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This film is the purest distillation of the spirit of Greek tragedy ever put on celluloid. Yes, this is a review of Seppuku, a Japanese film released in 1962. Perhaps it took a non-Westerner, free of all of the cultural baggage and ridiculous associations, to see straight into the heart of the tragic mode and make it palpable and alive in the twentieth century. That is not all: the black and white cinematography is both formally assured and often outrageously daring; the soundtrack is one of the finest efforts of the greatest Japanese composer of the 20th century (or any century for that matter); the acting is demonically inspired; and the narrative is relentlessly gripping and involving. The film illuminates the relationship between the individual and society and between society and history. It is a tender meditation on familial love and the ties of friendship that transcend even death. This film will cut open your bowels, pull your soul out, and force you to stare it in the face. There may be other films that attain similar heights, but I cannot imagine any film, ever, being more perfect. Forget Citizen Kane, Seven Samurai, the Godfather, etc. etc. all of those commodified canonical works that everybody raves about because everybody else is raving about them. Don't get me wrong, they're fine--but this stuff is 200 proof. See it today. Buy it yesterday.
I saw Harakiri (Seppuku) in a new 35 mm print at NYC's Film Forum. This
is a brilliant use of a narrow period genre to explosively indict
politics and culture. Writers Shinobu Hashimoto and Yasuhiko Takiguchi
surely must have been as inspired by "The Count of Monte Cristo,"
Ambrose Bierce and Howard Hawks' Westerns as much as by samurai
literature and movies.
The film begins deceptively as a story within a story, seemingly providing a traditional example of upholding samurai honor, such as in the conventional, oft-retold tale of "The 47 Ronin." The context is set at a time when the central government, the shogunate, is supplanting local clans and arbitrarily unemploying thousands of people, notably their samurai, forcing them into the mercenary mode of ronin at best and begging for food at worse. But the parallels to the 20th century are made repeatedly explicit as the samurai who comes to this clan seeking help is from Hiroshima.
Very gradually we get further insight on the tale within a tale, as we see more flashbacks within flashbacks into what each character has been doing before these confrontations and we get uneasy inklings that the moral of the story may not be what it appears at first and the stakes get higher and higher with almost unbearable tension.
It is almost halfway through the film until we see a female and we suddenly see an alternative model of masculinity, where a priority is put on family, support, education and creative productivity. In comparison to the macho opening relationships, with their emphasis on formal militaristic loyalty to a hierarchy, a loving husband and father is practically a metrosexual. Seeing the same stalwart samurai making casual goo goo sounds to his grandbaby puts the earlier, ritualized scenes in sharp relief, particularly the recurring image of the clan's armor which seems less and less imposing and is finally destroyed as an empty symbol.
The psychological tension in the confrontations in the last third of the film is more excruciating than the actual violence. Even when we thought we already knew the outcome from the flashbacks, the layers of perception of relationships and personalities are agonizingly peeled away with each thrust of a sword to reveal the depths of the horrifying hypocrisy of the political and social structure. And those are just the overwhelming cultural resonances that a 21st century American can glean. Like "Downfall (Der Untergang)," it reveals the inhumane mentality that led to World War II.
The repeating motif of long walks then confrontations down empty corridors emphasizes the stultifying bureaucratic maze that entraps the characters. The revenge motifs are accented by startlingly beautiful cinematography that recalls traditional Japanese art, including drops of blood like first snow flakes then a waterfall.
The over all effect of this masterpiece is emotionally draining.
I've said it once about another movie, incidentally by the other great
Japanese director as well and I want to repeat my words in regard to
"Harakiri": "There are good, very good, and even great movies. But
among them there are just a few that go beyond great. They belong to
the league of their own". Masaki Kobayashi's "Harakiri" aka "Seppuku"
is one of them. The film of rare power and humanism, of highest
artistic achievements, profoundly moving, tragic like the best
Shakespeare's plays, universal and timeless even if it takes place in
the faraway country of 1630, by the words of one of the reviewers
"Harakiri" "is to cinema as the Sistine Chapel is to painting.
