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Harakiri: The Criterion Collection

Judging from its title, its key art, or even a sketch of its narrative, 1962's Harakiri would seem to be of a piece with the other samurai films from the 1960s that audiences have revered for decades: stylish, kinetic, and entertaining. But just as a book should not be judged by its cover, so a film like this should not be lumped in with others which it may superficially resemble. Screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto and director Masaki Kobayashi crafted a somber epic that eschews crowd-pleasing action for a scathing critique of the samurai ethos, as well as a potent anti-authoritarian tale that uses the historical setting of the 17th century to make political statements which aim for contemporary resonance. If all this makes Harakiri sound like a tedious, depressing slog, be aware that it also features some sterling performances and some effective touches of dark humor. As with most worthwhile samurai films, Harakiri requires some familiarity with its historical setting to fully appreciate its story. During the Tokugawa period, Japan's government became centralized, drawing power away from the individual warlords who had held sway over their individual fiefdoms. This resulted in the unemployment of many warriors, men who had served as these warlords' retainers and thus became wandering, masterless samurai known as ronin. Desperate for work (and apparently unable to acquire new job skills), the ronin sought honorable work from various clans — or, failing that, committed the ritual suicide known as hara-kiri or seppuku (this film's Japanese title). Aiming to atone for earthly dishonor with an extremely painful death, the suicidal samurai would slice open his abdomen with a short sword, after which an assisting second would perform a fatal decapitation blow. These details matter not just because of the film's title, but also because they play a key role in its story.

Harakiri begins with the arrival of Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai) at the gates of the Iyi clan's compound. He explains that his own clan has dissolved and asks for permission to use their courtyard for his hara-kiri ritual. Apparently this was not an uncommon occurrence in 1630; ever since one such petitioner was hired on by another clan out of pity, many ronin have used this ploy in hopes of gaining a job or at least a charitable donation. Tsugumo is granted an audience with an Iyi leader, who proceeds to tell him about the last man who made such a request. In flashback, Motome Chijiwa (Akira Ishihama) makes the same appeal to clan Iyi, but the clan leaders, sensing that he merely seeks alms, grant his request and set about forcing him to go through with it. When they discover that Chijiwa's sword is merely a bamboo replica, they insist on the rule requiring anyone committing hara-kiri to use his own weapon. Chijiwa's drawn-out, painful suicide with this blunt instrument is a harrowing scene that, even to today's jaded audiences, may be difficult to watch. Once the tale is told, Tsugumo reiterates his desire to kill himself, but through a series of orchestrated delays he has an opportunity to tell his own story. It turns out he knew Chijiwa, and as more flashbacks depict the course of events which brought the younger samurai to the Iyi gates, it becomes clear that Tsugumo is intent on exacting revenge for the behavior of the clan. It also becomes clear that Kobayashi's critique is not limited to the behavior of one group in one particular episode, but extends to the entire unbending code of honor which leads to such barbarity.

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Masaki Kobayashi occupies a tier in Japanese cinema just below the Mount Rushmore level of Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Yasujiro Ozu. He's best known for Harakiri and the 1964 ghost story anthology Kwaidan, but both demonstrate his mastery of the widescreen canvas. In Harakiri he alternates between static moments of tense silence and judiciously chosen camera moves — gliding tracking shots, slow zooms, and the occasional quick pan — which serve to heighten emotion at key moments in the film. Anyone expecting a bloodletting, jaw-dropping display of martial prowess will be disappointed, although once Tsugumo gets down to brass tacks, the film culminates in a battle royale of sorts (there's also a nicely staged one-on-one duel in a windswept field during one of Tsugumo's final flashbacks). The flashback-heavy narrative framework calls to mind Rashomon, especially since screenwriter Hashimoto also penned Kurosawa's classic. A more recent analogue would be Hero, which also centers on tales told under duress in a similar setting. But perhaps the most interesting comparison would be with a film like Unforgiven or The Wild Bunch. Just as those pictures repudiated the heroic iconography of the Western and revealed the brutal reality of a historical period usually tinted by nostalgia, so does this one.

The Criterion Collection's double-disc edition of Harakiri features a stellar anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) of the black-and-white film, which does justice to Yoshio Miyajima's sharp widescreen cinematography. Disc One also includes what's termed an "introduction" to the film by Japanese cinema scholar Donald Ritchie. As is frustratingly common, this "introduction" reveals crucial plot details and should not be viewed before the feature; it would have been better to include it with the other interviews on the set's second disc. In his ten-minute talk, Ritchie points out the consistent anti-authoritarianism of Kobayashi, and his desire for Harakiri to be seen also as an indictment of Japanese corporate culture in the postwar era. The second disc includes three more interview featurettes. Kobayashi, who died in 1996, talks with fellow filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda (Double Suicide) in a 1993 clip and compares his film to Kurosawa's more lighthearted Sanjuro, which was made around the same time (9 min.). In another segment, star Nakadai discusses the challenges of playing a 50-year-old character (he was 30 at the time), and the most important skill for period actors: being able to maintain a seizu (kneeling) posture on hard wooden floors for hours on end (13 min.). Screenwriter Hashimoto reveals that he wrote the script for Harakiri in 11 days, and defends his time-shifting stories: "It isn't a flashback if it moves in the direction of the drama." (12 min.) Finally, a gallery of international poster art for the film demonstrates the global variety of graphic design. Dual-DVD keep-case.
—Marc Mohan

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