Wednesday, 9 November 2011
Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Ishihama, Shima Iwashita, Tetsurô Tanba, Masao Mishima
By Alan Bacchus
What can we possibly expect from a film entitled Harakiri, that terrible act of ritual suicide that brings honour in death to dishonoured Japanese samurai? It promises to be a grisly movie, and indeed in the opening we’re witness to a gruesome botched suicide. It’s a horrific scene, which sets up Kobayashi's intriguing story of redemption and revenge.
Harakiri finds Hanshiro Tsugumo, a wandering ex-Samurai (aka Ronin), arriving at the estate of the wealthy Iyi clan looking to commit suicide via harakiri in their honourable courtyard. To the clan leader the visit reminds him of a similar request from a younger man, Motome Chijiiwa, who, like Hanshiro, wanted to die by his own sword in their courtyard. Unfortunately, Motome's death, as told by the elder, was less than honourable – a grisly, drawn-out death due to his dull 'bamboo' blade, a fact that does not sit well with Hanshiro.
Recalling the flashback structures of Rashomon, Citizen Kane and All About Eve, for most of the film the backstory of Motome is revealed while Hanshiro is sitting down in the courtyard recounting his story to the elders. As we learn the details of how Hanshiro came to be at the same place as Motome, Kobayashi opens up his remarkably tragic story – the fall of a once-great warrior clan, victims of the country's dismissal of its warrior heroes, the Samurai, who, as with Ronin, in their obsolescence would resort to such painful forms of self-mutilation.
The film, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, has been hailed as one of the great films made during this 'Golden Age' of Japanese cinema, a time of Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi and Ichikawa. Thematically, the film is filled with Japanese cultural touchstones of death, dishonour, authority and rituals, themes that connect the feudal system to the then state of Japanese politics in the post-war period.
The modern metaphors require some digging or knowledge of Japanese political and cultural history, but the pain and suffering inflicted on Motome, and Hanshiro's innate need for vengeance, resonate loudly.
Harakiri was made in 1962, arguably one of the greatest periods of cinematography in film history. It comes at the end of the black and white era, when cinematographers absolutely mastered the medium. In comparison to the lesser quality colour film stock at the time, a film like Harakiri stands out as a masterwork of visual art.
Kobayashi's use of his 2.35:1 widescreen frame is maximized, using wide angle lenses and deep-focus photography to open up the audience to the world in his frames. The exacting nature of the lighting complements the precise camera movements. Kobayashi's elegant camera creeps in and out of his characters, expressing all the intrigue and suspense of the film's clever plotting while expressing the heightened emotions of the characters.
It's a long picture, running two hours and fifteen minutes, but by the final bloody fight scene at the end, which pits Hanshiro against the entire Iyi clan, the film pays off with maximum flare. It’s an awesome display of carnage, as bloody-lust satisfying as any of the great action sequences in Akira Kurosawa's oeuvre (i.e., Sanjuro, Seven Samurai, Ran).
Harakiri is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.