The film grabbed me from the very first shot, from its opening credits with their perfect harmony of kanji (I believe it is a correct word to describe the writings) characters, with the unusual disturbing score and with the dark beauty of the images. And then the story begins that centers on Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai), one of hundreds or maybe even thousands unemployed lord less samurais, ronin, that in the blessed times of peace had not many choices to adjust to new life and often preferred to commit a ritual suicide, hara-kiri or seppuku on the property of the wealthy estate owners. According to Bushido, the way of the samurai, "One who is a samurai must before all things keep constantly in mind, by day and by night . . . the fact that he has to die. That is his chief business."
At the same time, samurai and anti-samurai film, "Harakiri" offers the masterfully screened scenes of sword-fights, not plentiful but exquisitely choreographed, perfectly paced and unbearably intense but the film is much more than that. It is also a gripping court drama where the truth is unfolded in the flashbacks. The viewers are allowed to look closer at the noble Samurai code of behavior and to reflect on how its abuse impacts the fate of an individual and the society in general. Compelling, poetic, and tragic, the movie has one of the most pessimistic endings ever that makes you wonder how the history is made, how the historical events are interpreted and who decides what would be written in the chronicles and important documents and what would be left out.
A Masterpiece, one of the best movies ever made, "Harakiri" deserves all its praise. It is not in my nature to force my opinion on anyone but if you call yourself a movie buff or a movie lover, you MUST see this film.
When I first saw this movie, I did not know much about it. I saw it for
a class so I was given a little background of the time period. In fact
I was pretty much just told this:
This movie takes place during the time where many Samurai were left ronins, or masterless. These samurai were unable to find work and thereby were left in poverty. Eventually many would go up to clans and ask to commit seppuku.
It was dishonorable to refuse such a "noble" request, but most clans did not want samurai to kill themselves on their property so they would just pay the samurai to go elsewhere.
So I watched the movie and well... I loved it. During the class discussion the next day I found most people hated the movie. Not because it was a bad movie, but because of how it made people feel about themselves. And that's exactly why this movie is genius. If you're interested in watching this movie, do not read the summary in detail - reading the summary in detail will deprive you of what one of the key things that made the movie great IMO.
I have seen this movie numerous times (at least 10, probably many more),
enjoy it each time. The first couple of times I saw it was right after it
came out. It did not have sub-titles, and as my Japanese is not very
I made some assumptions about the characters, relationships, the plot,etc.
When I saw it with sub-titles, I was surprised at how few incorrect
assumptions I had made. That I made so few errors is no credit to me, but
rather to how well the plot, character development, character
and the overall movie were done.
The movie is not limited to feudal Japan, for it transcends this era. It has lessons, for those who look for this in art. For instance, just one example occurs to me now: It underscores the need for a person to stand on principle, and to maintain their honor, ethics, and dignity, even when those who are the political leaders have long since lost theirs. However for purely entertainment value, the realism, suspense, art, and action could not be better. Words fail to express how this film captivates and entertains. Few films can equal this one. It is a "must see."
Harakiri is an excellent human drama set in feudal Japan that involves
a ronin presenting himself to a powerful clan and asking to commit
harikiri. However, through a series of flashbacks we see that this
ronin is motivated by more than the idea of dying honorably. The events
that follow are a critique of the feudal system and a celebration of
dying for one's beliefs.
Every frame in Harikiri is wonderfully composed and a treat to view. The cinematography is crisp, the sets wonderful and the actors are spectacular. Much can be said about this film's technical merits as well as its social implications. I found out about this film through my love of Akira Kurosawa's samurai dramas (who else...) and I must say that it is very different from Kurosawa-sans work although it draws inevitable comparisons. Due to its themes, Harikiri is more of an anti samurai film. Generally Kurosawa's work seems to glorify the honor of the samurai and celebrate them as Japanese heroes by showing them gloriously in battle. Kurosawa is the Japanese John Ford, taking an icon from his culture and celebrating it. Harikiri exposes the virtues that Kurosawa portrays as being "a facade" to directly quote the film.
