SEPPUKU or HARAKIRI
A film by Director Kobayashi Masaki
"I always wanted to be a maker of films that comment
quoted in Audie bock, Japanese Film Directors,
Masaki Kobayashi is considered one of the great cinematic masters of the Japanese
immediate post-war era, a generation overshadowed by the towering presence of
Akira Kurosawa. No one of that generation of filmmakers was affected quite as
strongly by the war as Kobayashi. His most acclaimed films are unflinching explorations
into the dark side of Japanese culture, the side that drove men to commit gory
suicide for the name of honor and commit horrific atrocities in the name of
Kobayashi's exacting professionalism makes his films a visually and emotionally
Born in February, 1916, in Japan's northern-most island Hokkaido, Kobayashi
entered prestigious Waseda University in 1933, where he studied Asian art history.
Though he excelled at his studies and was mentored under renowned scholar Yaichi
Aizu, Kobayashi eventually left Waseda to enter Shochiku's Ofuna studios. As
the threat of war with the West grew ever present, he felt that the future was
too uncertain to devote to academics; he wanted to leave something behind. Kobayashi
worked as an assistant for a mere eight months before he was drafted and sent
to the front in Manchuria. Opposed to the war, which he viewed as senseless,
he refused to rise above the position of private. In 1944, he was transferred
to the southern Ryukyu Islands, where he witnessed the war's final bloody tumult.
There he was captured by the U.S. and held for a year in a detention camp in
Okinawa. In the fall of 1946, Kobayashi returned to Shochiku and served for
six years as an assistant director under Keisuke Kinoshita.
Kinoshita's signature fascination with purity and innocence is clearly visible
in Kobayashi's early works; he even wrote the script for his second feature
Magokoro (1953). Kobayashi first began to develop his own voice with
his 1953 Thick-Walled Room. Based on the diaries of low-ranking war criminals,
the film was shockingly outspoken for its time and was ultimately shelved for
three years by studio head Shiro Kido. When it finally was released in 1956,
it won a Peace Culture Prize.
Kobayashi switched back and forth between the Kinoshita style of domestic dramas
and the darker socially minded works until he garnered international acclaim
and a prestigious San Giorgio prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1960 for
his Human Condition I: No Greater Love (1958), the first installment
of sweeping trilogy about the war. Based on Jumpei Gomikawa's six-volume novel,
the tale focuses on avowed pacifist Kaji, who is drafted into the army and forced
to inflict cruelty on Chinese prisoners and his underlings, forced to lead his
men into certain death and eventually captured as a war criminal by the Soviets.
Though the film showcases Kobayashi's existential humanistic philosophy, first
seen in Thick-Walled Room, it is a much darker and more pessimistic philosophy
than that espoused by Akira Kurosawa. Instead of possibilities of enlightenment
as seen in Kurosawa's Ikiru (1952) or justice as in The Bad Sleep
Well (1960), the most one can hope for in Kobayashi's world is dignity while
evil inevitably springs from dogma and pitilessness. Human Condition I
is also significant because it launched the career of Tatsuya Nakadai. Just
as many of Kurosawa's films were defined by the macho-presence of Toshio Mifune,
so were Kobayashi's films brought to life by the masterful performances of Nakadai
in such Kobayashi classics as Harakiri (1962), Kwaidan (1964),
and Rebellion (1967). In the '60s, Kobayashi's visual style grew increasing
spare and minimalistic. In his masterful Harakiri, he deftly juxtaposed
the stark black of the aristocracy's kimonos with the brilliant white of the
courtyard's sand, lending the film's tonal scheme a symbolic quality. With the
acclaimed Kwaidan, his first color film, he pushed this emphasis on composition
with his expressionistic use of color. Like many of his generation, including
Kinoshita and Kurosawa, Kobayashi produced less and less films during the 1970s
when the studio system collapsed and soft-core pornography became a mainstream
genre. Kobayashi died in of a heart attack in 1996.
During war, the samurai thrives on killing, but in peacetime, it is his
turn to die. in this violent yet poetic masterpiece, Masaki Kobayashi exposes
the harsh code of honor the 17th century samurai. After an unemployed warrior
is forced by a feudal lord to commit harakiri, his father in-law returns the
scene, seemingly to play out the same agonizing suicide ritual. Tensions grow
to excruciating levels until the thrilling climax , when the elder warrior
strikes out one last time against the abusive society that crafted such cruelty.
With stunning wide-screen cinematography and riveting performances, Harakiri
achieves the power and passion of the world's greatest tragedies.
As Audie Bock notes in Japanese Film Directors, "Harakiri is a
film that abounds in symbols, some of them visusal and some verbal. All pertain
to the historical image of the samurai and are used in ironic fashion"
(p. 256) Of particular note are: the face mask and armor of a warrior, the daily
record book of the Ii clan, the samurai sword, the topkot, and the rhetoric
of the samurai code.