Tag Archives: Ishihama

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


“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.


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.

HARAKIRI_1962_MoC_16 (Small).jpg

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

Kobayashi’s yearning youth “Somewhere under the wide sky” (1954)


The title of Kobayashi Masaki’s 1954 movie “Somewhere under the wide sky” (“Kono hiroi sora no dokoka ni”, also rendered “Somewhere beneath the broad sky”) is something the younger brother, Noboru (Ishihama Akira), tells his impoverished and now tubercular classmate, Mitsui. Noboru continues with “there is someone who will love me.” It is sort of odd that he does not have a girlfriend, since the same actor (born at the start of 1935) was in love already in two earlier Kobayashi movies (My Sons’ Youth, and Sincerity/A Sincere Heart). Although Noboru is somewhat spoiled by his mother and his older half-brother, Ryoichi (Sada Keiji) who is the head of the family and proprietor of the Morita Liquor Store in Kawasaki (across the Tawa River from Tokyo), his sunny disposition mostly cheers those around him and is accompanied by genuine empathy. Noboru is an advocate for helping others and for his somewhat frivolous sister-in-law, Hiroko (Kuga Yoshiko), against his censorious mother (Aroko Kumeko) and crippled (in an aerial bombing during WWII) older (half-?)sister Yasuko (Kinoshita regular Takamine Hideko).


Yasuko is hyper-conscious of her limp and that, at the advanced age of 28, she should have married out by now (she has a suitor almost as optimistic and even more solicitous in the countryside, Shun-don (Ôki Minoru), whom she avoids… until she doesn’t). Despite the stepmother’s and sister-in-law’s outrage and suspicion about a Hiroko entertaining a visitor, an ex-suitor from her home town, Ryoichi takes that in stride. He married for love (rather than having a properly marriage-broker-arranged marriage) and has tolerance for the foibles of everyone, while working hard to support the family.

The social criticism, which would become biting in later Kobayashi movies, had not emerged yet (or he’d been forced to back off by the studio’s refusal to release “The Thick-Walled Room”), despite some focus on class differences, in particular the lesser life chances of those who have not inherited a family business and don’t have the support of a loving family. Ryoichi and Noburo are so amiable and empathetic that the movie is like a whole season of a 1950s family series (The Donna Reed Show, Leave It to Beaver) compressed into an hour and a half (without a father, though Ryoichi pretty much functions as one). There aren’t a lot of laughs—the movie is more family drama than comedy—, but the movie is a pleasant spectacle of a family overcoming problems in postwar (rubble-cleared) Tokyo. It is well-acted and the viewer can bask under the virginal Noburo’s dazzling smiles. It was shot by Morita Toshiyasu, who would have more scenery to work with in Kobayashi’s “Izumi” (1956), which also starred Sada Keiji and has not-too-annoying music by Kinoshita Chûji, whom Kobayashi would continue to use. “Under” was scripted by the wife of cinematographer Kuuda Hiroshi (and sister to the composer and to the director Kinoshitas) Kusuda Yoshiko, the first of eleven screenwriting credits for her.


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Kobayashi’s directorial debut: “Musuko no seishun” (1952)

sincerity.jpgKobayashi Masaki (1916-96) was a protégé of Kinoshita Keisuke, who lent some sentimentality that Kobayashi would shed before making his masterpieces, and also lent Kobayashi his brother, Kinoshita Chûji, to supply the music for Kobayashi’s first feature, the 45-minute “Musuko no seishun” (1952) available on Hulu as its US title “Youth of the Son.” (“Spring” in the Japanese title/metaphor is rendered “Youth” in both). The British title, “My Sons’ Youth,” is clearly better, since there are two boys, the 18-year-old Haruhiko (Ishihama Akira, who had been the boy of Kinoshita’s “Boyhood the year before, and would later die so agonizingly in Kobayashi’s “Harakiri”) and the 16-year-old Akahiko. Haruhiko is pleasant, handsome, and shy; Akahiko a bit sullen and a bit of a ruffian.


After Haruhiko’s birthday party (which looks to me suitable for a ten-year-old, with singing “Happy Birthday” (in English) for about five minutes, he goes on a date to a kabuki performance in Tokyo (with Kosono Yôko, who sheds her girlish look to go as a woman in heels with a permanent). Akahiko and his friend, the thuggish son of a rich man (the ubiquitous Ryû Chisû, playing a father not very much like those he played in Ozu movie after Ozu movie) beat up some visitors from Tokyo and retain the watch of one of them as a souvenir of their triumph. That gets them jailed. After Akahiko’s father gets the boys sprung from jail, Akahiko is penitent, but eager enough to wrestle with his older brother, seemingly not having had enough fighting for one night.

 youth ofson-1272x954.jpg

The episodic family movie is like a 1950s family sitcom—“Father Knows Best” or “The Donna Reed Show,” though they came along later and could not have influenced Kobayashi. Work with Kinoshita, not least collaborating on writing the screenplay for “A Broken Drum” for Kinoshita to direct and working on Kinoshita’s Carmen movies, clearly did lead to this derivative, pleasant work.

Although there is not a rural-urban conflict, there is the offscreen clash of boys from the metropole (Tokyo) and hinterland town boys eager to prove their toughness.


