Japanese Film Reviews #12: Kobayashi Masaki’s HARAKIRI

Bushido: The Soul of Fanaticism

Hara-kiri’s Juxtaposition of Sensationalism and Reality

Anyone vaguely familiar with Japan has no doubt heard of samurai, the fiercely disciplined and loyal warriors who ruled over Japan for centuries. In the West, we like to believe that every samurai lived according to the philosophy of bushido, the Way of the Samurai. According to Japanese works, such as Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure and Yukio Mishima’s Patriotism, this belief is quite accurate. However, what many fail to realize is that these works are a misrepresentation of the samurai beliefs common during the Edo period (roughly 1600-1868) and exaggerate the historical and social significance of bushido. In reality, bushido is an artificial philosophy, written and followed by a fanatic minority who wished to cling to a bloody, militant past and was never accepted or followed by the majority of the samurai class. In Death, Honor, and Loyalty: The Bushido Ideal, G. Cameron Hurst states, “The few Tokugawa works which explicitly use the term bushido turn out, in fact, to be a very narrow stream of thought essentially out of touch with the broader spectrum of Neo-Confucian ideas to which most of the samurai class adhered” (515). However, the principles of bushido – and samurai philosophy in general – are unclear and poorly defined because they were never codified into a written ethical code. For the sake of clarity, this essay will concentrate on the interpretation of bushido found in Masaki Kobayashi’s 1963 film Hara-kiri, which artfully juxtaposes the fanatic bushido followed by the Iyi clan and the more moderate and rational actions of the ronin Tsugumo Hanshiro. While Tsugumo’s actions seem to conflict with the principles of samurai ethics according to bushido, they are actually a more realistic representation of the principles upheld by the samurai of that time. The ‘philosophy’ of bushido misinterprets these values in several ways; it completely disregards compassion as the key element in the virtues of honor, loyalty, and duty, has a rabid philosophy of ‘pure action,’ and has perverted an ‘acceptance of death’ into an obsessive cult of ritual mutilation and suicide.

In the year 1630, after the unification of Japan under the Tokugawa Shōgunate, samurai, as warriors, were no longer necessary in an era of peace and the number of ronin – masterless samurai – increased dramatically. Samurai were expected to uphold the “proper moral principles of the land” and were thus not allowed to own land, farm, or hold any other job in society (De Bary 399). This was not a problem for employed samurai, but ronin, who lacked a master and a source of income, were forced to live in abject poverty while begging to be taken into the service of another lord. Hara-kiri begins with such a ronin, Tsugumo Hanshiro, calling upon the House of the Iyi Clan and requesting to end such a shameful existence by performing seppuku, ritual self-disembowelment (referred to as hara-kiri in the film). As stated in Hagakure, “It would be the least he could do to cut open his stomach, rather than live on in shame with a burning in his breast and no place to go” (Tsunetomo 72). The head of the house grants him an audience and, uncertain of his sincerity, tells him the story of another ronin, Chijiiwa Motome, who also came to their door with the same request several months before. It was obvious that the young ronin has no intention of committing seppuku, but rather wanted them to refuse his request and give him a small sum of money as compensation. However, unwilling to perform this act of ‘weakness’ and damage their reputation for martial valor, the Iyi samurai decide to force the young man to follow through with his request and commit seppuku. Though Iyi clan felt it impossible to let the man go free after such dishonorable actions, they treated Chijiiwa while a level cruelty and contempt that a normal samurai would never had expressed.

