Criterion Collection Review (in trial format!)
After all, this thing we call samurai honor is nothing but a façade.
Most Japanese filmmakers, at least the ones who have gained some level of popularity outside Japan, have tended to embrace the samurai past. They may make straight-laced costume dramas like Hiroshi Inagaki's films, or more unorthodox, individualistic stories like those of Akira Kurosawa, but for the most part Japanese directors have seen something admirable, romantic, or at least fun in telling stories set in Japan's unique history.
Then there is director Masaki Kobayashi (Kwaidan, The Human Condition, Tokyo Trial). Simply put, he's having none of it. Kobayashi's wartime experiences as a student conscript in the Japanese Imperial Army made him intensely distrustful of any authority structures claiming absolute authority. Kobayashi even turned down multiple opportunities for promotion to officer status; he insisted on remaining a private rather than participating in what he saw as a corrupt and tyrannical power structure. As a filmmaker after the war, he expressed through his films his rejection of absolute authority in all its forms and in any historical period or milieu. In Harakiri (or, if you prefer the original Japanese title, Seppuku), he takes aim at feudal Japan's rigid system of clans, samurai, and slavish devotion to an arcane code of honor.
Facts of the Case
In 1630, early in the era of the Tokugawa shogunate, samurai face upheaval, uncertainty, and an enforced peace. The shogun can order on a whim the dissolution of long-established clans, parceling out their goods and land to his loyal supporters. Samurai working for these clans, who in less peaceable times might easily have found other employment, now find that there is little demand for professional warriors; the job market for samurai looks bleak. Many penniless ronin have taken to an extreme form of extortion/begging, presenting themselves at the castle gates of wealthy clans, asking to use their grounds for seppuku to restore their lost honor. The clans, wishing to avoid unpleasant scenes and hassles, often give these wayward warriors token employment or a few coins for their troubles and send them on their way.
When Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai, Kagemusha, The Sword of Doom, Samurai Rebellion) presents himself at the gates of the Iyi clan, he receives a less charitable response. He hears, by way of a warning, the story of Motome Chijiiwa (Akira Ishihama, The Human Condition), the last unemployed ronin to try the mercy of the Iyi clan; thinking him another beggar, the clan leadership called his bluff and forced him to go through with the seppuku ceremony. Tsugumo remains undeterred; he assures his hosts that he fully intends to end his life in the Iyi castle. As he prepares for his end, he has a story of his own to relate, which includes the young Chijiiwa and touches on matters of honor concerning the Iyi clan.
Director Masaki Kobayashi considered Harakiri the ultimate anti-samurai picture. As film expert (and Criterion regular) Donald Richie observes in his video introduction, the film is both generic and non-generic, incorporating the historical setting and trappings of the samurai genre while turning many of its conventions on their heads. Kobayashi ruthlessly demolishes any sense of romanticism or nostalgia about the samurai past, showing instead the code of Bushido as inflexible and hypocritical, a sick joke of tragic proportions. He castigates the feudal system for its immunity to persuasion even by morality or simple human decency. His film decries dogmatic adherence to rules with no allowance for mercy.
As the protagonist, Tsugumo does not fit the traditional heroic mold any more than do the Iyi potentates. He pursues no higher goal than his own vengeance and the desire to teach the Iyi clan a lesson. He does so by twisting to his own purpose the very institutions and codes the elites hold dear. He is a samurai and knows the code that governs his enemies' actions; he uses their own hollow rules and legalism to entrap them. Their own sense of honor becomes the snare he uses to secure his revenge. Tsugumo explicitly rejects the elaborate minutiae and subordination to superiors required by Bushido. In the end, his only honor is his word, but this simple honor proves superior to the elaborate honor of the Iyi clan because it is honest.
Kobayashi's film further emphasizes his view of the feudal power structure through its stark contrasts. Tsugumo's home and family life is shown with a warmth generally not found in samurai films. On the other hand, he shows the usual trappings of a jidai-geki film in a cold light that underscores his contempt. Kobayashi depicts young Chijiiwa's seppuku with unflinching brutality, creating an incredibly harrowing scene. Even the action scenes--and, rest assured, even in this primarily dialogue-based drama there is a healthy dose of swordplay near the end of the film--lack the usual glamour and glitz, coming off as simultaneously thrilling and disdainful.
