Harrowing critique of samurai ethos: “Harakiri”/Seppuku”

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“Seppuku” (“Harakiri,” 1962, directed by Kobayashi Masaki), is a bit too long. It takes a while to get going, but becomes enthralling (if more than a little horrifying), and all too relevant to organizational dissembling in other times and places than Pax Tokugawa Japan ca. 1630. Like Kobayashi’s excellent and excruciating “Human Condition “trilogy, the movie’s convincingness depends on the great Nakadai Tatsuya (who also played the gunslinger in “Rashomon” and the central roles in Kurosawa’s last great historical movies, “Kagemusha” and “Ran”).Kobayashi’s “Samurai Rebellion,” in which Nakadai played an important part, but Mifune Toshiro played the central role akin to Nakadai’s in “Seppuku,” is not quite as horrifying (it is similarly withering a critique of the bushido code that the humiliated heroes live and die by). As the younger ronin Ishihama Akira (Boyhood, My Sons’ Youth,  The Rose on His Arm) is also extraordinary.

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The gruesome, extremely unerotic suicides in  are motivated by parental and uxorial love (and the samurai honor code). The first suicide (with a bamboo sword, a scene that made a number of those in the audience of the film’s première at Cannes faint) stems from a desperate father (Motome portrayed by Ishihama),trying to feed his sick wife and child. This story is told in flashback by  Nakadai, as Tsugomo, a ronin who spends most of the movie immobile kneeling in the center of the same courtyard, seething with bitterness and guilt and discomfiting Iyi Clan elder, Kageyu Saito (Rentaro Mikuni).

After telling Motome’s story and his relationship(s) to Motome, Tsugomo takes many Iyi retainers with him. It is a stunningly acted and photographed film with Takemitsu Tori’s first soundtrack (a very innovative one), bravura cinematography by Kobayashi regular Miyajima Yoshio, and one of many mesmerizing performances by Nakadai.

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The alternation of Takemitsu Toru ‘s haunting, spare music and lack of any background music is very effective and the visual compositions are very impressive (as in “Samurai Rebellion” which is even more geometrical). The suppressions and explosions of emotion are very Japanese, as are the seppuku rituals, the glorification of suicide, and the rigidly frozen assemblies. Like the “Human Condition” trilogy, it is a forbidding masterpiece, but definitely a masterpiece.

There is a superbly remastered Criterion edition (Bluray and DVD), with a second disc that includes interviews with Kobayashi (interviewed by Shinoda Masahiro, and less voluble than Shinoda), Nakadai, and screenwriter Hashimoto Shinobu (the latter two are forthcoming, providing insights into their processes and the making of the movie).

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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