First, they mocked him by making him bathe and change clothes for an audience with the lord’s son about the prospect of employment. After they had raised his hopes, they made him change clothing again, but this time the ronin was to wear the ceremonial white robes for seppuku. When Chijiiwa realized that they were going to honor his request, he begged them to wait only a day or two. However the Iyi dismissed his pleas, whatever the circumstances, as irrelevant and forced him to continue. By requesting the right to commit seppuku with no intention of following through with it, Chijiiwa cheapened his personal honor and also insulted the honor of the entire Iyi house. More specifically, Chijiiwa dishonored the principle of makoto, “usually translated at “sincerity,” but its connotations reach far deeper and wider than the English word and come closer to… spiritual power” (Morris 22). Not only was he insincere in his request, but then he tried to escape his fate, demonstrating both an unseemly attachment to the world and a refusal to act with the spontaneity and acceptance of makoto. As the retainers prepared for the ceremony, they discovered that Chijiiwa had sold the blades of his swords for money and replaced them with bamboo. In Bushido: The Soul of Japan, Inazo Nitobe describes the significance of the sword to a samurai, “What he carries in his belt is a symbol of what he carries in his mind and heart, – loyalty and honour” (105). By selling his blades for something as disgusting and dishonorable as money, no matter what the motivation, Chijiiwa effectively sold his own soul and the virtues of honor and loyalty it embodied. Despite the difficulty and obvious pain such an action would cause, the Iyi clan forced Chijiiwa to disembowel himself with the dull bamboo blades, claiming, “The sword is the soul of a samurai, no blade could be more fitting for this purpose than your own.” To the shock of all the samurai present, Chijiiwa actually did attempt to perform seppuku with the sword. Kobayashi depicts this scene in all of its unnecessary brutality; in order to pierce his stomach with the sword, Chijiiwa had to prop it on the ground and force it into his abdomen with the weight of his body. However, even this act was not sufficient for the Iyi, and the Iyi samurai acting as his second, Omodaka Hikokuro, refused to behead him until he finished cutting open his stomach, though it was clearly impossible with dull bamboo, and denied him an honorable (or even respectable) death. Chijiiwa tried to pull the blade across several times until, overwhelmed by pain, attempted to bite off his own tongue and bleed to death. Again, the Iyi clan found this cowardly act repulsive, because it tainted the honorable action of seppuku with weakness.

Though Chijiiwa’s actions contradict nearly every major aspect of bushido, it is clear from the very beginning that the Iyi clan was not motivated by the desire to fulfill the principles of loyalty and honor, but by a vain and selfish need to preserve their reputation. This is clearly stated by Omodaka Hikokuro, “Think what they will say. The House of Iyi has gone soft like the others…they boast of their martial valor, but this is a time of peace. They are living in yesterday’s dreams.” This fear of losing face in the eyes of the other clans prevented the Iyi clan from simply giving money to Chijiiwa and letting him go. Omodaka’s statement not only reveals the underlying vanity that motivated the Iyi clan, but also contains a subtle insult to the warrior code itself. By continuing to cling to an irrelevant philosophy and preserving ‘martial valor’ in a time of peace, the Iyi clan is living in ‘yesterday’s dreams.’ Similarly, Hagakure also advocates an extreme adherence to honor, loyalty, and duty and exaggerates the importance of honorable death and avoiding shame in an attempt to compensate for the growing irrelevancy of martial valor in the Edo period. While Tsunetomo states, “For a warrior there is nothing other than thinking of his master,” it is obvious the samurai of the Iyi clan are more concerned with the superficial preservation of their honor and militant way of life than the wellbeing of their lord – the Iyi samurai rarely even mention the master they serve (23). Hagakure’s interpretation of bushido is one motivated by vanity, whereas Yamaga Soko, another samurai-turned-philosopher of the seventeenth century, wished samurai to uphold honor, loyalty, and duty regardless of personal cost. Paul Varley aptly points out this fundamental difference in Japanese Culture, “Yamaga Soko’s idea of bushido, according to which the samurai of Tokugawa times should serve as exemplars of loyalty and morality…conceived loyalty and morality in Confucian terms…[Tsunetomo’s ideal samurai] were motivated largely by more particularistic, feudal sentiments of personal honor and loyalty. Their main concern was about their honor and their loyalty, not about honor and loyalty as universal ideals…Tsunetomo’s central concern was, in fact, not at all with loyalty but with honor. We can observe this… [when] he stresses avoidance of shame, the mortal enemy of honor, above all else” (210-213).

