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Choosing Between Death and Death: Suicide in Kobayashi’s Seppuku

November 9, 2010 | By

Masaki Kobayashi devises in Seppuku (1962) a language that is stark and simple and unfolds a drama that sharply critiques feudalism in all forms and scrutinizes issues dealing with both morality and mortality.

Of the three primary types of suicides that Durkheim discusses in his Suicide (1897), altruistic suicide is perhaps immediately associated with Japanese culture, although somewhat mistakenly so in its absolutism, in the forms of hara-kiri, banzai charge and kamikaze. In contemporary society, either in the east or in the west, suicide is unmistakably related to aberrations of the mind attributed to a disease (dis-ease) that has lost its earlier philosophical insinuations and is now studied and understood with a clinical rigor exclusive to psychology. The terminological shift from ‘melancholy’ to ‘depression’ testifies to the objectification of the condition.

With the Romans, such as the ones referred to in Montaigne’s Essays (1580), the samurai, the practitioners of rituals like sati and jauhar, suicide was inseparably bound up with honor, more often than not, carried out with a sense of duty and glory as a reasonable outcome of an inscrutable allegiance to a particular belief system. Ritualizing death is conceivably as old as the consciousness of death itself and is a persistent presence in the history of human civilization whereas suicide, egoistic to the extent that it results from low social integration, is mostly committed in privacy and isolation. The hermeneutics of death and its representation in an aesthetic medium such as the cinema are problematic because they require, for validation, a special, extra-linguistic narration of thanatos, that secures them from either depreciation or glorification or both. The cinematic mean, since it is equipped with an ever-expansive formulation of language, is capable of assisting us understand death, both actual and imagined, better, acknowledging at times with earnest clarity that such understanding is incomplete. Masaki Kobayashi devises in Seppuku (1962) a language that is stark and simple and unfolds a drama that sharply critiques feudalism in all forms and scrutinizes issues dealing with both morality and mortality. At the outset, it is useful to review the story.



The film opens with the arrival, on May 13, 1630, of Hanshiro Tsugumo, a rōnin (a masterless samurai) claiming to be a former retainer of the Fukushima Clan in Hiroshima, to the residence of the Iyi Clan and requesting permission to perform seppuku on the premises. He  has failed to find employment with a new master and is in dire straits. Kageyo Saito, the counselor of the House of Iyi, inquires if Tsugumo has heard of a man named Motome Chijiiwa who also served Lord Fukushima and when Tsugumo answers in the negative, he relates the story of Chijjiwa who had also come with the desire to commit ritual suicide on the premises of the clan.

After the battle of Sekigahara, the house had been getting several visitations from wandering rōnins who came with the often untoward request of committing seppuku. A lot of these were suspected to be deceitful warriors come with the intent of obtaining money. A conference amongst the members of the clan resulted in the decision to allow Chijiiwa to commit seppuku. If his intention was indeed a ruse, he would not be allowed to leave.  However, when Chijiiwa requested for a respite of two days, his request was declined because it was “too late for that” and he was ordered to prepare himself for seppuku immediately. He was subsequently forced to perform seppuku with his sword, which turned out to be a bamboo sword, thus making his death more agonizing and excruciating.

Upon listening to this story, Tsugumo does not relent. The arrangements for his seppuku are made but the ceremony is temporarily brought to a halt when he asks for a “second” (kaishakunin) of his own choice and when the same is sent for, in order to relieve the tedium of the intervening moments,  begins to tell his story (when it is discovered that his preferred “second” is absent from the house, he states his preferences two more times and continues his narrative until neither of the two choices are found and closure is achieved): Motome Chijjiwa was the son of Jinnai, Tsugumo’s friend. Jinnai, before he committed seppuku entrusted Tsugumo with the care of his son. Tsugumo was thus unable to choose the warrior’s way into suicide and had to support both Motome and his own daughter Miho. Love blossomed between the two as they grew up and they were married eventually, despite Motome’s initial protestation of meager income. They gave birth to a son who was named Kingo. Miho, constitutionally weak and having to work hard beyond her capacity, became ill and so did Kingo, of high fever.

