Harakiri the 1962 Japanese gem is much more than a simple story of a ronin (a Samurai who no longer serves a feudal lord) who lives in extreme poverty because of the long peace in the realm. Since there is no fighting the shogunate breaks up leaving a lot of samurai out of work. The only thing left for these ronins to do is commit harakiri i.e. a ritual for committing suicide by cutting the belly open with a katana. Harakiri was considered an act of extreme valour and honour for a ronin.
The lead character Hanshiro Tsugumo is played by the legendary actor Tatsuya Nakadai.
It all begins when Hanshiro approaches the door of a feudal lord of the Lyi clan, requesting a place to commit harakiri. The Lord accepts his request on a condition that once he makes the commitment, Hanshiro has to commit harakiri, if he refuses he will be forced to do it by the samurai of the Lyi clan. The lord places extreme emphasis on the word of a samurai, how much he respects rituals, how important it is to commit to one’s words and the importance of commitment. In the film, it is implied that commitment to the clan is of prime importance for the Lyi and the legacy of their ancestors is to be cherished and protected. Failing to do so warrants harakiri by the person-in-charge who is the Lord himself.
Hearing this Hanshiro boldly states that his decision is final and nothing can change his mind so the lord has nothing to worry about. At the ritual, Hanshiro is offered the choice of a samurai from the Lyi clan to assist him in his act. The problem arises when the men requested by Hanshiro are all unavailable because of some illness. The film then reveals details about a similar incident in which another ronin requested to commit harakiri in the same manner as Hanshiro does. Eventually, Hanshiro dies but only to reveal that the claims of the Lyi clan lord are all false.
Hanshiro during his act disrespects the Lord’s ancestors, he proves that all the morality that the Lyi clan boasts about are all just empty claims. In the end, Hanshiro dies after making the lord realize how wrong he is about himself and his men. But, after the entire charade ends the lord orders to not speak of this incident as it happened and instead tells his men to tell a different story in which Hanshiro committed harakiri as intended.
The film spoke to me directly stating that reality is no much different. Everybody has a moral claim to make about themselves nowadays. I respect the nation, I love my religion, I can not commit a particular act because I am too pure for it, a certain class of people are incapable of betrayal etc.
The problem I have with all these claims is those who make it are never explicit about them but rather accuse the other of not doing the same. They assume a higher moral ground by default. Harakiri in some sense was like a mirror for me to look into, it made me ask do I assume a higher moral ground for myself by default? This led me to ask deeper questions such as, Is morality even understood in most cases, if so who approves it? Do my morals hold ground? And perhaps the most difficult question that came to me is can my morality be held in difficult situations?
This can be applied to everyone as individuals. These individuals come together and form a common morality for the crowd. The morality then takes over and robs the individual of their own mortality. In harakiri, the Lord is clearly vigilant of his morality being shattered to pieces but as he is a part of the Lyi clan he chooses to hide the turn of events and in turn twists facts to tell to the world thereby protecting the morals of the clan. The reality is however completely different and everyone inside the clan is well aware of it.
People in power tend to do that in order to protect themselves and their clan. In medieval Japan, integrity commands a high position. To lie is a big deal personally and to hide it is beyond comprehension making the act of the general pathetic, to say the least. If the Japanese ideals are substracted then lying becomes a necessity and an excuse for the protection of the clan. This opens up the window to employ any means necessary to “protect” the clan which can include vilification of others. En masse that is a dangerous proposition.
In the end, I want to state that Harakiri is a mirror for entire societies and also for individuals. If the Japanese context is replaced with the context of the world, the core message still holds ground. The only change is the degree of accountability.