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The 36 Dramatic Situations: Harakiri (1962) and Self-Sacrifice for Kin

By  · Published on August 16th, 2010

This article is part of our 36 Dramatic Situations series.

For 36 days straight, we’ll be exploring the famous 36 Dramatic Situations by presenting a film that exemplifies each one. From family killing family to prisoners in need of asylum, we brush off the 19th-century list in order to remember that it’s still incredibly relevant today.

Whether you’re seeking a degree in Literature, love movies, or just love seeing things explode, our feature should have something for everyone. If it doesn’t, please don’t make us kill ourselves with a bamboo sword.

Part 8 of the 36-part series takes a look at “Self-Sacrifice for Kin” with Masaki Kobayashi’s samurai masterpiece Harakiri.

The Synopsis

In 1630 Japan, ronin Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai) arrives at the house of a feudal lord in search for a suitable place to commit seppuku. In order to make sure Tsugumo is not a despondent warrior simply looking for a handout, the house lord recounts a cautionary tale of a previous ronin who was made to pay for his dishonesty with an extraordinarily painful seppuku. While Tsugumo prepares to commit seppuku, he tells a story that ultimately reveals him is the first ronin’s father-in-law, then proceeds to enact one of cinema’s finest depictions of revenge.

The Situation

“Self-sacrifice for kin” is a quite flexible dramatic situation, as the word “kin” can take on several meanings. While a familiar iteration of the situation can be treated literally (a brother sacrificing himself for his sibling, a parent sacrificing him or herself for a child), “kin” can also refer to a loved one not related by blood, or the more symbolic kindred one is attached to by nation or ideology. In its most literal interpretation, this situation is manifested as one life being sacrificed in order to save the life of another, but in the case of various iterations of this situation –like the particular story of Harakiri – sacrifice can be enacted in order to preserve honor or an accepted version of memory (as in, the one sacrificed for does not necessarily have to be living).

The Film

While Harakiri is in so many ways a classic revenge story, it also belongs to this category of dramatic situations because both the viewer and the protagonist know from the outset that the central character will not be alive by the end of this film. While Harakiri contains some of the most suspenseful samurai scenes ever made in Japanese cinema, they are enacted with Tsugumo entirely without intent or pretense of defeating the entire house and walking away from it. Tsugumo’s clear and inevitable fate, then, is ultimately one of victory rather than defeat because the sacrifice he needed to make – inspired by the wrong committed upon his beloved kin whose honor and memory he aspired to restore, and whose retribution he sought to execute – was absolutely necessary to achieve the end of his means according to his personal code of ethics (one that differs significantly from the house’s samurai code).

Harakiri explores the idea of sacrifice from the outset, as the subject at hand – seppuku – renders sacrifice not only a theme explored in a multitude of ways throughout but also makes up the film’s central setting and story structure. Tsugumo seeks revenge through self-sacrifice because the house has twisted the otherwise traditionally honorable act of the samurai warrior’s self sacrifice into something perverse by making his son-in-law commit an excruciating act of seppuku with a bamboo sword.

Harakiri is a fascinating and complex meditation on the meaning and nature of sacrifice dependent on context rather than a code, and what it means to die an honorable death. The film may be commonly referred to as one of the best samurai movies ever made, but the delineations assumed within this praise are rather misleading because Kobayaski’s work here is so aggressively against a classically celebrated notion of what a samurai is; that is, the film questions and challenges the samurai code of honor and ethics, violently revealing cowardice and self-interested structures of power within. In violating that code, Tsugumo’s sacrifice comes across as the most honorable, selfless, and brave compared to the other figures of the story. Through its narrative of self-sacrifice for kin, Harakiri argues that honor is an objective notion rarely found in most warriors, and a virtue that can’t be unbound by the politics of hierarchies or implementation of empty codes.

Bonus Examples: Man on Fire, Life is Beautiful, Armageddon

Check out our entire series of 36 Dramatic Situations, 36 Movies.

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