1910s, 2/4, Drama, Fritz Lang, Review

Harakiri (1919)

#36 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.

In the end, I think I may be a bit more kind to the whole of Harakiri than I should be, but the ending refocuses a lot of what came before, giving it a power that the rest of the film didn’t seem all that interested in pursuing. It’s still not good, but I think its final moments right wayward ship. And yet, it demonstrates a lot of the problems with adaptation into cinema, especially taking a two-and-a-half-hour opera, Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, and turning it into an 87-minute long silent film. Losing an hour while also losing the ability of characters to actually speak is a tough combination to overcome, and this attempt at a straight drama mostly ends up falling short.

A daimyo (Paul Biensfeldt) returns from a trip to Europe to a household in some trouble. The local Buddhist priest (Georg John) has set his illicit sights on the daimyo’s daughter, O-Take-San (Lil Dagover), insisting that she join the temple as a priestess with obvious ulterior motives. To help break her from her domestic situation, the priest writes to the emperor a lie about how the daimyo has been overcome by Western influences, a single letter enough to convince the emperor to demand the daimyo commit seppuku. The daimyo, being a good servant of the emperor, follows through.

Now, let me take a moment to talk about medieval Japanese culture. I don’t know a lot, but I have been watching a whole lot of Japanese movies over the past few months, and the details of so much of this story seem so wrong. It’s a lot of little things that mostly just kind of bug me, not really negatively affecting the telling of the story, but just enough to get on my nerves. People walk around inside with sandals on. When we see the one person take off their sandals, they do it on the wrong elevation outside the house. Almost no one ever sits down, on the floor or anywhere else. The women wear their kimonos far too loosely around their legs. The weirdest part, though, is how the priest talks about the Buddha as some sort of vengeful god who will punish those who do not do as the Buddha wishes. I can allow for the priest being a terrible person, lying to get what he wants, but that’s so not how the Buddha works in any form of Buddhism I’ve ever heard about that it sits there as a weird point that simply will not go away. Essentially, this feels like the work of Europeans who grew to love Japanese culture but never learned the details of it.

The details that do work are the production design. There are a fair number of sets, almost all located in Japan, and they have a slightly cluttered by convincing look of Japanese traditional housing. There’s a lot of signage and detail that make them convincing places for the characters to inhabit, often feeling oppressed by the detail itself, like the culture itself is manifest in the detail.

O-Take-San gets saved by the brash action of a foreign sailor, Olaf (Niels Prien), who jumps a wall into a forbidden garden where O-Take-San is praying, preparing to become a full priestess of the temple. He marries her for 999 days, according to local law, and they conceive a child. He must sail away, though, and leaves her living in a tea house with a kindly proprietor and the law on her side against the priest’s further actions for a time. Olaf, of course, never comes back, leaving her a loyal wife to a disloyal husband who take another wife back in his home country.

Coincidence drives the finale with the Prince Matahari (Meinhart Maur) discovering the priest’s duplicitousness, becoming a kind of guardian to O-Take-San, and Olaf receiving an offer to return to Japan, bringing his wife along. It’s all pretty standard melodramatic stuff, but O-Take-San’s actions that end the film, after she discovers her husband’s bigamy, gives a nice wraparound feel to the film that helps to underline the new title for the work.

The problem with the adaptation is that there’s a lot of story, the silent approach (not exactly Lang’s fault since it was the only way to do movies at the time) undermines the immediacy of the characters, and that lack of character prevents any real emotional connection. The plot’s twists and turns feel almost arbitrary, but O-Take-San’s final action provides a strong structural ending that I admire.

It’s not enough to make the movie good, but it’s enough to have convinced me that I hadn’t completely wasted my time. That, plus the set design, are really what gives the film what little strength it has.

Rating: 2/4


4 thoughts on “Harakiri (1919)”

  1. So…Japan. Yes, walking around inside with shoes/sandals/boots on is like dragging your balls across someone’s face without them being into that. I need to go back and watch The Inheritence, I’m not sure when the cops show up if they’re wearing street shoes or not. But I HAVE seen Japanese films where the police detective took his shoes off and put on slippers before entering someone’s home. Though that was a comedy…

    Japanese Buddhism varies quite a bit from Indian or even Chinese takes. Japanese Buddhists notorious formed rebel groups in the north/west portions of the islands and would frequently disrupt life in Kyoto by starting fights or riots and leading mobs against the nobility. There are wrathful aspects to Buddha, one of the big ones in Japan is Fudo Myoo. Yama taka is a wrathful form of the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. I could go on but a Buddhist priest preaching vengence is on-brand for Japan…even if it’s not 100% mainstream Buddhist thought. (Buddhism is complicated and I stopped trying to study and understand it long ago)

    On the whole, this story doesn’t sound terrible. It’s no Kobayashi Hara Kiri but…doesn’t sound like trash. But…silent films really aren’t my jam. So dunno if I’ll watch this or not. I’ll put it as a maybe as I do like Fritz Lang, especially visually.


    1. My extensive knowledge of Japanese Buddhism extends to no more than largely secular Japanese films from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, so we can say that I’m an expert.

      Okay, maybe not an expert, but a Twitter expert level.

      So, I’ve always seen it as more Karma based rather than vengeful god based. It does seem like it’s a bit of an outlier, but not exactly unheard of. Still, that sounds like a happy coincidence that there’s a small corner of Buddhism that sort of matches up with what the Western writers came up with rather than a deep knowledge of Japanese culture and religious traditions.

      The story is essentially Madame Butterfly, of course, so the bones of the story are there.


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