Sat. Jul 13th, 2024

Kobayashi’s Anti-Establishment Message

A film in 1962 by Masaki Kobayashi, Harakiri, portrays the ancestral samurai armor as a symbol of social control and empty authority. In the film’s climax, a samurai rebels against authority by tearing down his armor. In post-war Japanese cinema, Kobayashi’s presence as a rebel challenges the power of authority, conveying anti-establishment and humanistic messages. He criticizes Japan’s militaristic past and corrupt sense of honor. Besides encouraging viewers to contemplate modern historical parallels, Kobayashi opposes authority and tradition in his films. Despite exploring individual moral conflicts against society during different periods, he critiques contemporary and feudal authoritarian power.

Kobayashi’s tendency to rebel emerged early in his career because his films opposed rooted authorities and power. After studying art history at Waseda University in Tokyo, he became an assistant director for the Shochiku Ofuna film studio in 1941. However, he rejected promotion to the Imperial Japanese Army due to his pacifist beliefs. After surviving the war, he returned to filmmaking in the 1950s, focusing on people challenging corrupt and hypocritical governance. Using historical settings in his jidaigeki films, Kobayashi expressed his political dissent, exposing contemporary injustices in modern Japan. Therefore, Harakiri stands as a significant example of this approach, condemning the Iyi clan and rejecting the idea of individual surrender to a group. He also criticizes hierarchical structures in Japanese social and political life, particularly the zaibatsu, which he sees as reminiscent of feudalism.

Revolutionizing the Samurai Genre

Kobayashi considers Harakiri to be his most compact and profound film. Shinobu Hashimoto, the screenwriter, adapted Yasuhiko Takiguchi’s novel and revolutionized the samurai genre. At the same time, they were depicting characters with more nuanced challenges to the traditional bushido samurai code, Japanese audiences related to the ronin samurai or masterless in the post-war era. They felt defeat and loss during the Occupation. Aligned with Kobayashi’s rebellious tendency, Hashimoto’s critical instincts led to their collaboration in Harakiri, resulting in an anti-samurai film that questions the dogmatic logic of feudal lords. Hashimoto also criticized the bushido samurai code for lacking humanity. Hashimoto was drawn to Takiguchi’s novel for its exploration of seppuku or harakiri (a ritual performed by samurai to redeem their honor). The film was set in the relatively peaceful Edo era of 1630 when some samurai became masterless. Hashimoto’s script explored honorable options for harakiri to address their problems. While examining how desperate warriors exploited the practice to seek employment or charity from prosperous clans, the Iyi clan enforced the practice to suppress former warriors into seppuku. After the war, Kobayashi returned to filmmaking, challenging social norms and displaying anti-authoritarian tendencies. Particularly in The Thick-Walled Room, he faced censorship for questioning high-ranking officials’ responsibility for wartime atrocities.

In Harakiri, Kobayashi depicts the Iyi clan as emotionless entities, manipulating samurai honor to deliver cruel punishments. Throughout the film, the clan’s despicable actions are gradually revealed, challenging the principles of bushido that hinder justice. In the first place, the samurai armor symbolizes the institution’s stability, representing the enduring power of the Tokugawa Shogunate’s feudal regime. Hanshiro Tsugumo is a masterless samurai who arrives to perform harakiri, seeking an audience after failing to find new employment and losing his master. While directors like Yasujirō Ozu accept the powerlessness of their characters, Kobayashi’s protagonist risks everything to confront evil, corruption, and injustice.

After Lord Kageyu Saito agrees to let Tsugumo perform harakiri, he is unaware of Tsugumo’s true intention to expose the Iyi clan’s failure in upholding the bushido code. Saito shares the cruel fate of Motome Chijiiwa, another ronin who deceived the clan to hinder other ronin. The film intensifies as Tsugumo’s true motives are revealed. Carefully, he plans to reveal the shame of the Iyi clan. The film is set in the year 1630 during the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate, a time when many clans were destroyed. As wandering ronin, they have left behind their samurai status. Despite carrying their symbolic swords, the ronin are distrusted and feared.

In Harakiri, Saito reveals the cruel fate of Chijiiwa. Despite Chijiiwa’s request for a break and a bamboo blade, the clan forces him to continue. Chijiiwa’s harakiri attempt is excruciating. Meanwhile, Tsugumo intends to avenge Chijiiwa’s death and humiliate the Iyi clan. His actions embody the spirit of bushido, refusing to sacrifice conscience to appease unjust authority. The deliberate performance of actor Tatsuya Nakadai captures the right tone of the film. Influenced by the New Japanese Theater movement, his acting style offers resilient inner complexity. In the limited Tokugawa period, Kobayashi finds irony as the daimyo behave as if their power is eternal. Meanwhile, the audience knows it will end with the restoration of Emperor Meiji.