This obsession with avoiding shame creates a fundamental flaw within the samurai ethos of bushido. As we have already seen, it prevented the Iyi clan from treating Chijiiwa with compassion. They followed the guidelines set down in Hagakure, completely disregarded matters such as poverty and hunger as “the temporary force of circumstance,” and simply declared, “The way of avoiding shame is different. It is simply in death” (30). Because bushido prevented the samurai from thinking rationally and stated that shame could only be avoided with death, they were forced to resort to a philosophy concerned solely with the fanatical desire to die. This fanaticism is clearly seen in Yukio Mishima’s interpretation of Hagakure, “The occupation of the samurai is death. No matter how peaceful the age, death is the samurai’s supreme motivation, and if a samurai was to fear or shun death, in that instant he would cease to become a samurai” (27). Yukio Mishima, a post-war author heralded by some as the ‘last modern samurai,’ provides an excellent example of how death and ritual suicide were perverted in the interpretation of bushido. In his short story Patriotism, a military officer and his wife commit seppuku to avoid the dishonor of a failed attempt to overthrow the government. Mishima describes death and seppuku as an act so ecstatic it is nearly sexual, “Was it death he was now waiting for? Or a wild ecstasy of the senses? The two seemed to overlap, almost if the object of this bodily desire was death itself. But, how ever that might be, it was certain that never before had the lieutenant tasted such total freedom” (Mishima 25). This is obviously a perversion of death that does not express the sentiments of Japanese society as a whole. In The Madness and Perversion of Yukio Mishima, Jerry Piven states, “Mishima envisaged the tragically beautiful and erotic death of ritual suicide, the noble and sensual explosion of blood and intestines…not surprisingly, Japanese people are often uneasy and reticent about Mishima, as though he were an embarrassment, and his readers perverse fanatics” (2). Not only was the experience of death perverted by fanaticism and highly sexualized, but it is clear that seppuku became analogous to warfare, “It called for a resolution equal to the courage to enter battle; it was a death of no less degree and quality than death in the front line. It was his conduct on the battlefield that he was now to display” (Mishima 41). However, what was the point of such a death? Even the lieutenant takes note, “All around, vastly and untidily, stretched the country for which he grieved. He was to give his life for it. But would that great country, with which he was prepared to remonstrate to the extent of destroying himself, take the slightest heed of his death?” (Mishima 25). Such a death would be utterly pointless and wasteful. In contrast, the relationship between lord and samurai was intended to be affectionate and similar to that of parent and child. For most samurai, “Loyalty was a highly personal and contractual arrangement between samurai and lord, conditional on both parties fulfilling their mutual obligations” (Hurst 518). The cruelty found in most depictions of this relationship is another exaggeration. For example, in James Clavell’s Shogun, a daimyo orders two of his men to commit seppuku for the crime of being late for their shifts. No lord would have treated life so cheaply and wasted men for such an insignificant matter. Kobayashi provides a more realistic depiction of the lord-vassal relationship when Tsugumo Hanshiro recounts the fall of his clan to the Iyi.

After the Senior Counselor, Saito, gives Tsugumo permission to use their forecourt for seppuku, the ronin requests three possible men to serve as his second (the participant who beheads the samurai after he disembowels himself). However, all three of the men are absent and Saito tries to force Tsugumo to commit seppuku immediately by questioning his sincerity to perform the act. Tsugumo passionately refuses, saying, “I do not perform harakiri to atone for a crime or an offense. The least I can expect is to choose my own second.” This statement reveals an often overlooked fact that seppuku was not commonly committed as an act of free will but as an enforced, albeit honorable, method of execution. In Japanese tradition, samurai usually committed seppuku to atone for a crime, accept responsibility for an error, and occasionally the particularly loyal would follow their lord into death (Hurst 521). Voluntary seppuku was nowhere near as common as novels like Shogun suggest. Saito is chastened by this reminder and allows Tsugumo to wait until one of the appropriate men to arrive. Tsugumo then reveals that Chijiiwa Motome was not only the son of his best friend, but also his son-in-law. When Tsugumo reveals this relationship, Saito immediately knows that Tsugumo is there for revenge, a concept both of them surely understand. Tsugumo Hanshiro has come to the House of Iyi to express his grievances on the behavior of the Iyi clan. Yet, rather than rashly charging in and trying to kill as many men as possible, as advocated by Hagakure, Tsugumo only wants them to listen to his story, “What befalls today may be your own fate tomorrow. Perhaps your retainers will find some small point or two worth remembering.”