Motome informed Tsugumo that he knew a former retainer who had now turned to money-lending and rushed out saying he would be back by evening. Later that night, Motome Chijiiwa’s body was brought home by an escort of retainers along with his blades of bamboo – a reminder that abject poverty had forced him to sell off his original swords. Tsugumo’s tale fails to produce a sympathetic response from the clan. He presents before the house topknots of Umenosuke Kawabe, Hayato Yazaki and Hikokuro Omodaka, retainers all, specifically responsible for Motome’s death, and tells them how he defeated them. In the samurai ideal, losing one’s topknot is a grave dishonour. The counselor orders Tsugumo to be killed and in a tremendous and somewhat improbable display of desperate rage, Tsugumo fights and kills and wounds several retainers before killing himself. To cover up the incidents, lest the deaths of several retainers of the clan at the hands of a random rōnin  become public, Yazaki, Kawabe are ordered covertly to commit seppuku (Omodoka has already done so)  and accounted to have died of illness. Tsugumo is reported, in the Iyi journal and to the general public, to have committed seppuku honourably.

While the film is a scathing indictment against the abstract, dehumanizing extremes of the bushido code, it instigates a discourse on self-destruction, purely voluntary or otherwise, in suicide’s relation to culture and society. At the house of Iyi, meticulous attention is paid to the formal features of seppuku: the intricacies of the ritual such as the sartorial propriety, the timing of the kaishakunin, the complete disemboweling using nothing but one’s own sword, even if it is made of bamboo that one wouldn’t use to slice a radish. Such fascination with form is almost Fascist and is symptomatic of absolute rationalization and institutionalization of tradition. Tsugumo later points out in his arraignment – and in this sense the film can indeed be read as a ‘discussion play’ in the vein of Shavian theatre of ideology – that no one in the house felt it necessary to inquire as to why Motome wanted a day or two’s respite, presuming with facile smugness that his request must have been an excuse to escape. Forced suicide was extant in the Edo period when the samurai system demanded that a rōnin , useless and robbed of his identity by his master’s demise, die honorably: his identity as a samurai, in this sense, lay in wait for him beyond life. When convicted with an act of disloyalty, the samurai was given a choice which was not unlike the choice offered to Motome in the film: he is made to choose between death and death.


Death brings death. Kingo dies soon after and is followed by Miho leaving Tsugumo wrecked but vengeful. He confronts the three retainers of the clan of Iyi and takes their topknots, thus condemning them to severest opprobrium. Although he does not visit the premise of Iyi clan explicitly to commit seppuku, he goes with the full awareness that he will perhaps not return alive. To this extent, he expresses a suicidal behavior which is in mystified oscillation between egoistic and altruistic. It is he who knowingly interrupts the ceremony and orchestrates the situation interpolating his narrative of losses. He is forced into the final combat, performed in the absence of words, which he is destined to lose.

Fighting through batteries of retainers he manages to reach the shrine of the clan bruised and maimed, lifts the hallowed samurai armor and struts in an animal gait, carrying the armor with him, giving us the visual impression of Tsugumo polycephalically fused with the armor. This is a symbolic moment. This is a moment of identity. The armor makes him appear an uncanny animal, crippled and non-human. Symbolic of the samurai restrictions, it denies his humanity, his identity as a free citizen. In a historic moment of defiance, he throws off the armor, upon seeing the guns (the swords and blades have not been able to tame his destructive, Samson-like rage), kills himself. His suicide is not seppuku and in a Bushido sense, an act of disgrace.

According to Durkheim, egoistic suicide results from under-integration of an individual in a society whereas altruistic suicide results from just the opposite. In Kobayashi’s Seppuku, the alchemy of integration is far from simple. Tsugumo and Motome were assimilated in the samurai mode of life – standing here for the Durkheimian ‘society’ – and were trained to accept death in all forms. They committed suicide – their suicides were coerced – but they were not suicidal humans with records of manic depression. Instead, they loved life and defended it to the end: Motome, desperate to save his son’s life, risks his own by visiting the house of Iyi clan; Tsugumo sacrifices his samurai obligation to die in order to care for and protect the young Miho and Motome; he urges Motome to marry Miho lest she finds herself in danger of becoming a concubine to Lord Sakakibara. All these are life-embracing acts of selflessness. They seem to follow a heroic code that is more human and less institutionalized – an altruism that is spontaneous and natural evolving out of the depths of human heart motivated by nothing else but love. Philos, as a guiding principle, helps them survive what Durkheim would call anomie. Tsugumo in particular endures constantly shifting ethical and social orders and his fortitude confronts absolute nothingness when his daughter dies. To outlive the fruit of one’s own loins often produces, apart from unendurable agony, an irrational, misdirected guilt of survival, which can only be remitted if it is acted upon. Therefore, Tsugumo avenges the death of his family – the only people he knew and loved – by confronting and defeating the three retainers and inflicting harm upon others of the clan. In the end, his suicide is a personal act of freedom and assertion of identity.