In Tatsuya Nakadai's interview segment he mentions that he was not immediately sure he wanted the role. He thought at first that the role of the penniless ronin seeking death and revenge would have been better suited to his colleague Toshirô Mifune. (In truth, with the beard necessary to age the 30-year-old Nakadai into the 50-ish Tsugumo, he bears a strong if coincidental resemblance to Mifune.) In the end, the project intrigued Nakadai enough that he took it on. In retrospect, he regards the experience as a highlight in his legendary career, saying that after Harakiri, cinema became boring. Nakadai also relates several interesting anecdotes from the making of the film, including the shocking revelation that the swordplay in Harakiri, like many Japanese films of the era, was shot with real swords. Ouch.
In addition to Richie's introduction and Nakadai's interview, this two-disc set includes a Directors Guild of Japan interview with Kobayashi, conducted by fellow filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda. Kobayashi comments on his career and Harakiri, taking special note of the importance of Toru Takemitsu's score. There is also a lengthy interview with screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto (Rashomon), as well as a theatrical trailer and a gallery of posters from around the world, including the striking Cuban poster that Criterion selected for the DVD cover. Finally, Criterion shows once again why their printed material is almost as good as most studios' on-disc supplements, providing a 32-page booklet with an essay by Temple University film scholar Joan Mellen, as well as a reprint of an interview with Kobayashi that she conducted in 1972.
One warning about the special features: if you prefer to watch Harakiri spoiler-free, follow the advice in the DVD menu and save Richie's intro until you have watched the film.
Audiovisually, this disc is in line with Criterion's usual exemplary job of film restoration and preservation. The image is simply flawless. The audio, presented in its original mono, is quite good as well, with only a hint of residual hiss.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What's in a name? In this case, quite a lot, actually. The Criterion Collection has a history of maintaining original theatrical release English titles for foreign films. This usually makes sense, if only because it maintains an established identity for the films in question. Thus, Throne of Blood and the rest make more sense than using the original-language titles or more accurate translations. In this case, however, the choice is a mistake. Kobayashi's Seppuku was mistitled for its initial US release, probably because the term hara-kiri was more familiar to western audiences; however, the two terms are not interchangeable in Japanese. Seppuku refers to the ritualized, formal suicide as carried out for purposes of maintaining or redeeming honor and as practiced by samurai and the like. The more common--and less correct--term hara-kiri lacks the needed ritual and symbolic trappings; it is more a merely mechanical/anatomical term, roughly translating to "belly-ripping," and losing the cultural significance of seppuku. It bears mentioning that the term seppuku is clearly and frequently audible in the Japanese audio track, while the term hara-kiri is not in evidence.* The use of hara-kiri in place of seppuku can be seen as pejorative, which perhaps compliments Kobayashi's overall purpose, but I think that the original Japanese title would have been a much better choice to convey the overall significance of the film.
* actually, I do recall someone saying hara (w)o kiraseru (I'll make him slit his belly).
It may be unseemly to bring Akira Kurosawa's name into reviews of other Japanese directors' films, but I will say this: After watching Kobayashi's brilliant, challenging film, and seeing what he was able to accomplish in a purely Japanese setting and situation, I begin to understand why many in Japan thought Kurosawa was too westernized.
Not guilty! The court looks forward to Masaki Kobayashi's next appearance before the bench.
We stand adjourned.
August 5, 1964
Screen: Samurai With Different Twist: Kobayashi's 'Harakiri' Arrives at Toho
By BOSLEY CROWTHER
Published: August 5, 1964
ANOTHER grizzled, grumpy and growling unemployed samurai of the sort that we've seen prowling around the premises in any number of postwar Japanese costume films is the hero of "Harakiri," the first chambara (sword-fighting) film directed by Masaki Kobayashi. It opened at the Toho Cinema yesterday.
But this samurai is different from most of the old warriors we've seen stomping their feet and swishing their swords in this particular type of Japanese picture that is comparable to the American western film.
In the first place, he's played by Tatsuya Nakadai, not by Toshiro Mifuna, who has seemed heretofore to hold the franchise on the acting of samurai. And Mr. Nakadai is every bit as hideous and horrendous as Mr. Mifune has been in this usually more muscular than subtle sort of melodramatic role.
