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HARAKIRI

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai, Rentaro Mikuni, Shima Iwashita, Akira Ishihama
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Audio: Japanese monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: Interviews, Donald Richie introduction, essay, original theatrical trailer, poster gallery
Length: 133 minutes
Release Date: August 23, 2005

"Our lives are like houses built on foundations of sand.  One strong wind and all is gone."

Film ****

Director 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.

Harakiri 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 period.

In 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.

As 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.

One 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.

The 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.

Tsugumo, 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 well.

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 society.

Harakiri 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.

Video ***

This 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.

Audio ***

Harakiri 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.

Features ***

"The suspicious mind conjures its own demons."

Harakiri 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.

Disc 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 statements.

Next, "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!

In "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.

This disc concludes with a small gallery of six international posters for Harakiri.

Criterion 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 Kurosawa's Ran.  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.

Summary:

A brutal and scathing condemnation of feudalism, Harakiri is a dark masterpiece of vengeance by Masaki Kobayashi.  Like his ghostly Kwaidan, Harakiri paints a horrific vision of human cruelty and its ultimately grave repercussions for all involved.  Harakiri easily numbers among the classics of the samurai genre, and this Criterion disc comes highly recommended!