In On Suicide: A Discourse on Voluntary Death, Jean Améry points out that a suicidal person often perceives suicide as an act of freedom but his perception is seldom accompanied by the idea that freedom has two sides – ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’. Suicide is seen as a potential release from misery and immitigable pain but the realm(s) into which the disembodied self – if an after-life at all exists –  is released after one’s voluntary death is seldom taken into account. Tsugumo, trained in an altruistic code, thinks of the afterlife and envisions a reunion with Miho, Kingo and Motome. In Japanese folk tradition, however, the spirit (reikon) of a person whose death is attended upon by violence and anger or any other strong over-powering emotion, whose sacrificial rites are not performed properly, is transformed into a ghost (yūrei) and come back to haunt the living. It is not sure if Tsugumo has all this in mind but an itinerary of the departed souls would probably trace the transformation of spirits of Tsugumo, Miho, Motome and Kingo into ghosts denied a peaceful afterlife, since their deaths were neither tranquil nor entirely natural.

In the end, Tsugumo only has the image of afterlife as possible meaning to the feverish, relentless and fractured existence he went through. His suicide may be a logical outcome of the meaninglessness and increasing isolation, in the face of the absence of allegiance, economic crisis, loss of family and friends, crushing burden of a system of honour that makes any assertion of the self not only impossible but also absurd, but from the perspective of the Iyi family, it is an act of terrorism.

In the wake of suicide terrorism Kobayashi’s Seppuku should seem increasingly relevant. The coerciveness and hollow discipline that discounts any rousing of subjective response on the part of the samurai, is symptomatic of the rigor and systematic duress with which individuals are engrafted into fundamentalist organizations. Altruism, manifested in the form of intifada, carried to its logical extreme produces martyrs or terrorists, depending upon one’s perspective. Like Samson – and one thinks particularly of Milton’s Samson – Tsugumo dies with others. The physical contact between Tsugumo and his victims is immediate and fatal. There is, to a great extent, intimacy of bodies in such conditions, albeit post-mortal, that recall the fact that in an instance of a successful suicide bombing, the body of the suicide bomber and the victim are brought in contact with or proximity to each other in a way that would be impossible to imagine under normal circumstances, not only explosive in their contact but terribly intrusive.

Suicide terrorism involves a calculated violation of a socially construed protocol of interaction between bodies that revels in anonymity: a suicide bomber is nameless, faceless and to use death as a metaphor, lifeless. Tsugumo’s last act is not one of martyrdom but rage and despair. His suicide, interstingly enough, dovetails with structures of altruism and egoism, as did the suicide of celebrated Japanese author Yukio Mishima. Confronted with imminent death, he chooses to die by his own sword. Is this his final allegiant gesture to the samurai ideal of honour? Or is it his valid response to a general meaninglessness of life? Perhaps both. But the person who commits suicide dies with the etiological secrets leaving us with speculations.  He is more acted against than acting and with his arrival at the premises of the Iyi clan, he initiates a performance which he choreographs till the end, bringing about the catastrophe and the closure with erasing himself out of the narrative.

The spectacular and performative aspect of hara-kiri holds us, as much as it holds the retainers of the clan, in anxious anticipation but the ironic undercurrent of the film maintains that in a film titled ‘Seppuku’, there is no hara-kiri (apart from the suicide of Jinnai, which is related to have occurred in the past): Motome Chijiiwa’s suicide, forced and performed with a bamboo sword, is hardly a proper hara-kiri; Tsugumo rejects the ritual and engages in murder-suicide.

Instead of offering a queasy solution to the problems of either suicide or feudalism, the film contests several standpoints.  With the rising suicide rates across the world and Japan in particular, films such as Seppuku that demystify the glorification surrounding suicide, are particularly relevant and should be considered essential in sympathetic and amoral human understanding of what remains the most complex of all human acts.


Améry, Jean. On Suicide: a Discourse on Voluntary Death. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1999. Print.

Durkheim, Emile, and John A. Spaulding. Suicide. Reissue ed. New York City: Free Press, 1997. Print.

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Avirup Ghosh is completing his M.Phil in English at Jadavpur University and takes an academic interest in suicide and its representation in literature, films and the visual arts.
All Posts of Avirup Ghosh

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