Review by Ed Nguyen
Tatsuya Nakadai, Rentaro Mikuni, Shima Iwashita, Akira Ishihama
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Audio: Japanese monaural
Video: Black & white, anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1
Features: Interviews, Donald Richie introduction, essay, original theatrical trailer, poster gallery
Length: 133 minutes
Release Date: August 23, 2005
lives are like houses built on foundations of sand.
One strong wind and all is gone."
Masaki Kobayashi was one of the fearless pioneers of Japanese cinema during the
1960's. From samurai epics to
horror classics, Kobayashi's films displayed an intricate and quietly desperate
sense of foreboding and seemingly inevitable doom.
Kobayashi's darkly critical style may well have been influenced by the
director's own bitter experiences as a soldier during World War Two, as perhaps
referenced in his nine-hour epic trilogy The
Human Condition (1961), a severe admonishment of the horrors of the
Manchurian War. Kobayashi's
personal defiance and dissidence towards authoritarian statutes stretched beyond
this film into his other works, too; after The
Human Condition, there would follow the violent samurai tale Harakiri
(1962), a deconstruction of the supposed nobility of the Bushido code.
was Kobayashi's first attempt at a jidai-geki,
or period film. It was set in
seventeenth-century feudal Japan amidst the slow demise of the samurai class.
The film's anti-samurai sentiments reflected a critique of the social
injustices perceived by Kobayashi within Japanese hierarchy, not just within the
totalitarian structure of Tokugawa Shogunate rule but also metaphorically within
the seeming recapitulation of Japanese feudalism in the post-World War II
feudal Japan, the very existence of the samurai depends upon the sense of duty
and honor that arises from loyal servitude to one's lord or daimyo.
Without master or cause, a samurai is devoid of purpose.
And without purpose, a samurai's very life holds little significance.
Faced with such a dilemma in the late seventeenth-century (due to the
destruction or dissolution of numerous fiefdoms by the emergent Shogunate), many
samurai chose death by traditional self-inflicted disembowelment, or seppuku (harakiri),
rather than endure dishonorable vagrancy as ronin, or masterless samurai.
Harakiri opens, one such old and weary
ronin, Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai), has realized the inevitability of the
only honorable fate left to him. A
former retainer of Hiroshima's long-dissolved Fukushima Clan, Tsugumo has
wandered the back alleys of Edo fruitlessly for years in search of meaningful
employment. But, with the
transformation of Japanese society under the Tokugawa Shogunate, warriors such
as Tsugumo have become increasingly obsolete.
For Tsugumo, his empty existence gradually has lost all purpose, and his
remaining sense of propriety thus compels Tsugumo to seek out a suitable venue
in which to take his own life finally.
day, Tsugumo appears before the gates of the Iyi Clan, one of few remaining
clans protected by the Tokugawa Shogunate.
Therein, he requests permission to commit his self-sacrificial act within
the courtyard confines of the House of Iyi. Although Tsugumo's intentions are respectful and sincere, he
is regarded initially with some degree of suspicion and distrust.
Unworthy ronin of late have approached other remaining clans with similar
requests, and those contemptuous clans, unwilling to stain their hallowed
grounds with the foul blood of inferior, disgraced samurai, have turned away
such entreaties with the bribe of a few coins.
A dishonest ronin might therefore earn a tidy income in such an extortive
manner by making a round of the various extant clans and falsely professing to a
desire to eviscerate himself.
arrogant samurai of the House of Iyi have no intentions of appearing so gullible
or easily malleable. Tsugumo's
request is swiftly rebuked with a tale of such another from the Fukushima Clan -
the dishonest ronin Motome Chijiiwa (Akira Ishihama), recently and brutally
forced to complete his "desired" act of harakiri by the insistent
samurai of the Iyi Clan.
however, proves unwavering in his convictions.
Finally persuaded of the apparent integrity of his intentions, the
samurai of the Iyi Clan prepare their courtyard for the harakiri ceremony.