When the Tokugawa Shogunate ordered the elimination of Tsugumo’s clan, the Fukushimo, his best friend, Chijiiwa Jinnai, committed seppuku. As a dying wish, Chijiiwa asked Tsugumo to continue to live and raise his son, Motome. Shocked at this, Tsugumo attempted to receive permission to commit suicide from his liege lord. However, his daimyo also made his swear to an oath to live and protect Motome, “Jinnai died because he knew you would if he didn’t. He died to accompany me on your behalf as well. Which means…that you must now live on. For both you and him.” While the suicides of his friend and master were necessary for the preservation of their honor – the shame of their entire clan being wiped out was obviously beyond comprehension – they were also motivated by the compassionate desire to protect their family and friends. This compassionate element of seppuku is completely absent from the bastardized version practiced by the Iyi clan. As Yamaga Soko stated, “The business of the samurai consists in reflecting on his own station in life, discharging loyal service to his master if he has one, in deepening his fidelity in associations with friends, and, with due consideration of his own position, in devoting himself to duty above all,” (De Bary 399). Tsugumo exercised supreme fidelity to Jinnai as well as absolute duty to his lord, though his oath forced him live in poverty and shame. For the sake of duty, Tsugumo endured this disgrace even though death would have preserved his honor. A samurai following the teachings of Hagakure would have surely broken his oath and killed himself to avoid such shame because, in bushido, personal honor is far more important that duty. Such a death, however, would only save the individual from disgrace and leave his family alone to suffer. Soko emphasizes the selfless aspect of devotion or duty (gi) and believes “it required the samurai …to put devotion to moral principle (righteousness) ahead of personal gain” (De Bary 395). This principle of right conduct is derived directly from Confucius, “The master said, The gentleman understand yi [Japanese – gi]. The small man understands li” (Analects IV:16). Li means profit, gain and advantage, which the Iyi clan was obviously more concerned about than the hardships and self-sacrifice required to uphold gi. Yamamoto Tsunetomo also holds contempt for righteousness, “To hate injustice and stand on righteousness is a difficult thing. Furthermore, to think that being righteous is the best one can do and to do one’s utmost to be righteous will, on the contrary, bring many mistakes. The Way is in a higher place than righteousness. This is very hard to discover but it is the highest wisdom. When seen from this standpoint, things like righteousness are rather shallow” (25-26). However, Tsunetomo is unable to state the ‘way’ or principle that is higher than righteousness.

After the fall of the Fukushimo clan, Tsugumo Hanshiro moved to Edo (modern-day Tokyo) with Motome and his daughter Miho. There, they scraped out a meager living making fans and parasols while Motome, ironically, taught children Confucianism. Tsugumo honored his oath and continually placed the well-being of his family above his own self interest, even refusing to allow his daughter to become the concubine of a samurai house, though it would have allowed him to once again serve a lord. Motome and Miho eventually married and had a child, though after two years both fell ill. Though Chijiiwa tried to find work to pay for a doctor, no one would dare hire a samurai for common labor. He pawned the blades of his sword to pay for medicine, even though it crushed his spirit to do so. Finally, when Chijiiwa had no other alternatives, he subjected himself to further shame for the sake of his family, and presented himself at the Iyi House. However, he could not bring himself to tell Tsugumo about his plan, and seemed to simply disappear until his body was returned by the retainers of the Iyi clan. Three days later, both Miho and Tsugumo’s grandchild died, leaving him completely alone in the world.

