Dir: Masaki Kobayashi (Kaidan; Human Condition I-III)
A Samurai film that deconstructs the genre, Harakiri is a truly great film. On par with the great Kurosawa movies, it is compelling through and through. The fact that the film sneaks in a pretty devastating political message to boot makes it both important and entertaining.
In the 1600's, peace reigns and warriors starve in the streets. At the beginning of the film, Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai) arrives at the house of a powerful family asking to commit ritual suicide (seppuku or harakiri) on their grounds. During the preparations, we learn that a similar request was made a week ago by another samurai, one whose ignobility was exposed. This earlier man was forced to kill himself in a most gruesome way. The film unravels the relationship between the two would-be suicides and the samurai code that controls their actions.
The story itself is expertly put together, unpredictable and engaging and filled with tension. It is simultaneously uplifting and maudlin, political but universal, tense but contemptlative, but always enthralling. Nakadai and Akira Ishihama are brilliant as the two protagonists, altering their performance as more of the story is unveiled. The lone action sequence at the end of the film is unique and balletic, a sophisticated bit of sword play that drives character as well as resolves the narrative.
Kobayashi strongly indicts a culture that claims codes of honor yet allows abject poverty, that invests power in the hands of a duplicitous few who hide behind tradition to cover their own cowardice, and elevates faith to family and love above political allegiance. He takes acts of depseration and turns them into triumphs. Throughout, his camera finds symbols of Samurai legend and juxtaposes them with the true actions of those who claim to live by the code. Like the latter-day western, Harakiri deconstructs the genre and finds truths applicable to the modern day. I really loved it.
This film won the Jury Prize at Cannes. It deserved more. Even with To Kill A Mockingbird in the mix. It is a splendid, brilliant film, one of the best I have seen from Japan.