I say this so as not to mislead any potential viewers, I do not know enough about Japanese history to judge what the samurai really stood for and really I am not concerned with the idea. This is the only Kobyashi film I have seen and it has been brought to my attention that many of his films deal with similar themes. All in all I think that Harikiri is a wonderful film that offers a new take on feudal Japan.
Having seen this film the mind becomes clouded with the innumerable
things to say about it. Only praise comes to mind. Kobayashi has
crafted The great samurai film for the rebel generation and he mixes a
deftly handled criticism of authoritarian hypocrisy with a very
touching piece of human drama.
The plot is deceptively simple: an old samurai (touchingly portrayed by Tatsuya Nakadai of "Ran", "Kagemusha" and "Sword of Doom") arrives at a clan castle to commit seppuku in their yard, and then tells his tale, seemingly trying to gain time at first. What seems to be the rambling of an old man soon turns out to be a grieving account of how this man (and, more significantly, his loved ones) was wronged by the clan. Then comes the violent revenge (this is where you think "Wild Bunch with katanas", though they do up the ante toward the end with guns...).
Kobayashi's direction is masterful, keeping an unbearable suspense during the mostly talky film, handling the touching scenes with care and maturity and giving us a sweeping fight to top all that. The 133 minutes running time never feels half that long! At the heart of it all though, is Nakadai, who, despite an excellent CV, delivers his greatest performance ever. His Tsugumo evokes a wounded panther, grieving an grieving until it gives in to fury. Nakadai's performance alone marks the film as essential viewing.
If you're open to samurai flicks, this will rank among the finest films you've ever seen.
"Harakiri" ("Seppuku") (Japanese, 1962): It is the 17th century. A young Samurai warrior arrives at a mansion, asking to perform his ritual death there. In a series of flashbacks, we learn who he is, why he came, and what has occurred since. Although quietly told by another ex-warrior (about whom we also learn more), this is an interesting story that builds in complexity and tension. Debates about rituals and appearances may at first seem to hold more significance in old Japan than in the contemporary United States, but it is not difficult to translate and implement such thoughts. Love, honor, duty, family, children, saving "face", determination, desperation they all exist in OUR everyday lives. Dramatically photographed in beautiful black & white, given a strong Japanese score, and paced so that even the mildly patient will be glad they saw it, "Harakiri" is epically huge, and a must-see for story & film lovers.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A classic, surviving the test of time -- made in 1962 about 17th
century people. Here in 2005, we still watch and discuss the film and
the issues that it raises. Tsugumo Hanshiro, a middle-aged ronin
formerly serving a clan abolished by the Shogunate, appears at the Ii
clan gate. He wishes to commit seppuku rather than live on in poverty.
In his inner headquarters, Saito Kageyu, the chief retainer, bemoans
the fact that hordes of starving ronin have been making similar
requests at clan gates; most have wanted handouts rather than to
actually commit seppuku. Kageyu suspects the same of Hanshiro. Kageyu
attempts to discourage Hanshiro. He tells a tale of another ronin from
the same abolished clan, Chijiiwa Motome.
Motome had appeared a few months earlier, with a request, but had carried bamboo sword blades the clan members had been enraged. As an example to other scrounging ronin, particularly those without real blades, the clan decided to force Motome to commit seppuku with his own bamboo wakizashi.
Hanshiro tells his own life story. The film shows us some historical background. Thousands of ex-retainers had been thrown out of their positions, made into ronin, by the Shogunate's abolishing of clans. In the rigid class system (samurai, farmers, artisans, merchants), these displaced ex-retainers had no place at all, being forced into marginal subsistence. Most trades (because they required long periods of apprenticeship) were out for most ronin. Many ronin became outlaws or obtained bodyguard positions for gangsters. If law-abiding, they were able to teach in schools for commoner children. Or become piecework artisans; they could contract with wholesalers (who also lent money) to make fans, umbrellas, insect cages, ink brushes, and the like. Even as most ronin had to fend for themselves in this netherworld, they still were to carry the two swords of their original rank, and to uphold their obligations. Hanshiro and his daughter Miho make umbrellas and fans to sell to wholesalers for a pittance; Hanshiro is in debt to one of the wholesalers. Motome teaches commoner children and receives a minimal wage for his work.