With no further obligations or attachments to the world and no longer bound to fulfill the dying wish of his old friend, Tsugumo began to plot his revenge. Once again, his actions failed to fulfill the principles of bushido. On the subject of revenge, Hagakure states, “The way of revenge lies in simply forcing one’s way into a place and being cut down. There is no shame in this. By thinking that you must complete the job you will run out time” (29). The fact that Tsugumo plotted the best way to successfully complete his revenge is disgusting to the samurai of bushido, who only value immediate death and a purity of motive uncorrupted by rationality. Yet, Tsugumo’s motivation is based in Neo-Confucianism. Though Tsugumo entered the Iyi House for revenge, he still tries to protect the value of life and not kill needlessly. While Tsugumo would prefer that the House of Iyi admit that their actions towards Chijiiwa were disgraceful, he makes it clear that, while he has come with every intention to die, he will not leave empty-handed, “If you force me, I will fight desperately to the death, no matter what the odds against me.” Being ready to die is not the same as seeking out a pointless death and throwing away life. Tsugumo admits that Chijiiwa’s actions were seriously flawed and disgraceful, “No matter how grinding his poverty and hunger, for a samurai to present himself in someone else’s entryway and declare that he wishes to commit harakiri there is an unspeakable act that can in no way be excused. However, the manner in which the House of Iyi handled the matter surely left a great deal to be desired. If a samurai risks shame and ridicule to beg for a day or twos grace, he must surely have good reason…yet out of so many witnesses here, not one of you had the consideration to act.” Tsugumo does not seek revenge for Chijiiwa’s death, but rather for the lack of compassion and the needless cruelty demonstrated by the Iyi in the name the abstract principles of bushido. Tsugumo attempts to show the Iyi clan that their adherence to bushido is irrelevant and, ultimately, a façade. He reveals that the reason the three samurai refused to show up to work was because he had defeated them all in battle and cut off their topknots. Rather than committing seppuku to atone for their disgraceful defeats, the samurai feigned illness while waiting for their hair to grow back. Obviously bushido and samurai honor were irrelevant for the Iyi samurai, whose main concern was personal vanity. However, Saito refuses to admit the wrong-doing of the Iyi clan and orders Tsugumo to be cut down.

Ironically, Tsugumo’s final actions perfectly embody Hagakure’s philosophy of ‘pure action.’ As the Iyi samurai descend upon him, Tsugumo enters shinigurui, the “death frenzy [that] calls upon the samurai, when faced with a crisis…to enter into what can only be described as a self-induced state of psychosis in which only action – not goals or purpose – matters” (Varley, 212). Tsugumo fights off the samurai with careless disregard for his own life, only the desire for revenge and death. Yet, the fundamental difference is, again, motivation. Tsunetomo cared little for successfully carrying out revenge and placed no value on life, believing instead in the preservation individual honor. Hagakure specifically addresses this, “The Way of the Samurai is a mania for death. Sometimes ten men cannot topple a man with such conviction. One cannot accomplish feats of greatness in a normal frame of mind. One must turn fanatic and develop a mania for dying. By the time one develops powers of discernment it is already too late to put them into effect. In the Way of the Samurai loyalty and filial piety are superfluous; all one needs is a mania for death. Within that attitude loyalty and filial piety will come to reside” (Mishima, 69). Mishima justifies this dismissal of honor and loyalty with his claim, “[Tsunetomo’s] ideal is the purest form of action, which automatically subsumes the virtues of loyalty and filial piety. A samurai cannot predict beforehand whether his own actions will come to embody loyalty and filial piety” (69). The claim that all worthwhile virtues are embodied in blind action is merely an attempt to mask the selfish nature of bushido and individual honor. This state of ‘pure action’ and spontaneity could never be achieved by the followers of bushido precisely because their mania for death merely creates another worldly attachment and delusion. Though they do not try to grasp at the straws of life, these samurai are grasping just as hard to those of death and obsession. Tsugumo Hanshiro, on the other hand, cared very deeply about successfully completing his revenge in order to restore the honor of his family. Only after all possibilities of success had been exhausted does he blindly attack the clan. At the end of the film, he comes face to face with the red armor of the Iyi clan, a representation of the ultimately empty philosophy of bushido, and breaks it apart. Then, on their ancestral shrine, he commits seppuku before the Iyi samurai can kill him, preserving his honor and solidifying his moral victory.

Essentially, bushido fails to present an accurate picture of the lifestyle of Edo samurai due to its fanatical disregard of success and life in favor of an explosively violent, but ultimately futile, death. With such extreme sentiments, it comes as no surprise that bushido was never accepted by mainstream Japan. Popular society, including the samurai class, preferred to follow the teachings on Neo-Confucianism, which had been institutionalized in Japan for over a thousand years. Neo-Confucianism upheld many of the same principles of bushido, but without the fanaticism or mania for death. In Hara-kiri, the Iyi samurai’s obsession with death and honor caused them to lose the ability to effectively perform their function as the ruling class of Japan. In the words of Confucius, “Your job is to govern, not to kill” (Analects XII:19). The selfishness of these samurai would have never been tolerated in a society based on compassion. Any student who wishes to seriously study Japan is better off learning about Neo-Confucianism than bushido, much to the disappointment of those expecting to discover a romanticized samurai philosophy. While bushido adds an entertaining element to popular novels and film, it should remain just that – sensationalized fiction, not reality.

