Criterion // 1962 // 133 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Erick Harper (Retired) // September 5th, 2005
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.
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 Iyis 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 Iyis 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 50ish 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.
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.
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.
Review content copyright © 2005 Erick Harper; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
Running Time: 133 Minutes
Release Year: 1962
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Video Introduction by Film Expert Donald Richie
* Original Theatrical Trailer
* Masahiro Shinoda Interviews Masaki Kobayashi
* Interview with Tatsuya Nakadai
* Interview with Screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto
* Poster Gallery
* Essay by Film Scholar Joan Mellen
* Reprint of Mellen's 1972 Interview with Masaki Kobayashi