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Thursday, 11 August 2011

Day Of The Samurai 3: Harakiri - 1962

Harakiri, or Seppuku as it is normally called in Japan, is a film by celebrated director Masaki Kobayashi, the director of the monumental Human Condition Trilogy and another Samurai classic, Samurai Rebellion.

Harakiri is one of the most acclaimed Samurai films, and one of the most successful outside of Japan as it one the Special Jury Prize at Cannes as well as being nominated for the prestigious Palme D'Or (which it lost to the excellent The Leopard, which in my opinion was a deserving win). Thus it marks a real turning point for the genre as a whole, as this is when such films became recognised not only for their ability to entertain and provide amazing action spectacles, but also for their intellectual content and the insight they shed into Japanese society and the Way of the Samurai, a subject that has long fascinated Western audiences.

But this film takes a very different approach to the subject that the usual Samurai film. It essentially deconstructs the lifestyle of the Samurai and code they live by, from the inside out. Unlike The Sword Of Doom, which was more intent of telling the story of an evil Samurai in it's effort to criticise the way of the Samurai when it was used by the wrong kind of men, while still upholding it's valour's. This film does it in a far more intelligent way, by bringing to light the hypocrisies that make up the code these men live by and the false honour that drives many of them and eventually becomes little more than petty pride and vanity.This vanity is mainly represented through the character of the counsellor, who is more concerned with "saving face" and having an outward appearance of honour than actually being honourable.
But thankfully it doesn't completely destroy the idea of the Samurai, it just shows that their glory days had come to an end, the Feudal system was arising as was the use of gunpowder, these put an end to the all powerful Samurai.
It does however maintain that there is an honourable lifestyle to be made following this way, as it does teach many important values, but the very same way can lead to vastly different results when interpreted in a different way.
What also becomes apparent, is the fact that the Way of the Samurai is mainly suited to life during wartime, the events in this film however take place during a long period of peace and this is the reason for many of their problems. A lack of employment and occupation, leaving them without purpose thus creating all the problems that appear in this film and many more I'm sure, for the Samurai are not suited to times of peaceful indolence, they cannot survive in such an atmosphere and had to either adapt or be extinguished.

This leads many Samurai into extreme poverty, including the main character of our story, Hanshiro Tsugumo. Interestingly, we are shown another side to the Samurai during these segments, we see a family man, laughing and playing with his grandson, worrying about the health of his family and doing what he can to help them.
But the very fact that he is a Samurai is to be his downfall, for the pride and supposed honour that comes with the title does him more harm than good during these hard times, and prevents him or his son in law from getting regular employment. Soon, with his wife and son both extremely ill, Tsugumo's son in law, named Motome Chijiiwa, cracks. He abandons what last scraps of honour and pride that remained in him, and proceeds to take part in a scam of sorts, one practised by other unfortunate Samurai. It involves going to a nearby Lord's castle, and announcing their wish to commit harakiri in his domain, the Lord's counsellors generally gave the Samurai a small amount of money to leave them alone and spare them having to arrange and go through with the ceremony.
This scam is a tough one, as it involves using the Way of the Samurai in a twisted and perverted way for ones own benefits. But faced with the horrible poverty is family live in, and the advanced stage of his sons' illness he is left little choice but to go through with it.
But the scam tragically backfires, leaving Motome dead, with his wife and child dying soon afterwards.
Tsugumo sets out to have his revenge on those responsible for this tragedy, he cold hearted, proud and completely hypocritical Samurai.
In revolves into a conflict of words and wills between Tsugumo who has lost his faith in the Way of the Samurai and sees it for what it is, a cloak used by the cruel rulers to hide and justify there actions while at the same time keeping their servants in unwavering loyalty.
Soon this battle of wits and will transforms into a full blown sword fight, which result in nothing but tragedy.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the film would be it's ingenious narrative structure, which puts the audience in the position of the villain, counsellor Kageyu Saito, as we now nothing of the character of Tsugumo beforehand and his true intentions and relation to Motome are only gradually revealed.
In fact a large part of the film is taken up by flashbacks, this is a technique that was still a relatively inventive one by the time this film was made having only been around since 1941 (with Citizen Kane's invention of this kind of narrative)0 and further developed by Kurosawa's ground breaking Rashomon, which like this film, tells it's tale mainly through flashbacks. These flashbacks are presented in the form of a tale told to other characters, at first counsellor Saito tells of Motome's fate to Tsugumo, and afterwards the roles are reversed and Tsugumo explains all that lead up to Motome's death and what caused him to go to such extreme measures.  

