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Japanese Samurai classic film

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A Scathing and Devastating Indictment of the Code of Bushido

  • Dec 22, 2008

"Rage when FOCUSED on a Single purpose is a very powerful weapon…"

HARAKIRI (1962) (aka. Seppuku) is the award-winning film from Masaki Kobayashi (Samurai Rebellion, Kwaidan) and has been pronounced as Kobayashi's masterpiece by his mentor Kinoshita and as one of the TOP Five Greatest Japanese films ever made. The film was originally titled "Seppuku" in Japan which translates into ritual suicide. Western audiences are more familiar with the word Harakiri; Hara means belly and Kiri means cut. The two kanji (Chinese characters)are reversed to form "Seppuku" a more formal term. In the full ritual, the samurai would cut his belly open and then the "shakunin" (second) would behead him. During the Tokugawa period, the Shogunate ordered quite a large number of lords to commit "seppuku" to curb the number of Daimyos to avert disorder and possible challenges to the rule.

1630. Following the collapse of his clan, unemployed samurai Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai) arrives at the manor of Lord Iyi, begging to be allowed to commit ritual suicide on his property. Iyi's clansmen, believing the desperate ronin is merely angling for charity, tells Tsugumo the tale of another samurai who they forced to commit Seppuku after they had determined that his intentions were only for show. The Iyi clan have greatly underestimated Tsugumo's honor and his past--who is this stranger and what does he really want?

An empty suit of samurai armor opens and closes the film, it represents the samurai of old as an active warrior who fights for his Daimyo who after the Tokugawa era is reduced as a wandering Ronin. While it has all these connotations; Harakiri's focus is its emptiness. For this film is a scathing, devastating indictment of the hollowness and hypocrisy of the way of Bushido, the warrior's code. The colliding characteristics of giri (the duty to Bushido) and ninjo (human feelings, compassion and conscience) are the central themes that Kobayashi has incorporated into his film. If you saw his "The Human Condition" trilogy, the director was highly critical of the Japanese martial condition; whether in the olden samurai traditions or in the modern Japanese army. Kobayashi's thesis expresses that such systems are inhumane and such inhumanity are only hidden behind such noble sounding rules that are hypocritical and meaningless. Of course, it was extremely easy to see which side the filmmaker comes down on. Kobayashi's rebellious themes portrays the samurai code as superficial, that after all the rules and supposed nobility exuded by retainers; he delves into the rotten core of the system that reveals naught but cowardice among certain clansmen.

Kobayashi's direction is flawless; the film depicts its social themes through allegory. He is more an expressionist than a realist. The contrasts of black and white depicted by Tsugumo's black kimono against the white matted platform on which he tells his tale, represents the Iyi clan's intransigence. Kobayashi sets the mood for the film successfully as the lead character unveils his tale, the proceedings are extremely intense and immersive. I have never been so engaged in a film as much as I've been with "Harakiri". Even during that time, Kobayashi exhibits excellent film techniques. He uses the widescreen format with such skill that signifies the endless horizontality of the feudal period. Kobayashi's frames and cuts are examples of more a modern film style that solidly defies the rituals of the past; that expresses his stance that society mustn't be destructive in the face of authoritarian power and that such things, however may seem permanent, is not invincible to the "rivers" of change.

It was no accident that Kobayashi had picked Tatsuya Nakadai as the lead. Kobayashi chose him because during that time, the actor had embodied postwar individualism and youthful culture as an actor of modern Shingeki. Nakadai has a very clear enunciation and a powerful deep speaking voice that expresses all the emotional aspects of his character. With almost an uncanny quality, the actor expresses his soul with his body movement, facial mannerisms on behalf of the outworn notion of samurai dignity. Also worth mentioning is the performance of Rentaro Mikuni as the clan elder, Kageyu Saito. His performance has the outward appearance of an individual so engaged and committed in the system, that while he sees what is happening he is so dedicated that he incapable of doing the right thing. Another very human flaw is shown, indifference and that some individuals are so used to their ways that they would do anything to prolong it.

While Kobayashi's masterpiece is so gripping and truly engaging, the film also has its share of realistic swordplay that contains a lot of violent intensity and visceral attitude, that almost look like a "Ballet" of eventual destruction. The dialogue by Shinobu Hashimoto (Samurai assassin) in the hands of Kobayashi, becomes a meditative, brooding play that creates an intimidating aura that is very menacing and that exudes the strong hand of fate as an inevitable doom. Strong and powerful with its expressions, Tsugumo‘s disrespectful treatment of the empty armor was meant to express pure disgust of such pretentious nobility and cowardice in the Iyi clan. This film truly hurts and quite painful in its expressions of social and political ways.

Dark, moody and gripping, Harakiri remains as a perfect example of excellent Japanese filmmaking. It is a very POWERFUL expression of Masaki Kobayashi's beliefs that human feelings and consideration must take precedence to superficial rules and beliefs that merely beautifies the surface. It is a vibrant depiction that Injustice must be confronted with unrelenting force and single-minded purpose that is worth sacrificing one's life for.


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September 02, 2012
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