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September 2011


cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Ishihama, and Rentaro Mikuni

director: Masaki Kobayashi

119 minutes (15) 1962
widescreen ratio 16:9
Eureka DVD Region 2
[released 26 September]

RATING: 9/10
review by Max Cairnduff


Harakiri (aka: Seppuku) begins with an image of the official record book of clan Iyi. It states that, in 1630, a master-less samurai came to the clan and asked to be permitted to carry out an act of ritual suicide, harakiri, on clan grounds. So says the official record. The film though goes on to show the tragedy, cruelty and terrible revenge that underlies that dry account.

1630 is a year of peace. Many samurai have lost their positions and have become ronin, master-less men, reduced to poverty and desperation. Recently one of those ronin presented himself to clan Sengoku and asked to use their grounds to commit harakiri and so at least have an honourable death since he no longer had the means to live an honourable life.

The clan were so touched by his sincerity and commitment to the samurai ideal that they took him on as a retainer. Now other ronin present themselves to all the great houses asking to be permitted to commit suicide but having no intention of doing so. Instead they seek a pay-off from these clans, many of whom are willing to donate a bit of cash so as to get rid of the nuisance of yet another apparently-suicidal ronin.

When Hanshiro Tsugumo (the brilliant Tatsuya Nakadai) appears at the gate of clan Iyi asking to commit harakiri on their grounds they suspect that he is one of these fraudsters. He is granted an audience with clan counsellor Kayegu Saito (Rentaro Mikuni). Saito tells Tsugumo that he is not the first ronin to ask clan Iyi for such a right and tells him the story of what happened to the last one.

Each of these scenes is filmed with a sombre formality. Characters sit motionless. Camera angles cut suddenly but then linger on the scene. The effect is to create a sense of watching a piece of traditional Japanese theatre. This impression is heightened when Saito begins his story and a flashback shows the arrival of the previous ronin to visit clan Iyi. The words he uses to ask to be permitted harakiri are precisely the same as the words used by Tsugumo.

That previous ronin was a young man named Motome Chijiiwa (Akira Ishihama). Clan Iyi immediately suspected his motives and decided to make an example of him. They did not want other clans thinking they were weak and a soft touch for every fraudster who came to their door. They decided therefore to honour his request, and if he then did not go through with it to ensure that he did.

Saito tells the tale of what happened to Chijiiwa slowly, checking at various points that Tsugumo has understood and that he does not yet wish to leave. What unfolds is terrible. Clan Iyi discovered that Chijiiwa had sold his swords and now carried bamboo replicas in their place. When he learned that they planned to force him to commit harakiri he begged a day or two's respite. They denied it without asking why he wanted it, and forced him to kill himself with a bamboo sword. His death was not quick.

I won't say much more of the plot. Tsugumo hears what happened to Chijiiwa but insists on committing harakiri regardless. The clan's retainers are gathered to witness the act. Tsugumo then says that he wishes to tell them a little of his life first. It soon becomes apparent that he knew Chijiiwa very well indeed, and that he has come to clan Iyi looking for much more than a handout.

This is a masterful piece of cinema. Tsugumo sits in the middle of a courtyard surrounded by a large group of heavily armed men who are there to watch him kill himself. Instead he forces them to listen to his account of what led Chijiiwa to clan Iyi. As he continues the tale becomes more and more uncomfortable for his audience. This one ageing and desperate man has command of all of them even though they outnumber him and he is in their power. Time and again the camera closes in on Tsugumo's face - the blades of the spearmen sitting behind him just visible at the edges of the frame underlining that his every word is spoken in the knowledge of his own impending death.

Harakiri is a story of official arrogance and injustice. Chijiiwa died horribly because the clan did not wish to appear weak. Against Tsugumo though, a genuinely righteous man, they have no power. As the film progresses the hollow nature of samurai honour and of militarism more generally becomes increasingly apparent. The parallels with Japan's own recent history at the time the film was made are not accidental. Masaki Kobayashi pours contempt on the ideals that the Japanese military state, defeated just 17 years previously, was built on.

The whole film underlines the repressive nature of Japanese samurai culture: the frozen postures of the characters, the camera's focus on a suit of red armour revered by the Iyi clan as a symbol of their ancestors and of their own martial vigour, the austere interiors devoid of life, all of it shows a society which denies life in favour of order and hierarchy. As a ronin, Tsugumo is nothing to the men of clan Iyi. They are from a major house and he is a vagabond. Even so, their honour and beliefs are as empty as the red armour.

Although Harakiri does feature at least one beautifully filmed sword duel and one fairly epic combat this isn't a fast moving or action packed film. The lengthy dialogues, pauses, flashbacks all combine to create a slow building of tension and a realisation both that something terrible has already happened and that something even worse is yet to come.

Harakiri won the special jury award in Cannes in 1963. That doesn't surprise me. The cast are uniformly excellent. The cinematography and sparing use of well-judged music are exceptional. Japan produced some stunning films in the 1950s and 1960s (and not just then) and while this isn't nearly as accessible as a Kurosawa it definitely deserves to be mentioned in the same breath. It's superb.

The current release of Harakiri is from Eureka Entertainment and comes as part of their 'masters of cinema' range. The film comes accompanied by an interview with the director (not terribly interesting - the interviewer is so thrilled to be speaking to his hero that he basically does Kobayashi's talking for him), and a 28-page booklet setting out some background to the film and containing another interview with the director. The restoration both of visuals and sound are of the high quality I've come to expect from Eureka.

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