Kobayashi directs competently and confidently, creating may fantastic shots with apparent ease.Although his directional style is rather austere, and is mainly used to bring the exceptionally well written story to the screen, it is nonetheless of interest; especially for those familiar with the genre. He uses a variety of wide shots that add a larger more spacious feel to the proceedings, even though they take place in a rather confined area.
The tradition of using Black and White in films of this genre is continued and to be honest, I have always preferred Samurai films in Black and White, for some reason having the blood without colour always made it more affecting for me, and Black and White was in general more sophisticated looking than colour at the time, so while later films such as After The Rain work brilliantly in colour, earlier ones such as the Samurai Trilogy would actually have benefited from being shot like this film.
I particularly admired his wide shots from a high angle, which is quite unusual for a film of the genre, but here Kobayashi doesn't hold back and creates a visually remarkable film that does not let down the amazing script and fantastic performance.
The film has a rather significant amount of dialogue, and relatively inactive scenes of ceremony, but it never feel stale or repetitive, as there is much movement to the camera, nothing majestic however but shot and subtle sweeping shots and many other such things that altogether give a unique feel to the film without actually causing the directing to take precedence over the content. 

However, the cinematography is striking, many of these black and white Samurai films can claim to have brilliant cinematography and rightfully so, but Harakiri surpasses many of them with ease. The lighting is very atmospheric and creates a cold, bleak feel to the settings which went perfectly with the events depicted.
For the film is very bleak, it is about death. Death of ones loved ones, suicide, end of an era, all the themes are linked by death.

Nakadai gives yet another extraordinary performance, but this one is particularly striking due to the fact that despite being only about 30 years of age, he is surprisingly convincing as an elderly man.
Few other actors are able to convey the fierce intensity of Tatsuya Nakadai, his presence alone elevates any scene as he is one of the finest actors. In Harakiri, his intense desperation and grief is unforgettable, and his desire for revenge so clearly etched onto his features that it adds a certain unpredictable edge to the whole proceedings. For this is one of the films greatest strengths, as the story unfolds before us, and we begin to understand the immense sorrow of Tsugumo and the depth of Saito and his mens' cruelty, we fully expect and even hope that Tsugumo will leap up and exact his revenge, at any time.

When he finally does, we are treated to one of the most impressive combat scenes of the era. It avoids the sometimes comical appearance of the other films simply by taking place after a long period of exposition and development of the story, leading the audience to really care about the outcome. It is a fight scene with much in stake, and although Nakadai's character is hopelessly outnumbered I still found myself wishing for him to survive. But the ending to such a tragic film is hardly going to be uplifting is it?
I won't say any more, except that the ending and the reaction of the counsellor perfectly represent the decadence and vanity that the Way of the Samurai had fallen into by that time.
I wish I could think of some negative aspects to mention in order to provide a bit of balance to the review, but I cannot think of any. Harakiri is clearly a masterpiece of storytelling and one of the most intelligent and thought provoking films to come out of the genre.
I'd highly recommend it to any films buffs, not just those who are fond of Japanese cinema as it is a great film.
It may not be for the faint of heart though, as the harakiri scene itself is unbearably intense and gruesome.
This one isn't just one of the finest Samurai films I've seen, it is also an instant favourite and would surely rank very high in any favourites list I may put together sometime.

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