. They pose the same moral conflict in terms of the struggle of the individual against society.”
Like other directors of this period—notably Akira Kurosawa—Kobayashi often expressed his political dissidence via the jidai-geki, or period film, in which the historical past becomes a surrogate for modern Japan. In Kobayashi’s hands, the jidai-geki exposed the historical roots of contemporary injustice. (Japanese audiences were well schooled in history and could be counted on to connect the critique of the past with abuses in the present.) Harakiri, made in 1962, was, in Kobayashi’s career, the apex of this practice. In the film’s condemnation of the Iyi clan, Kobayashi rejects the notion of individual submission to the group. He condemns, simultaneously, the hierarchical structures that pervaded Japanese political and social life in the 1950s and 1960s, especially the zaibatsus, the giant corporations that recapitulated feudalism.
Born in Hokkaido on February 14, 1916, and educated at the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo, Kobayashi joined the Shochiku Ofuna studio in 1941, as an assistant director. Eight months later, he was drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army. There, he resolutely rejected the opportunity to become an officer, insisting upon remaining at the rank of private. To suffer the misfortunes of the ordinary recruit at the hands of the military clique, to place himself in harm’s way without the prerogatives of the officer class—the class that had led Japan into the Pacific War—was Kobayashi’s means of protesting against the war itself. That war, Kobayashi has said simply, was “the culmination of human evil.”
After the war, Kobayashi returned to Shochiku Ofuna, where he assisted the great director Keisuke Kinoshita before graduating to directing in the early 1950s. His antiauthoritarian tendencies were immediately apparent in his work, inevitably provoking studio censorship. His first major film, The Thick-Walled Room, was shelved by Shochiku Ofuna for four years, as a result of its controversial suggestion that those responsible for Japanese wartime atrocities were not the minor, or B and C, war criminals but those at the top. Kobayashi had been indignant that, at the end of the war, soldiers and low-ranking officers were often punished cruelly, while many of those directly responsible for the crimes escaped censure.
It is surprising that a director like Kobayashi would ultimately flourish at Shochiku Ofuna, which was then specializing in sentimental domestic dramas of everyday life. Even the great directors working at the studio, Yasujiro Ozu and Kinoshita, fit the studio model. Ozu’s films may dramatize social change—none more than his masterpiece Tokyo Story—but his characters ultimately accept that they are powerless to alter their circumstances. In contrast, Kobayashi’s characters risk their very existence by coming into conflict with the forces of injustice. Indeed, the individual in his films best expresses himself when he risks everything, taking a stand against corruption, hypocrisy, and evil.
Harakiri opens in 1630, only three decades into the more than 250-year reign of the Tokugawa shogunate. The Tokugawa consolidation of power, following its victory in a civil war, has resulted in the destruction of many clans, depriving feudal daimyo of their fiefdoms and converting their samurai into ronin, condemned to wander the countryside masterless, in search of means of survival. Still armed with two swords—representing their soul, according to the code of Bushido—the former samurai are feared and mistrusted.
Safely under the protection of their Tokugawa ally, the Iyi clan are contemptuous of the suffering ronin who come to their door requesting that they be permitted to perform hara-kiri (ritual suicide), in the hope that they might instead be hired on. When Motome Chijiiwa (Akira Ishihama) presents himself before the Iyi clan for this purpose, they choose to preside over his death rather than offer assistance. It is his father-in-law, the samurai Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai), who, in shaming the Iyi clan before their retainers and avenging Chijiiwa’s death, expresses Kobayashi’s view that there are ideas worth dying for. Tsugumo’s bold defiance of feudal authority has a precedent in Bushido itself: the samurai who sacrifices his conscience to “the capricious will . . . or fancy of a sovereign,” Inazo Nitobe writes in Bushido: The Soul of Japan, is to be chastised, even if the only recourse against injustice open to the samurai in Harakiri, after failing to appeal to the conscience of the Iyi clan elder, is to shed his own blood.
