The Bamboo Ronin: Kobayashi Masaki’s ‘Harakiri’


Photo credit: David Martínez

Kobayashi’s 1962 period piece is one of the most visually eloquent stories ever put on film. Much more than a samurai movie, this black-and-white masterpiece simultaneously evokes a 17th century Japan steeped in courtly traditions and a timeless story about loyalty and vengeance. However, in spite of the privileging of aristocratic or, more specifically, bushido values, it’s not the high-ranking officials of the House of Iyi who embody its most cherished principles, but instead the middle-aged ronin Tsugumo Hanshiro (Nakadai Tatsuya) and his son-in-law Chijiiwa Motome (Ishihama Akira). Indeed, it’s due to the dire straits in which they find themselves that first Chijiiwa, then Tsugumo, have gone to the Iyi court for help.

Ostensibly, Tsugumo has approached the House of Iyi to request that they allow him the honor of committing ritual suicide in their courtyard. Tsugumo’s reasons stem from the pitiful life he has been forced to lead in the aftermath of losing his master at another house in Hiroshima. Supposedly, in the aftermath of the wars that had once defined his life, Tsugumo’s life has now completely lost its sense of purpose, not to mention honor. Consequently, reduced to destitution, he has come to the House of Iyi. The man handling Tsugumo’s request, Saito Kageyu (Mikuni Rentaro) is suspicious of Tsugumo’s motives. Saito thinks that the uninvited guest before him is only after “a few coins,” which is apparently a ploy that other ronin in Edo have been using to exploit various houses in the area. With this in mind, Saito regales Tsugumo with a story of another ronin from Hiroshima who recently came to them under similar circumstances, asking to commit Harakiri. With each segment of his story, Saito challenges Tsugumo’s resolves, which Tsugumo responds to without wavering—he is here to die.


Photo credit: David Martínez

What Saito doesn’t know, as he’s recounting the story of “the Bamboo Ronin,” is that Tsugumo and Chijiiwa are related in a way that will ignite an upheaval in the House of Iyi. Tsugumo, as he listens to Saito, is playing a game of Go with the House of Iyi. He’s there because he’s lost everything, his daughter Miho (Iwashita Shima), her husband, and their infant son, Kingo, Tsugumo’s only grandchild. However, will Tsugumo commit seppuku, disemboweling himself, in a way that befits a samurai or does he have other plans—ones that are no less heroic according to the bushido code? Every scene of Kobayashi’s Harakiri is perfectly framed and the cinematography is absolutely beautiful. In turn, the acting is flawless and effective, compelling the viewer into a stunningly unromantic portrayal of Edo Era Japan, filled with post-war hardship, which is overseen by the selfish, unethical people who lead society with empty platitudes about honor.




Photo credit: David Martínez


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