Friday, February 8, 2013

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Hara Kiki (1962)

Harakiri (1962) ****
Directed by: Masaki Kobayashi.
Written by: Shinobu Hashimoto based on the novel by Yasuhiko Takiguchi.
Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai (Hanshiro Tsugumo), Akira Ishihama (Motome Chijiiwa), Shima Iwashita (Miho Tsugumo), Tetsurô Tanba (Hikokuro Omodaka), Masao Mishima (Tango Inaba), Ichirô Nakatani (Hayato Yazaki), Kei Satô (Masakazu), Yoshio Inaba (Jinai Chijiiwa), Yoshirô Aoki (Umenosuke Kawabe).

Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri is one of the best samurai films I have ever seen. This is true despite the fact that the film really is an anti-samurai film – one that looks at Japan’s most celebrated historic warrior, and criticizes the famous code in which they lived. Kobayashi’s film, while certainly critical of feudalism in Japan’s past, works as well as a criticism of Japan’s present circa 1962. Kobayashi rejects the idea that the individual most be subserverant to the group – a prevailing idea in Japan at that time (and in some ways still today). So it shouldn’t be surprising that Harakiri, although it is a samurai film, doesn’t contain all that much action. True, the final battle in the film is the samurai version of The Wild Bunch’s final shootout – bloody in the extreme and sustained for a long time – but until then, Harakiri almost seems like a courtroom drama, more than a samurai film. When we finally get to that bloody showdown at the end of the film, it isn’t really thrilling, because it’s all too sad. The violence hits hard, as it should.

Interestingly, for a samurai film, this one is set in 1630 – less than 25 years into the reign of the Tokugawa shogunate. Most samurai films take place much later – in the 1800s – in the years before the shogunate collapsed. The purpose setting the film earlier is to show that the code of the samurai was wrong from the beginning – they didn’t lose their way at the end, but were always corrupt. The film opens with Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai) showing up at the compound of the Iyi clan, requesting permission to commit seppuku – ritual suicide for samurais. Through flashbacks, we learn that Tsugumo’s son in law, Motome Chijiwa (Akira Ishihama) had recently come to the Iyi clan with the same request. Motome had heard that if you offer to commit seppuku to the Iyi’s, that instead of allowing you, that they would offer you a job instead. But the Iyi clan, sick of having so many ronin (masterless samurai), from clans that were destroyed at the beginning of the shogunate era, showing up and requesting the honor. Instead of giving Motome a job, they call his bluff, and force him to go through with the seppuku. He requests a few days to put his affairs in order, and they refuse. When they discover that Motome has sold his real samurai swords, they force him to go through with the seppuku using his bamboo swords – which makes the process much harder and more painful. As Tsugumo tells his story – of how he came to be unemployed, his struggles to raise his daughter, and Motomo, whose father was his best friend before out of shame he as well committed seppuku, the death of his wife, the death of his grandchild, the death of his daughter, the Iyi clan grows restless. They sense that there is something Tsugomo is not telling him – specifically about the absence of the three samurai he requested to be his “second” (the one who will cut his head off after he has disemboweled himself so the pain isn’t too great, and his death isn’t dragged out too long).

Harakiri is a masterfully made movie. Kobayashi shoots the film is stark black and white, and in widescreen, which serves the movie well. The intricate flashback structure of the movie is expertly handled, and Kobayashi’s visuals are frequently stunning (as they would be in the color film Kwaidan two years later). The film ends with one of the greatest samurai battles ever put on screen. The battle is bloody and intense, but also full of starts and stops. Interestingly, throughout the battle, Kobayashi cuts away to show the head of the Iyi clan, in isolation in a dark room, as the crushing weight of what Tsugumo has told him becomes all too clear.

Harakiri has a slower pace than most samurai movies – no real action happens for well over an hour and a half – but the film is never boring. Part of this is thanks to the brilliant performance by Tatsuya Nakadai, in the lead role. He has a difficult role, because he cannot reveal everything from the start, but by the end, when the full weight of what has happened becomes apparent, just how good he was becomes apparent. He rejects the code of the samurai, but shows the hypocrisy in the Iyi clan, who claim to hold it above all other considerations. Tsugumo believes there are things in this life worth dying for – and he shames the Iyi clan by proving that he is willing to do it.

Kobayashi isn’t as well known as some other Japanese directors of that era – particularly Akira Kurosawa. But Harakiri can easily stand alongside the best films that other Japanese master ever made. It is a complex, challenging film. One that is endlessly engrossing. I want to see more of his films.

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