Criterion // 1962 // 133 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // October 27th, 2011
This thing we call samurai honor is nothing but a facade.
The films of master director Masaki Kobayashi (Kwaidan) were steeped in an anti-authoritarian mindset that he developed in the war. There, he turned down multiple officer recommendations to remain a private and serve with his fellow men. That self-avowed statement against the war carried itself over into his filmmaking, where he would make a number of films that would challenge the establishment. Kobayashi would never express this more clearly than in Harakiri (known in Japan as the traditional and more loaded word Seppuku, explained well by Judge Harper wrote previously). Using a familiar historical era, he excoriates the feudal class while subverting the samurai genre and making one of the seminal works of Japanese cinema. Now on Blu-ray from Criterion, we can see this work in its highest quality edition available.
The early days of the Tokugawa shogunate saw many of the old lords thrown out of power and their lands consolidated into richer lands. As a result, many noble samurai were cast out of their employment and left to wander as ronin, eking out a living as best they could. Some are so desperate that they will even try to scam the existing lords by appealing to commit seppuku in their courtyards, knowing they'll be sent away with a few coins rather than their house having to deal with the hassle. That is what the Iyi clan believes is the case when Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai, Ran) arrives at their gates. They relay the story of the previous ronin who arrived requesting the same and, despite his tragic fate, Tsugumo has every intention of going through with it, but he has his own story to tell the clan before he does.
The main story of Tsugumo at the Iyi house is the basis by which Kobayashi splinters the film into three other pieces that give important backstory to the present issue. The first is the story of the young ronin, Motomo Chijiiwa (Akira Ishihama, The Human Condition), and his brutally violent fate. The second is Tsugumo's rebuttal, which throws a moral imperative back in the face of the shogunate. The third is Tsugumo's epilogue to his tale, revealing more about the supposedly powerful lords that they would ever care to admit. The stories are expertly woven together and, when they all finally click into place, it makes for some mesmerizing cinema.
The characterizations are perfect, with neither side exactly representing a hero. The ronin are beggars and thieves, but they at least stand behind an old, maybe outdated code. The lords, who are often portrayed as protective of tradition and their citizens, here have no heart at all and exist only to maximize their power and maintaining the facade that they have spent huge amounts of energy to establish. Tsugumo is expertly played by Nakadai, who imbues him with the stoic nobility of the samurai, the sadness of a grieving father, and an unwavering desire for justice all at once. The actor's booming voice is intimidating at first, but it gives way to much more sensitivity and range than it would initially suggest. The performances are all stellar, but Nakadai is absolutely supreme.
Criterion's Blu-ray release is fantastic, as expected, with a gorgeous image transfer that looks better than it ever has. The high-contrast black and white is brilliant and the grain structure is basically perfect. There are a few instances of damage, but they're small and brief. Overall, it's a deep and detailed transfer that lives up to all billing. The audio mix is a lossless PCM mono transfer, but still sounds really good, with noise free. The dialog is always solid and the score by Toro Takamitsu (Black Rain) is nice and strong. The extras are a port from Criterion's 2005 DVD. The interviews are enlightening, but there's no reason to upgrade for it. The good reason to upgrade to the Blu-ray is the image, which is superior and a big improvement over an already good SD transfer.
Harakiri is a brilliant piece of work and the best film from one of the great Japanese filmmakers in history. It's pointed in its message, but very subtle in its execution. It's hard to stop saying good things about this film, but the performances, the writing, and the direction are nearly perfect. It's a real pleasure to watch and multiple viewings only reap more rewards. For those who own Criterion's previous release of the film, the technical details are a big enough upgrade to warrant another purchase. If you do not own the film at all, it is certainly worthy of adding to your collection.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
Running Time: 133 Minutes
Release Year: 1962
MPAA Rating: Not Rated