Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Screenplay: Shinobu Hashimoto
Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai, Rentarō Mikuni, Akira Ishihama, Shima Iwashita
Producer: Tatsuo Miyajima
Running Time: 133 min
BBFC Certification: 15
I’ve been enjoying my own personal samurai renaissance recently with 13 Assassins greatly impressing me last month, followed by my first viewing of Harakiri (a.k.a. Seppuku), which simply blew me away. Both take quite different approaches to the genre. They share a similar rhythm of having a slow initial two acts followed an explosive finale, but where 13 Assassins‘ first hour and a half is all build up to an inevitable epic showdown, Harakiri is a much more measured affair, slowly playing it’s cards in an engrossing, bitter tale of the nature honour through poverty and hardship. It’s violent conclusion was almost unexpected, making it all the more powerful.
Let’s backtrack a bit though. Harakiri opens with Tsugumō Hanshirō (Tatsuya Nakadai) arriving at the home of the Iyi clan. He is a masterless samurai due to the dissolution of the private warriors of the daimyō (local warlords) and the Iyi are a group that had made peace with the ruling Tokugawa clan, thus retaining their samurai army. Tsugumō meets with the house’s masters and requests if he may have the honour of committing harakiri/seppuku (ritual suicide) in their courtyard in a manner befitting a former samurai.
The Iyi elders are wary though. Due to a large number of out of work samurai wandering Japan at the time, many are claiming to be seeking a place to commit harakiri as a pretence to gain a place in still active samurai ranks or at the very least to be offered money to leave. Saitō Kageyu, the Iyi clan’s senior counsellor therefore tells Tsugumō the gruesome tale of how they dealt with one such charlatan (which we see through flashback).
This doesn’t seem to trouble Tsugumō though and he still insists on going through with the ritual. However, as problems arise during the ceremony, the elderly former warrior insists on telling the counsellor his own story. Through these layers of flashbacks the true nature of Tsugumō’s visit is unravelled.
It’s an engrossing and interestingly framed story backed up by some truly masterful filmmaking. It’s not your classic tale of heroism and honour either. The film has been described as an ‘anti-samurai movie’ due in part to it’s unravelling of honour as a facade. Behind all the pomp and circumstance, the men supposedly upholding the values and traditions of Japanese society are merely using them as a tool for their own means and will whitewash anything that threatens their stoic image.
It’s not only the narrative that gets this message across either. The film’s shift from static, meticulously framed scenes to a frantically paced and bloody finale embodies the fall of the curtain of honour uncovering the cesspool behind. Symbolism is prevalent too, especially in the lavish armour idolised by the Iyi clan yet cast aside as a worthless shield by Tsugumō during the later scenes.
The whole film is so finely crafted, there isn’t a stone out of place and despite it’s lengthy running time there isn’t a wasted frame either. It looks absolutely stunning, with some beautifully framed shots reminiscent of the Japanese masters and lighting to die for. In particular, the build up and execution of a duel that takes place towards the end is hauntingly beautiful, moving through a graveyard and forest up to a wind-swept hilltop. The music is extremely effective too, minimal throughout yet remaining powerful when required.
I really can’t praise this film enough, it’s sure to leap into my all time favourites list, should I ever collate a new one. It’s slow and measured compared to a lot of samurai films, so don’t expect an action-packed thrill ride. There is some extreme violence in the film which is very well-handled, but what grabbed me was the sheer quality of the filmmaking on display and how it all came together to create nothing less than a masterpiece.
The film is released in the UK on dual-format Blu-Ray & DVD on 26th September by Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label. I watched the DVD version which has a great audio and video transfer, as is the norm with the Masters of Cinema series. Extras-wise there is just a trailer and a short but interesting interview with Kobayashi. It’s conducted by Masahiro Shinoda, whose questions are rather overlong, but Kobayashi answers in a very laid-back fashion, praising the talented people that worked with him, and he throws in some interesting anecdotes along the way. For instance he tells how the idea of how to handle Chijiwa’s gruesome death came to him when he was drunk. As with all of the Masters of Cinema releases the film is packaged with a gorgeous-looking and informative booklet which more than makes up for the lack of a ‘making of’ documentary or commentary.
A must buy.