But, as they await the arrival of one final samurai, Tsugumo begins to
narrate his own interpretation of Chijiiwa's fated tale, the tragic revelation
of which exhumes the true hypocrisy of the Iyi samurai and leads to terrible
consequences for those in attendance in the House of Iyi and for Tsugumo as
a damning condemnation of the artifices upon which various aspects of Japanese
society are constructed, Harakiri is a
graphic illustration of samurai honor as "ultimately nothing but a
facade." The film exposes the
frailty of self-serving materialism or hubris and the illusory nature of human
compassion and empathy. While the
events in Harakiri may occur near the
start of the Shogunate era, the film's historic message is readily transferable
to modern grievances perceived by Kobayashi even in twentieth-century Japanese
won the Cannes Film Festival's Special Jury Prize in 1963.
It was immediately hailed as a masterpiece and an allegory of societal
issues as yet unresolved in Japan. Today,
Harakiri remains a landmark in the
samurai genre. Despite its
fatalistic outcries, there lingers within this film a most pronounced expression
of the belief that there are indeed still some principles worth dying for.
black & white film is shown in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen format.
The transfer was created from a 35mm composite fine-grain print upon a
dual-layer DVD-9 disc. The images
show an exceptional clarity of details and a fine overall gray-scale with solid
contrast. Dust and debris are
minimized, and the bit transfer rate averages about 6 Mbps.
is presented in its original Japanese monaural sound.
Dialogue is directed primarily at the center channel.
Sound is sparse but relatively clean of hiss or extraneous pops.
The occasional discordant tones of the biwa accentuate the film's
particularly desolate atmosphere.
suspicious mind conjures its own demons."
is offered in a double-disc set from Criterion.
The first disc contains the movie and an introduction (12 min.) by
Japanese-film historian Donald Richie. However,
the introduction focuses upon a discussion of the film's crucial plot elements
and conclusion and so, ironically enough, is better suited as an epilogue to be
viewed after a screening of the film itself.
This first disc also provides the original theatrical trailer for Harakiri.
Two holds the remainder of the bonus features, mostly short interviews.
First is a rare conversation (9 min.) with director Masaki Kobayashi from
a 1993 Directors Guild of Japan interview segment.
The interview touches upon interesting aspects about Harakiri's
production and its behind-the-scenes creative talent.
Interviewer Masahiro Shinoda tends to comment more on Harakiri
than does Kobayashi, who seems relatively content to merely react to Shinoda's
"A Golden Age" (14 min.) is an interview with Tatsuya Nakadai, one of
Japanese cinema's greatest stars. The
Harakiri star discusses his approach
to acting, his involvement with the film, its highly stylized script, and his
interactions with the director and other cast members.
Nakadai also reveals that real samurai blades, not fakes, were used for
all the dangerous fight sequences in the film.
Presumably, no one was killed!
"Masterless Samurai" (13 min.), screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto
discusses how the concept behind Harakiri
formulated in his mind for years before he finally committed his ideas onto
paper. Hashimoto also describes
working with Masaki Kobayashi and Tatsuya Nakadai and their uncompromising
artistic approach towards filmmaking and acting.
disc concludes with a small gallery of six international posters for Harakiri.
has also included a very fine 32-page booklet with this DVD set.
The booklet presents an essay by film scholar Joan Mellen and a reprint
of her 1972 interview with Kobayashi. The
essay, "Harakiri: Kobayashi and History," elaborates upon Kobayashi's
career as well as themes in the film. Mellen
also discusses Tatsuya Nakadai's bright career in Shingeki theater and such
later cinematic masterpieces as various Masaki Kobayashi films, Kihachi
Okamoto's The Sword of Doom, and Akira
Mellen's 1972 interview provides Kobayashi himself with an opportunity to
discuss his life, career, and personal philosophy.
This interview initially appeared in "Voice from the Japanese
Cinema" [Liveright, 1975]. Rounding
out the contents of this booklet are listings for the film's cast and crew and
DVD credits as well as illustrative stills from the film.