Judge Paul Pritchard doesn't understand the fascination with harakiri; someone could kill themselves doing that one day.
Our reviews of Fritz Lang: The Early Works (published November 7th, 2012), Harakiri: Criterion Collection (published September 5th, 2005), and Harakiri (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection (published October 27th, 2011) are also available.
"What befalls others today could be your own fate tomorrow."
Eureka Entertainment are releasing Masaki Kobayashi's celebrated Harakiri on Region 2 DVD, just in time for the release of Takashi Miike's version of the novel on which Kobayashi based his film. While Miike's version will no doubt be an interesting proposition, this timely release of Harakiri (Region 2) offers a chance for many to see this rightly lauded film for the first time.
Facts of the Case
Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai, Yojimbo) arrives at the manor of the Iyi clan, requesting to see Lord Iyi. Granting him his council, Lord Iyi learns Tsugumo is a masterless Samurai who, having fallen on hard times, wishes to commit the act of seppuku (a ritual suicide), in order to exit this world in an honorable way. Before granting him this last request, Lord Iyi first asks Tsugumo hears the story of Motome Chijiwa (Akira Ishihama), another masterless Samurai who made a similar request only recently. As Lord Iyi explains, times are changing, and as the country goes through a prolonged peace, more and more Samurai find their services no longer required. As such, many have taken to extortion, requesting permission to commit seppuku in the courtyard of wealthy clans in the hope their show of honor will earn them both a reprieve and employment.
Despite learning of the grim fate that befell Motome, Tsugumo is unwavering in his decision. Before committing the act, he asks a few moments while he tells a story of his own, which reveals the true intentions behind his visit.
Director Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri examines both the futility of the warrior in times of peace, and the callousness of authority toward those it depends upon. It also acts as a deconstruction of the Samurai, stripping these oft-fabled warriors of much of their luster. Opening with Tsugumo arriving at the door of the Iyi clan, Harakiri progresses at a deliberate pace. The story takes place over several timelines. As we quickly learn, all are connected to Tsugumo's decision to commit seppuku. What we get is a tale of honorable men reduced to desperate measures, and a powerful elite whose skepticism and obstinacy blinds them to the moral truth.
The first act of the film is primarily focused on the story of Motome Chijiwa, a Ronin whose story is told in flashback, and used as a warning to Tsugumo. Like Tsugumo, Motome had also sought out the Iyi clan, and requested the use of their courtyard to commit seppuku. Looking beyond the desperation of Motome's request, the Iyi clan sees only a man looking to gain employment through deceit. In a harrowing, drawn out sequence, we see Motome toyed with, before being forced to commit seppuku in a most grisly manner—despite his pleading for a day's reprieve. It's interesting to note that, though the tale of Motome is undoubtedly distressing, the tact of the Iyi clan is at least understandable. Motome is clearly using the honor of the Samurai as a means to extort money from them; this lack of respect surely deserves to be punished?
This is where Kobayashi makes his argument that the rigidity of the establishment serves only to remove any trace of humanity from their decision-making, and that compared to a human life adherence to the Samurai code is folly. Did Motome not deserve better? Could no one ask why a man would risk everything for a few coins? Before committing the act of seppuku, Tsugumo recounts a tale of his own, one that reveals his true intentions. As he narrates his story, a very human tragedy is revealed, and suddenly we come to understand how Bushido serves little purpose beyond the image it helps create. Having lived their lives by it, these masterless Samurai find the rest of the world puts little stock in their code or their previous standing in society; they are, to all intents and purposes, nothing more than vagrants. Through his story we understand that Tsugumo is a man of his word, and the viewer is never in any doubt of that. However, he also seeks retribution, and he will have it by turning against the very ideals he has followed his whole life.
In sharp contrast to the way Samurai are usually presented, Kobayashi shows them as nothing more than an easily disposed of commodity for the wealthier members of society, kept on a retainer to do their masters' bidding and nothing more. This is seen very early on when we first meet Tsugumo. Appearing gaunt, with unkempt facial hair and scruffy attire, Tsugumo offers a glimpse at the fate awaiting those Samurai who are not killed in battle. Of more interest, however, are the sequences where we see Tsugumo with his family, which are extraordinary in the way they depict a warrior. Tsugomo is shown to be a remarkably affable individual, raising both his daughter and his best friend's son single handedly. When his daughter gives birth, he is the very epitome of the doting grandfather, and it is here that Tsugumo comes to fully understand the full implications of his conditioning in the ways of the Samurai. Make no mistake, though his story is one that is easy to sympathize with, Tsugumo is just as guilty as the Iyi clan for the fate that has befallen him and led him to the door of the Iyi clan. Although he determines the Iyi clan must pay, he knows that he too must face justice.
Kobayashi's film constantly threatens violence, but rarely gives in to it. When it finally becomes inevitable, Kobayashi stages a graceful, yet brutal encounter that suggests an influence on Tarantino's Kill Bill, as Tsugumo faces apparently insurmountable odds. Just like the rest of the film, it is blessed with imagery that is not easily forgotten.
The retail copy of Harakiri is to be a dual format release, with both a DVD and Blu-ray copy included. The screener sent for review only offered a DVD version of the film, but the transfer impressed no end. The audio impresses too, with Toru Takemitsu's minimalist score standing out. The only extra featured on the screener is an interview with director Masaki Kobayashi, where he discusses the film with fellow director Masahiro Shinoda. The final retail copy also promises a twenty-eight-page booklet, an interview with Kobayashi from 1963, and rare production stills.
A unique entry in the Samurai genre, Harakiri deserves a place amongst the DVD collection of more discerning film lovers. It may be too slow for more impatient viewers, but those with a love of good stories and/or world cinema should place this high on their shopping list.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Eureka Entertainment
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