Tension builds when Tsugumo requests the Iyi clan’s top swordsman, Hikokuro Omodaka, to be his second in the harakiri ritual. While waiting for Omodaka’s confirmation and that of the others, Tsugumo shares his tragic story. After revealing the clan’s cruelty towards Chijiiwa, he accuses the clan of false samurai honor. He also exposes how he dueled and humiliated the supposedly ill top swordsman, highlighting the clan’s abuse of power and arrogance. Kobayashi’s subtle critique extends to contemporary society, suggesting that just as the militarists and Tokugawa were defeated, those in power today may also face downfall. It emphasizes the fragility of authoritarian governance.

Critique of Government and Militaristic Ideals

The film Harakiri concludes with a dramatic samurai battle. As Tsugumo defends himself against the Iyi clan’s followers, he kills many. Facing death, Tsugumo pulls down the clan’s ceremonial armor and attempts to commit seppuku for samurai honor. The tragic ending depicts the corrupting influence of militaristic ideology, as Tsugumo remains committed to the ideals of bushido despite challenging the clan’s hypocrisy. Nakadai’s portrayal of Tsugumo embodies post-war individualism. Rather than conforming to traditional samurai dignity, it showcases the depth of his emotions.

The ending of Harakiri questions the government’s commitment to principles such as bushido. It reveals how Japan’s militarism during WWII reaffirmed the false ideals of the code. The film criticizes the hypocrisy of the militaristic government and its stance on sacrificing humanity. Tsugumo is destroying the Iyi clan’s armor and exposes the potential threat posed by individual rebellion against repressive authority. Nakadai’s performance portrays Tsugumo as an ordinary family man and a fierce samurai, embodying his defiant individualism.

Including impressive swordplay, Harakiri combines essential elements of the popular samurai-themed jidaigeki. However, it serves as a powerful anti-samurai film. The bushido code is depicted as a betrayal of humanity. It fails to address the conflict between honor and family protection. Chijiiwa and Tsugumo prioritize family, challenging the traditional depiction of steadfast samurai in jidaigeki. Through the Iyi clan, Kobayashi criticizes Japan’s blind power structure that demands individual surrender to group control, disregarding human interests. Explicitly, Tsugumo refers to samurai honor as a facade. Besides using striking black-and-white contrast and widescreen compositions to portray social themes and emphasize the enduring nature of feudal power, Kobayashi employs allegory and expressionism.

Expressive Allegory and Formalist Approach

When Harakiri premiered in 1962, Japanese audiences witnessed a familiar portrayal of feudal Japan infused with expressive allegory through Kobayashi’s skilled use of space, lighting, and widescreen compositions. The director communicates his themes through a rigorous formalist approach. He employs calculated movements, symmetrical compositions, and theatrical lighting to expose intolerable class regimentation and rigid authority. The restricted scenes and continuous, unbroken shots evoke a feeling of confinement, mirroring the ritualistic behaviors displayed. Kobayashi’s approach contrasts with Kurosawa’s more spectacle-oriented and reverent use of bushido. Kobayashi challenges the authority of the old era by juxtaposing the feudal past with modern film techniques such as zooms, fast pans, canted frames, and rapid cutting. By unraveling inflexible structures of power and revealing the vulnerability of authoritarian systems, he expresses his belief in the potential for societal change.

After winning the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1963, Harakiri and its director Kobayashi achieved global acclaim. It led him to travel to Europe and connect with renowned filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman, solidifying his status as an international filmmaker. His subsequent films, Kwaidan and Samurai Rebellion, received worldwide distribution. The success of Harakiri elevated Kobayashi to a new level of prestige. However, his continuous critique of the establishment resulted in declining celebrity and job opportunities, as studios were reluctant to take risks that might antagonize the US occupational army.

Contrasting Approaches: Kobayashi vs. Kurosawa

Along with Kurosawa and Kinoshita, Kobayashi formed the independent film company Yonki-no-Kai. While his later films did not achieve the same level of success, Harakiri remained a masterpiece and continued to receive critical acclaim. It is a vibrant expression of Kobayashi’s belief in confronting injustice with unwavering determination and purpose.

Harakiri remains Kobayashi’s most potent film, challenging the empty promises of samurai honor and toppling authority based on human morality. The director’s formalist aesthetics skillfully expose the falsehood of political ideologies. The film’s condemnation of authority deception and critique of the bushido code transcends the feudal period and 20th-century history. It serves as a potent commentary on the nature of political power illusions throughout human history. Kobayashi adeptly transforms respected Japanese warriors into corrupt figures, effectively depicting how the authority system manipulates individuals to maintain their power. With its themes echoing even today, Harakiri remains a relevant and vital commentary on the nature of political power.


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