Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Harakiri (Seppuku), 1962
Dir: Masaki Kobayashi
July 27, 2009
The first thing that you realize when watching Harakiri is that the cinematography is perfect; every scene is meticulously crafted and what Kobayashi shows you always seems right. The symmetry of traditional Japanese architecture plays a fair role in this, but you simply cannot ignore the genius of each camera angle and the choreography throughout. It is an impeccably beautiful film from an aesthetic standpoint. In this sense, Kobayashi seems like a much more native film-maker than Kurosawa, and from this, it certainly seems like he deserves the praise he gets as a Japanese "master."
Harakiri is a samurai film with a dark, dark heart. And not in the way Yojimbo (1961) is dark (humor), but as a scathing attack on the fuedal system that dominated Japan for so long, and also of the samurai code, or bushido, itself, which isn't just alluded to, but specifically called out as a "facade." This is shown most potently by the daiymo and the clan, which uses honor as a pretext to keep it's power. When a hard-on-his-luck ronin (with his beard, an almost unrecognizable, yet still awesome Tatsuya Nakadai) shows up at the house of a feudal lord and asks for the honor of committing harakiri (seppuku) in the clan's courtyard, the lord (Rentaro Mikuni) can't help but notice certain similarities to a ronin that asked for the same honor earlier in the year. When the similarites start to add up, you realize that the ronin isn't there just to kill himself.
Knowing exactly what harakiri ("cutting the belly") is, you understand why the second is there to decapitate the unfortunate samurai so quickly. Disembowelment is definitely in my top five ways of not to die. You also understand exactly what is happening when the young ronin who first came to the clan is forced to use his own "sword," and the time the second wastes to make sure the ronin does it right.
Like I said earlier, this underrated masterpiece is overshadowed by Kurosawa's equally astonishing works. It offers insight into the philosophical mind of the Japanese soul, whole heartedly and pure, and questions the role of honor through straightforward storytelling and brilliant direction. The story is akin to the works of Dostoevsky, exploring the darkest moments of humanity through suffering and redemption in a desperate search for meaning and justice. Intense and beautiful, Harakiri is a true work of art, no doubt about it.