(the youth of the director)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray


Kinoshita’s 1959 “Farewell to Spring” (Sekishunchō)


I found the folk song and dance (about the “white tigers” [byakkotai], young samurais who committed seppuku under misapprehension of having lost a battle in support of the Tokugawas in the 1868 Battle of Tonoguchihara) in Kinoshita’s 1959 “Farewell to Spring” (Sekishunchō, which means “spring bird”; the movie was also released as “The Bird of Springs Past”) more bearable than the folksongs in other Kinoshita (and Ôshima) movies.


Ishihama Akira was back (having appeared in Kinoshita’s “Boyhood,” “Fireworks Over the Sea,”  “The Tattered Wings,” and “The Rose on His Arm” — as a priggish if not particularly fascist indeed, a striking worker) or particularly bright young man, Teshirogi Kôzô, with Ryû Chichû again playing his father. Tsugawa Mashiko (who would later star in “Taxing Woman”) played the more brooding young man, long derided as the son of a mistress (who now owns an inn).


Two of the five school friends return, two years after graduation to visit Wakamitsu, Aizu, bathe and banquet and sing together and be torn apart by family demands and the need for money, especially that of the shifty Iwagaki (Kawazu Yûsuke from Kinoshita’s “Eternal Rainbow” and “Snow Flurry,” and as the ruthless rapist in Ôshima’s “Cruel Story of Youth”).


“Farewell to Spring” has been called (in his Wikipedia entry) “the first Japanese gay movie,” but other than some ardent homoeroticism in two first re-meetings, the bonds seem lacking in erotic components, even if Kinoshita himself was gay.


Kayuo is fervently in love with the 18-year-old Yôko (Toake Yukiyo), whose family is marrying her to Teshirogi (who has asked for Kayuo’s permission before going to the meeting of the families). Only the crippled Masugi (Yamamoto Toyozô), who is said to have “strong feelings” and is the most passionate about maintaining the ties of the old gang, set off any gaydar signals and his lack of female prospects might account for his homosociality.

And Kasuyo’s uncle (Sada Keiji), who ran off with a geisha (Arima Ineko) and has returned with untreated tuberculosis, is also heterosexual to a fatal extent.

The complexity of the plot and the intercutting make it difficult to follow even with familiarity with the white tiger shrines and cult (tombs pictured below). One thing that is clear is that “spring” in the title is a metaphor for adolescence with the adolescent homosocial (though here not visibly homoerotic) bonds rusting out in a few years for those who did not die together as the white tigers—foolishly in my view, since they reached their decision based on a false surmise of defeat — did.the-tombs-of-the-byakkotai.jpg.

 (grave of the  white tigers; monument to them pictured at the top of this posting)


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Psychologically toying with a sullen lower-class boy


 (Masahiro and Keiko)

In Kinoshita’s 1956 “The Rose on His Arm” (Taiyô to bara Kiyoshi (Nakamura Katsuo [who would later play the frantic spender of “Pleasures of the Flesh”] is a stupid, feckless,  sullen, and skinny slacker Kiyoshi who catches the eye of Masahiro (Ishihama Akira), the spoiled and vicious son of the owner of the factory where Kiyoshi has been given a job he has no interest in performing or keeping. (How he got a two weeks’ salary advance mystifies me!)

Masahiro’s sister Keiko (Kuga Yoshiko), who had an abortion after being raped in the seaside town where Kiyoshi and his hardworking mother (Miyake Kuniko) live, tries to help Kiyoshi without any visible agenda, not that Masahiro’s is visible. Masahiro takes up Kiyoshi, giving him money and clothes… and orders. 1956 audiences may not have noticed an erotic component in Masahiro’s domination/submission play (which becomes fatal).

Class plays a very large role in both movies about juvenile delinquents without the funds for the lifestyles to which they aspire, or the education to attain higher status. Sabu and Kiyoshi are not rebels, but exemplars of Mertonian strain (accepting socially valued status but using illegal means to try to achieve it). Does differential association account for Masahiro’s deviance (I mean criminality rather than homoerotic s&m; he may qualify as being a “rebel”). He already has money and status with no loyalty to respectable society.


(Nakamura some years later)


I thought the fight scenes in “Rose” pretty phony in this as in other golden age Japanese movies (including the swordfights in which the hero mows down one after another assailant who has waited patiently for his turn to die.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Kinoshita’s portrayal of wartime internal exile: “Shônen-ki” (1951)

Kinoshita Keisuke shot two movies between “Carmen Goes Home” (1951) and its sequel “Carmen’s Pure Love” (1952). The historically more important one, is “Shônen-ki,” called in English “Boyhood” (by Janus-Criterion-Hulu”, “A Record of Youth,” and just “Youth.” (The other was the incoherent “Fireworks Over the Sea.”)


I found  the patriotic music difficult to bear in Konoshita’s  1951 “Boyhood (Shônen-ki), even if its intent was ironic (about which I’m not entirely sure, though I think it was, though I think it was; against that is the rarity of Kinoshita being on the side of a father rather than a son).

I wanted to identify with the liberal scholar father (Ryû Chichû), but Kinoshita portrayed him as self-centered, which is also the critical view of the more fascist of his son Ichirô (Ishihama Akira, a decade before dying agonizingly in Shinoda’s “Hara-kiri”).


Ichirô was 16 when the war ended, restive in the countryside, to which he had resisted going when the rest of the family evacuated Tokyo, but he eventually rejoined them there after Japan’s surrender. Ichirô remains dubious about his father’s patriotism, though his father tries to explain that, not knowing at what moment he/they may be killed by US bombs, he wants to spend all his waking time reading.