The Best Samurai Film You've Never Seen: Harakiri by Masaki Kobayashi

One of the best Japanese films I've seen in recent years is Harakiri, a 1962 samurai movie by Masaki Kobayashi. I stumbled onto the film by accident in my local library and, since I'm a fan of samurai cinema, took a chance. I'm glad I did and I urge people to seek out this classic film.

Harakiri opens with disgraced samurai Hanshiro Tsugumo entering the home of a local feudal lord with what sounds like an unusual requestโ€”to use the lord's house to commit ritual suicide. However, the lord warns Hanshiro that a number of disgraced samurai have been using this request to scam money out of nobles like himself. The lord then recounts just such a scam attempted by another samurai and how the feudal lord forced this man to follow through on his suicidal request.

I don't want to give too much away, but the performances in this film are amazing. In addition, as you watch the film your relationship to the characters changes as you learn more about their lives. When I first watched one of the samurai trying to scam money, I felt only disgust. But as the film revealed more of this samurai's backstory my disgust turned to sympathy and understanding, a change which mirrors the main character's emotional journey.

Of course, being a samurai film there are sword battles here. But pay attention to how these battles take place, and especially to how the last one is filmed by Kobayashi. Much of this final battle is shown only through the reaction of the feudal lord to the sounds of a fight he is not allowed to witness. This is one of the most powerful scenes in all of cinema.

I'm also happy to note that critic Dan Schneider has written an in-depth examination of Harakiri, which should be required reading for anyone looking for further insight into this great film. I find it especially interesting how Schneider says the film's timeless setting gives it an almost science fiction feel, and how disgraced samurai Hanshiro Tsugumo is a Japanese version of Number 6 from the British television show The Prisoner.