Feature Thousand Words

Thousand Words: Tōru Takemitsu and Masaki Kobayashi (Harakiri, 1962)


Tōru Takemitsu (1930-1996), one of the leading Japanese composers of the twentieth century and renowned for combining elements of Japanese and western music in an innovative and original way, wrote the music for more than ninety films. He worked with some of the most important Japanese filmmakers of his time, including Masahiro Shinoda, Hiroshi Teshigahara, Kon Ichikawa, Shōhei Imamura and Akira Kurosawa, for whom he provided the film score for Ran (1985). His collaboration with another great Japanese filmmaker, Masaki Kobayashi, is particularly noteworthy. Takemitsu wrote the scores for Harakiri and The Inheritance, both released in 1962, and for all of Kobayashi’s subsequent films: Kwaidan (1964), Samurai Rebellion (1967), Inn of Evil (1971), The Fossil (1975), Glowing Autumn (1979), the documentary Toyko Trial (1983) and Family Without a Dinner Table (1985).

The period film Harakiri (Seppuku), set in the early seventeenth century, is outstanding for its innovative approach to Japanese cultural forms, both in image and sound. It was the first film in which the score featured music played on traditional Japanese instruments, a decision that can partly be explained by the historical setting of Harakiri. However, it would be misleading to see the recourse to traditional instruments and sound material as serving only the purpose of historical accuracy. The subtle way music is used in the film goes far beyond such a simplistic explanation.

The film starts with a series of shots of an empty suit of samurai armour, that of the venerated ancestor of the house of Iyi, as we learn later on. The atonal, electronically created sound contributes to the scary and alien atmosphere of the visual image. A strong feeling of danger emanates from the ghost-like armour, which, enveloped in dense mist, seems like a dark, horrifying figure. The next shot shows the protagonist Hanshirō Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai), framed in front of the residence of the powerful Iyi clan. The music is now fast, aggressive strumming on the biwa (a kind of lute that typically has four strings), which presages the dramatic events to come. This time, the sound is not atonal but based on a fragment of the traditional song “Sakura” (“Cherry blossoms”), one of the most popular Japanese folk songs.


Variations on the tune played on the biwa are used at several other points in the film. Played more slowly and in a more legato style, it reappears in a flashback showing Hanshirō’s daughter Miho (Shima Iwashita) and Motome (Akira Ishihama), the protagonist’s future son-in-law, eleven years previously. The two young people, who are clearly fond of each other, are sitting in front of an open shoji with an abundance of cherry trees in full bloom creating a background of radiant beauty behind the innocent-looking adolescent and the pretty girl. This short sequence evokes the well-known words of the folk song, which describe happy springtime feelings. Both image and sound point to the season of spring as a symbol of youth, innocence and beauty. Motome, the young samurai, is practicing calligraphy, one of the arts a samurai was expected to master according to the ideal of this warrior caste, which combined literature and swordsmanship.

However, the symbolic meaning of the cherry blossom is twofold – the cherry tree is in bloom only for a very short time. The delicate petals floating into the room where the two young people are talking to each other suggest the fragility of happiness. The cherry blossom, as a symbol of the evanescence of life, is closely connected to the image of the samurai in the culture of bushido (the way of the warrior, the samurai’s concept of life). Like the tiny flower, the warrior’s life does not last long. In the very opening sequence with Hanshirō, the tune is connected with darkness and death.

It is heard again in the scene depicting the duel between Hanshirō and Hikokuro Omodaka (Tetsurō Tamba). The idyllic vision of cherry trees in bloom is no more than a faint echo, strongly contradicted by the autumnal setting of the violent confrontation. The wind blowing through the susuki grass (a symbol of autumn in ancient Japanese poetry), the tombstones in the background, dark clouds and the twilight creating shadowy sections on the screen are other strong reminders of the fragility of human existence.