Works Cited

Confucius. The Analects. Trans. D.C. Lau. Middlesex: Penguin Group Ltd. 1979.

De Bary, Wm. Theodore; Keene, Donald; Tanabe, George; Varley, Paul. Sources of Japanese Tradition. Vol 1. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

De Bary, Wm. Theodore; Keene, Donald; Tsunoda, Ryusaku. Sources of Japanese Tradition. New York: Columbia University, 1958.

Harakiri. Dir. Masaki Kobayashi. 1962. DVD. The Criterion Collection. 2005.

Hurst III, G. Cameron. “Death, Honor, and Loyalty: The Bushido Ideal.” Philosophy East & West 40 (1990): 511-527.

Mishima, Yukio. Patriotism. Trans. Geoffrey W. Sargent. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1966.

Mishima, Yukio. The Way of the Samurai: Yukio Mishima on Hagakure in Modern Life. Trans. Kathryn Sparling. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1977.

Morris, Ivan. The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan. New York; The Noonday Press, 1975.

Nitobe, Inazo. The Works of Inazo Nitobe. 5 vols. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1972.

Bushido: The Soul of Japan.

— “Chapter VII: The Thought Life of the Japanese People.” Japan: Some Phases of Her Problems and Development.

— “Chapter VIII: Japanese Code of Honor.” Lectures on Japan.

Piven, Jerry S. The Madness and Perversion of Yukio Mishima. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2004.

Tsunetomo, Yamamoto. Hagakure. Trans. William Scott Wilson. Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd., 1979.

Varley, Paul. Japanese Culture. 4th ed. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000.

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Comments (10)

  1. Stephen J. Haessler

    Dear Constantine,

    I found your review of Harakiri on YouTube. It is also my favorite movie. Your review was so informative and helpful. Thank you very much. I have not read your essay, but will. I just wanted to let you know now that I blogged today on this film at my blog, http://www.shotokancrossfit.blogspot.com. I would be honored if you would leave a comment. Thank you again for your outstanding review of a brilliant film. All the best,

    March 8, 2010
    • constantineintokyo

      Thanks a lot for you comment, Steve. I read you blog about the film and found it very interesting. While I examine the themes of hypocrisy, fanaticism, and bushido in the above review, I have not spent much time on corruption. I am interested in rewatching the film with your comments in mind.

      March 8, 2010
  2. Bruno

    Hi Constantine,
    My name is Bruno J and I really like japanese films too. I’m in search of a good samurai film to watch and I would like your recommendation, since I can’t rely on mainstream media and my friends (that hate japanese movies).
    I really liked Akira Kurosawa’s 7 samurai, Sanjuro and Yojimbo, and I have already seen Harakiri (from another director).
    What do you suggest?
    P.S. I`ve seen Sword of Doom as well 😛

    November 5, 2011
    • constantineintokyo

      Hi Bruno,

      Maybe you should watch Yamada Yoji’s samurai trilogy – The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade, and Love and Honor. I thought all three of those were very good samurai films and were made fairly recently.

      November 8, 2011
      • Bruno

        Hello Constantine,

        I will try to watch those films, and the titles seem quite interesting. I’ll watch them and tell you what I thought.
        Really grateful for your help.

        Bruno J.

        November 11, 2011
  3. Rief

    I have something of a problem and I hope you can help. I saw a movie years ago, and have since forgotten the name. I query is to see if perhaps in your cinema time you might have seen it. As best I remember the movie starts with a young Japanese husband and wife packing their… medical practice? An older Japanese man and young boy come in. The boy is ill. The old man pays with saki, and while the boy is being treated notices a picture of samurai. The picture is of him and another samurai when they were young men. I could give you other information like the two men fought while drunk, the other samurai was very giving to his family, humble, good with a katana, and ultimately committed seppuku with his dull blade, alone, rather than tarnish the blade he was offered. That sword later being given to his son. Any idea’s? Thanks much

    July 22, 2012
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