“Good things never last for long,” laments Hanshirō Tsugumo in the 1962 film, Harakiri. Thus begins Tsugumo’s story of the collapse of his idyllic life. While it’s the loss of these ‘good things’ that drives the emotional aspect of the story in Harakiri, it’s the theme of honor that is the core of the story. Masaki Kobayashi’s film about a ronin whose decision to perform seppuku (ritual suicide also known as harakiri) leads to the unraveling of a deeper story of tragedy and honor is considered one of the best samurai films ever made. Kobayashi’s films typically speak on the defiance of tradition and authority, with Harakiri (1962) focusing on feudalism during the Edo period. Interestingly, this period of Japan’s history was the focus of many Japanese filmmakers in the 50’s and 60’s who used the past events in jidai-geki (period film) to parallel the injustices of the present.
Samurai life was based on the moral code bushido (literally “the way of the warrior”) which stressed, among many things, honor unto death. The 1899 publication of Nitobe Inazō’s Bushido: The Soul of Japan was the first to popularize the term bushido. Inazo writes that bushido “was an organic growth of decades and centuries of military career,” eventually becoming formalized into Japanese feudal law under the Tokugawa Shogunate. It is this period during Shogunate control that Harakiri takes place, a period in which Japan enjoyed relative peace after the Sengoku period (Period of Warring Kingdoms) and the Azuchi-Momoyama period (which came right before the Edo period and saw the stabilization of the country under a single political ruler).
Much of this parallels the period of Japan after World War II in which the country was rebuilding and stabalizing following the conflict and destruction of the war. Right after joining the Shochiku Ofuna studio in 1941, Maskai Kobayashi was drafted into the Japanese Imperial army. Kobayashi disliked the war, calling it “the culmination of human evil,” and in a form of protest, refused the opportunity to become an officer. Following the war, Kobayashi explored the injustices of society in his films where, as Joan Mellen writes in her article Harakiri: Kobayashi and History, the “individual… best expresses himself when he risks everything, taking a stand against corruption, hypocrisy, and evil.” In Harakiri, this individual is Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai), who by requesting to be allowed to use the court of the lyi clan to perform seppuku is given the opportunity to point out the hypocrisy in the honor the lyi clan wishes to uphold. It is this ‘facade of honor’, represented by the armored figure that proudly sits in the hall, that Tsugumo wishes to expose. During this time of peace, the bushido code has become adapted into feudal law, with honor being replaced for tradition. The lyi clan claims to be upholding the bushido code of honor, but in reality are only concerned with maintaining their ‘perception’ of power. By Tsugumo tearing the armored figure down, his action parallels his effort to tear down the ‘facade of honor.’ Saito (the counselor of the Iyi clan) is caught in an intellectual trap; to acknowledge the way he mishandled Chijiiwa’s death would be considered a weakness, yet by denying fault and killing Tsugumo would only substantiate Tsugumo’s claim. Saito decides to dispose of Tsugumo, covering up his death by claiming he committed seppuku, as well as claiming those whom Tsugumo killed or shamed had died from illness. In the end, the lyi clan’s ‘facade of honor’ is restored, symbolized in the restoration of the armored figure, reseated in his normal resting spot and thus revealing that nothing has changed and Tsugumo’s message lost.
Harakiri is regarded as one of the best Japanese films to come from this period; thus it came as a surprise that director Takashi Miike would be following up 13 Assassins (which was also a remake) with a remake of Harakiri. The debate on whether remakes are necessary is a heated one. For every ‘The Thing’ there is a ‘Planet of the Apes.’ Largely the complaint is that remakes should be relegated to less critically acclaimed, more obscure films. Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai is intsead a remake of a classic- and as a remake, is largely successful. Takashi Miike follows the original very closely, with only minor differences between the two. One of these differences is how Tsugumo’s story leading up to Chijiwa’s death is told without flashing back and forth from the story to Tsugumo in the present. Miike also makes some other creative decisions, changing Kingo’s death to occur before Chijiwa’s body is brought home, as well as having Miho commit suicide upon learning of Chijiwa’s death (to enhance the tragedy that befalls Tsugumo’s family). Miike also hints at the confrontation between Tsugumo and all three samurai whereas Kobayashi individually shows the conflict between Tsugumo and the three. Whereas Kobayashi was more interested in portraying the hypocrisy of the lyi clan, and thus focusing on the wordplay of Tsugumo and Saito, Miike focuses on the emotional aspect of the story, enhancing elements (as shown earlier) to better portray the tragedy the befalls Tsugumo and his family. Another interesting moment of comparison between both films is the handling of Chijiwa’s seppuku; while Harakiri shows a more graphic portrayal, the scene in Hara-kiri: DOAS is both longer and more painful to watch.
It isn’t very often that an excellent film is remade to equally good standards. The fact that the original is so good may cause some to wonder why a remake was even necessary, but both films have something to offer. The acting in both films is stellar, as well as the direction, and cinematography. The scores, the first of which is more haunting while the remake is more a traditional, emotive score, help create different moods for each film. Most of the time remakes are made as an obvious attempt for an easy cash-grab, but sometimes a good remake will help bring attention to the original film. No matter how one feels about studios churning out remakes, there’s no denying that this side effect is a good thing.