Motome is condemned to a slow and horrible death by the members of the Iyi clan, who force him to commit seppuku (known in the West as “harakiri”) by disemboweling himself with his wooden sword. The young man does not simply fall like the cherry blossoms, and his blood-smeared white clothes certainly do not evoke the beautiful flowers. The expressionist lighting, creating a space filled with terror and anxiety, is in sharp contrast to the beauty of Japanese aesthetics as reflected in the scenery at this point.

Similar to the use he made of “Sakura”, Takemitsu’s variations on fragments of a second popular song, “Kōjō no tsuki” (“Moon over the Ruined Castle”), challenge the nostalgia expressed in this song, which refers to the lost magnificence of ancient Japan. Motome’s agony is presented in a series of fast cuts accompanied by frantic sounds on the biwa, which mingle with the cries of pain and the terrible groaning of the dying man. The tune is first heard in a slow, almost solemn version before becoming more dominant as an echo of past glory perverted by the cruel ritual taking place on screen. Visual and acoustic elements destroy the popular fiction of beauty in death. The oblique position of the camera, together with the disturbing dissonances of Takemitsu’s variations on the song, highlights the inhumane treatment the young ronin is forced to submit to.

Kobayashi questions and criticises the moral code of the Iyi, revealing the cruelty and pointlessness of codes of behavior that require blind obedience. Kobayashi’s formal approach to Japanese aesthetics explores the dark and tragic side of the past, a past which lingers on still today. The codes of loyalty and self-sacrifice, with their roots in bushido, continued to exist in twentieth century Japan. They were the backbone of the imperialist policy in the first half of that century and they survived in post-war Japan’s entrepreneurial system as symbolised by the big corporations, the keiretsu. The film’s critical examination of pointless traditions is clearly expressed in Hanshirō’s monologue after Motome’s death, in which he accuses himself of having clung too long “to the remains of past glory, remains without value”. Image and sound match perfectly when the soundtrack hints at “Kojō no tsuki” and we see a close-up of Hanshirō’s face, as if the music is transforming his state of mind.


Both the filmmaker and the composer create an active relationship between past and present by challenging the conventional meaning of the material they are working with. Japanese folk songs were used by the military regime of the 1930s and during the war to strengthen patriotic feelings, and this reference is implicit in Takemitsu’s use of them. Not unlike Kobayashi’s, Takemitsu’s critical view of cultural traditions could be explained by his war experience and his strong dislike of injustice and authoritarian systems.

Japanese music can also make use of natural sounds, and Takemitsu’s soundtrack includes sound effects as well. The frequent clashing of swords, the noise of a fan being folded, and single chords on the biwa create a kind of acoustic punctuation. The minimalist use of music parallels the sobriety of the architecture, which Kobayashi explores in long travelling shots. The mise-en-scène is built on the oppositions between light and shadow, linearity and chaos, and other oppositions too – namely sound and silence – are fused into the soundtrack.

A sequence similar to the film’s opening, now showing the ancestor’s armour fully restored after the battle that has taken place in the Iyi residence, closes the film. All traces of Hanshirō’s desperate rebellion are erased, and Kobayashi’s view of the individual’s struggle is pessimistic. However, he points to the necessity of this struggle and the necessity of revealing the failure of the political system, a system as empty and soulless as the armour. Kobayashi and Takemitsu work within this system and make use of its artistic forms. However, by re-examining its traditions critically, they create something new and original. Without destroying the old patterns completely, they reveal their dark side by means of modification and variation, bringing them to life again and giving them new social significance.

By Andrea Grunert

Andrea Grunert is an independent scholar (Ph.D University Paris X, with a dissertation on the films of Clint Eastwood and the American frontier) and freelance writer and lecturer in film and cultural studies. She has published widely in France and Germany. She is the editor of three books published by Charles Corlet (France): Le corps filmé (2006), L’écran des frontières (2010) and De la pauvreté (2013). Her Dictionnaire Clint Eastwood is out in French bookshops, published by Vendémiaire.

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