But, more important, he's not the familiar old sword fighter offering his sword for hire. He doesn't hanker to carve an opponent; he hankers to carve himself. He wants to commit harakiri, the ritualistic form of suicide, which consists of drawing a sword across one's stomach, favored by played-out samurai.
Before he performs this self-destruction, however, he wants to get his ironic revenge on a certain new-fangled 17th-century clan chief against whom he has a particularly grievous personal grudge. He wants to shame and humiliate this tyrant for what he has done to his unemployed son-in-law, which in turn has resulted in the death of his daughter and the latter's infant son.
It is a curiously obfuscated story that this long and inevitably tedious picture tells--a story of ancient customs, political jealousies and personal pride. And one should not feel unintelligent at not following it at every step, so slowly, ponderously, obscurely and often painfully is it told.
Mr. Kobayashi, who is best-known in this country for his film, "The Human Condition," an attack on the tyranny of Japanese militarists in World War II, has here developed a conspicuously measured and solemn cinematic style that is now and again punctuated by particularly violent, slashing sequences or shots.
Most of it is played with the hero--or, before him, his son-in-law--squatting in the harakiri posture on a low, white platform in the courtyard of the home of the lord who has granted the use of his palace for the ritual suicide. Gathered about are the lord and his attendants who have come to observe. As it turns out, they're dragged in to listen to the old warrior more than to see, and what they hear (as conveyed to us in flashbacks) is a dismal and depressing tale indeed.
It is a tale of how the old samurai are so neglected and badly used that they have nothing to do but go about begging and committing suicide. But the climax, at least, is an explosion of vindictive violence, spurting blood and romantic retribution upon the new political group.
Possibly there is some significance in this drama that pertains to recent years--some comment on the antiquated rituals and false heroics of a militaristic caste. If so, it is vague and mushy. Mainly impressive about the film are the strange plastic rhythms that move in it and the exquisitely stark photography.
Mr. Kobayashi does superb things with architectural compositions, moving forms and occasionally turbulent gyrations of struggling figures in the CinemaScope-size screen. He achieves a sort of visual mesmerization that is suitable to the curious nightmare mood. And he uses his actors like weird puppets in this tensely drawn mise-en-scène.
You may not get much satisfaction from the tortured human drama in this film, which was shown here last fall in the New York Film Festival, but you should get an eyeful graphic exercise.
HARAKIRI, screenplay by Shinobu Hashimoto, based on a novel by Yasuhiko Takiguchi; directed by Masaki Kobayashi, and produced by Tatsuo Hosoya for Shochiku Films. At the Toho Cinema, 209 West 45th Street. Running time: 130 minutes.
Hanshiro Tsugumo . . . . . Tatsuya Nakadai
Miho Tsugumo . . . . . Shima Iwashita
Motome Chijiiwa . . . . . Akira Ishihama
Jinnai Chijiiwa . . . . . Yoshio Inaba
Kageyu Saito . . . . . Rentaro Mikuni
Tango Inaba . . . . . Masao Mishima
Hikokuro Omodaka . . . . . Tetsuro Tamba
Hayato Yazaki . . . . . Ichiro Nakaya
Umenosuke Kawabe . . . . . Yoshio Aoki
SEPPUKU directed by Kobayashi Masaki
To begin with a short history lesson. In 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu won the battle of Sekigahara and announced himself Shogun, thus becoming the ruler of Japan. During the Tokugawa shogunate (1600-1867), Japan was divided into 264 provinces, ruled by Daimyo (lords), who while having some freedom in making laws, were under the strict supervision of the shogunate. Equally, Japan was divided by a caste system (shi no ko sho) and basically only samurai had rights. Non samurai were forbidden by law to travel or to have family names.
A samurai was a warrior employed by a daimyo. There were five classes of samurai, ranging from average foot soldier to high administrative personal, and while privileges varied, they all lived by the samurai code, which basically was to follow giri (duty to the lord) and bushido (way of the warrior). This meant, that the life of the samurai was in the hands of the daimyo. To give ones life to serve was the only way to die for a samurai.
As a result of the shogunate, many samurai became unemployed and thus ronin. It is estimated that just after Sekigahara (1600), there were 2 million samurai in Japan. In 1640, there were less than 100,000. Most became farmers or merchants, but some became bandits and some went on to form gangs, which later should become the yakuza. The biggest decrease is contributed to death. The first generation samurai under Tokugawa were fighting men, who really did nothing else than kill and go to war. To live in peace was painful and frustrating for them. They would begin to duel and within few years there were so many duels out of boredom, that duels were forbidden by law. That samurai were bored, is perhaps best seen by kirisutogomen, a decree that allowed any samurai to kill any person from a lower caste, if that person offended him.