Kobayashi discovers irony in the finiteness of the Tokugawa period. The feudal daimyo behave as if their power will last forever, but audiences are able to penetrate their hubris through their own awareness that the Tokugawas will be defeated and that official feudalism will fall with the restoration of the Emperor Meiji, in 1868. This irony is reinforced when Tsugumo tears apart the armored figure, with its white wig, that stands for the clan’s heritage. When it is later resurrected and reseated in its place of honor, Kobayashi exposes the fragility and transience of all authoritarian power.
This perspective fits Kobayashi’s subtle critique of contemporary society as well. Kobayashi suggests that, just as the Tokugawas, in their arrogance, were shortly to be defeated by upstart, dissident clans loyal to the emperor—and as militarists during World War II had been defeated—those wielding feudal power in the present might well find their authority coming to an end.
Kobayashi’s rebellious sensibility found its parallel in the actor he discovered, Nakadai, star of Harakiri and Kobayashi’s other masterpiece, The Human Condition (and later of Kurosawa’s High and Low and Ran). An actor of the modern Shingeki, or New Theater, Nakadai embodied postwar individualism and youth culture—in his clear enunciation and strong, deep speaking voice and in his expressive body movements, facial mobility, and willingness to convey deeply felt emotions, rather than repressing them on behalf of an outworn notion of samurai dignity.
Nakadai portrays the distinguished Tsugumo as, in part, an ordinary man: a grieving widower, kind father, and doting grandfather. Kobayashi contrasts these images of the family man with the fierce, upstanding traits Tsugumo possesses as a samurai. Yet it is as a loving father that Nakadai is particularly moving. He refuses to allow his daughter to be adopted by a clan in which she might become a concubine; he will not sacrifice her to serve his own fortune, even when their economic situation is dire. This fierce individualism serves Kobayashi’s dissidence. In the scene where Nakadai examines the bamboo sword that his son-in-law was forced to use to end his life, he weeps, “The stupid thing was too dear to me . . . and I clung to it!” revealing a range worthy of Marlon Brando.
Like many Japanese novelists and filmmakers, Kobayashi depicts social themes through allegory; he is an expressionist rather than a realist. In Harakiri, the stark contrasts of black and white—for example, Tsugumo’s black kimono against the white-sheeted platform on which he tells his story—reflect the intransigence of the Iyi clan, upon whose mercy Chijiiwa throws himself unsuccessfully. Kobayashi’s extensive use of the wide screen signifies the seeming endlessness, the horizontality, of feudal power.
The setting may be the feudal past, but Kobayashi undermines its authority by juxtaposing rigid, hidebound politics with a panoply of modern film techniques, from zooms to fast pans to canted frames to rapid elliptical cutting to gruesome realism. With these devices, which so obviously defy the stolid rituals of the past, Kobayashi expresses his belief that society need not be destructive of the needs of individuals, and that authoritarian power, however cruel and seemingly permanent, may in fact be vulnerable to change.
Harakiri won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1963. Kobayashi’s mentor, Kinoshita, pronounced the film a masterpiece, among the five greatest Japanese films of all time. Kobayashi would continue working for another two decades, ultimately breaking out of the studio system in the late 1960s and forming the independent Yonki-no-Kai, or the Club of the Four Knights, with Kinoshita, Kurosawa, and Kon Ichikawa. Harakiri, though, would remain the most vibrant expression of his belief that life is not worth living unless injustice is confronted with unrelenting force and single-minded purpose.
Joan Mellen is the author of several books about Japanese cinema, including Voices from the Japanese Cinema and The Waves at Genji’s Door as well as monographs for the BFI on Seven Samurai and In the Realm of the Senses. Her most recent book is A Farewell to Justice: Jim Garrison, JFK’s Assassination, and the Case That Should Have Changed History. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2005 DVD edition of Harakiri.