The life for a ronin was even more frustrating, as he had no rights and was stripped from his name. Thus many ronin would seek temporary employment at a daimyo, thereby becoming samurai, in order to commit seppuku. Some daimyo were so taken by this sense of duty, that they would employ them for real, which again lead to many ronin trying to con daimyo into employing them by asking for permission to commit seppuku in their service.
Seppuku is ritual suicide, where the samurai would cut his stomach and then be beheaded. Hara Kiri, the reverse reading of Seppuku, is stomach cut and has no ritual. Hara Kiri lacks code, as you can commit hara kiri anywhere anytime, but seppuku is a strict ritual with several stages and at least two people involved. Hara Kiri is thus nothing else than to die by your own hands. However one should not read the reverse meaning into the text, as "Hara Kiri" is the American title, which the distributors gave the film, as they feared people would not know what "Seppuku" was.
This is the basis of "Hara Kiri" by Kobayashi. An aging ronin, Tsugumo, seeks permission to commit seppuku from the Lyi daimyo. It is granted and before committing it, he asks permission to tell a story, by which we learn what lead him to take this action. Tsugumo does not intend to commit seppuku, but instead seeks revenge, as the Lyi daimyo dishonoured Tsugumo's son, by forcing him to commit seppuku with unshaped bamboo swords. After having revealed the hair knots of the daimyo's three sword masters, who were to be kaishakunin (those who behead), Tsugumo continues to slaughter everyone in his way, until finally being shot. The note in the book says, that nothing out of the ordinary happened that day.
"Hara Kiri" is the first of two Samurai film, the other being "Samurai Rebellion", in which Kobayashi would launch a full frontal attack on the samurai code. Written by Hishimoto Shinobu, the regular writer of Kurosawa and perhaps the best screenwriter in Japanese film history, based on a novel by Takiguchi Yasuhiko, Kobayashi lines out his critic of the Samurai code, its hypocrisy, the thoughtlessness and how powerless the individual is against the daimyo's control of its own history.
Taking place in the first half of the 17th century, Tsugumo is a first generation samurai. He grew by the sword and notes upon the poor swordsmanship of the swords masters with, "Swordsmanship untested in battle is like swimming on land," humiliating both them and their daimyo by having cut their hair knot (the very soul of a samurai) of while fighting. By the actions of Tsugumo, the second generation samurai are depicted as men claiming to live by a code, they are unable to back up, which reflects upon the entire system, which only exists to govern blindly by repressing others.
The visual style of Kobayashi is stunning. A master of long focal compositions, his mise-en-scene are carefully arranged in terms of space and layers. Note the use of present lines and shadow to divide the frame into layers, each with its own importance. Equally impressive are his fight sequences, where he alters extreme long shots with close up. "Hara Kiri" hints towards Kobayashi's flirtation with avant garde techniques, but only hints by the use of a sudden zoom or pan. The development of style will continue in "Kwaidan", until finally with "Rebellion" reaching a point, where he arranges compositions with geometrical precision and at the same time uses avant garde editing techniques.
Another important element of "Hara Kiri" is Nakadai Tatsuya, who is to Kobayashi, what Mifune was to Kurosawa, and was along with Mifune the only leading man who had international star appeal. Nakadai was casted by random by Kobayashi, who in turn became so impressed, that he gave him the lead playing Kaji in "Human Condition," arguable Kobayashi's most important film. He also appeared in both "Yojimbo" and "Sanjuro", before becoming the main actor for Kurosawa in both "Kagemusha" and "Ran". Alongside Mifune, Nakadai is the greatest Japanese actor ever. To the samurai film, he is the key actor, as he not only acts in both "Hara Kiri" and "Rebellion", but also in the three other seminal samurai film, "Sword of Doom", "Tenchu" and "The Ambitious". His style is very different from Mifune, more subtle, more internal.
Considered to be one of the three central samurai film, along with "Shichinin no Samurai" and "Rebellion," "Hara Kiri" is a masterpiece and required viewing.
Theatrical Release: September 16, 1962 (Tokyo)