Miho and Motome marry and have a son. All goes well until sickness strikes. Miho contracts consumption and the child contracts a fever. Neither Hanshiro nor Motome can afford a doctor. Motome attempts to get a laborer job (which pays more than teaching does) and runs straight into job discrimination: "no starving ronin need apply." Motome sells his sword blades at a pawnshop, obtaining bamboo blades to wear inside his sword fittings, not an uncommon practice; some ronin (and some low-ranked clan samurai) desperately needed money. And yet, the sword was considered to be "the soul of the bushi." A bushi who sold his blades had to appear to wear the badge of his rank. The bamboo blades were available, thus no one would know of the despicable act of having sold his "soul" for money.
But Motome has not received enough; he still cannot afford a doctor. So Motome decides on something more desperate: to appear at a clan gate, with his hidden bamboo blades, in order to request seppuku -- with the actual intention of receiving a handout to get a doctor for his wife and child. The Ii clan officials have decided differently. The scene where Motome must commit seppuku with his bamboo wakizashi is one of the most harrowing scenes ever filmed. Motome is utterly humiliated, surrounded by the Ii clan retainers, with Onodaka Hikokuro, his assigned second preaching on how the sword is the soul of the samurai, the bamboo sword is what is appropriate for Motome, and so forth. While Motome painfully carries forth. Hikokuro refuses Motome's request to cut off his head and end the ritual's mockery, so Motome ends it himself, biting off his tongue.
Hanshiro has realized -- too late -- that he had never dared to even consider selling his own sword blades to help out the family. The scene when he is confronted with Motome's body and the truth of what has happened is truly gut-wrenching, as Hanshiro weeps and slams down his "useless tokens" that he had clung to. Hanshiro reveals his own secret he has used his "useless tokens" to avenge Motome's death. He has tracked down the three Ii retainers who were most responsible for Motome's death. The final duel between Hanshiro and Onodaka Hikokuro is absolutely stunning. Instead of taking the lives of these three, Hanshiro has taken their topknots. And while Kageyu has preached to Hanshiro about samurai honor, these three swordsmen have hidden themselves away, claiming sickness to cover up their own shame, while their topknots grow back.
Kageyu cannot deal with Hanshiro's revelations. He commands his men to slaughter Hanshiro. Hanshiro fights back gamely, taking four of the Ii clan retainers and wounding several more. In a symbolic scene, he tears down the ancestral armor of the Ii clan. Some Ii clansmen use their rifles against Hanshiro, but Hanshiro sticks his own sword into his belly, committing seppuku as he has pledged to do. In the end, Kageyu fashions a cover-up of the entire event; mysterious plagues have hit the Ii clan and a number of their retainers, including Onodaka, have died of "illness" rather than by the blade of an impoverished hungry ronin.
This film raises many issues. It is Kobayashi's impassioned protest against rigidly militaristic societies that uphold hypocritical codes of "bushido" while disdaining what that term really means. The film is also like a Greek tragedy, with a character (Tsugumo Hanshiro) possessing the tragic flaw of his own pride -- which in the end, he must pay for with his life. Which he does in a heroic way. This film doesn't just recount the oppression of poor people. It shows the strength that these poor people have, the choices that they make as individuals, refusing to just bow down and be mere victims of their society.
It's quite surprising that some old masterpieces fall easily into the
oblivion. Harakiri (Seppuku) is a good example. Quite simply this is
one of the best Japanese movies I've ever seen.
Everything is this movie is exceptional: the cinematography is top notch, the acting is very good, the direction is almost perfect.
Tragedy, revenge, ethics, political contents...this movie has all of these elements wrapped in an exceptional 16th century samurai environment.
The only defects I could see in this movie is that someone may feel it is slightly slow (as actually there are very few action scenes...this is not a "chambara" movie!) and the fact that it is not dubbed (at least in the Italian edition)...so you lose some of the details while reading the subtitles....that is, unless you understand Japanese.
If you like black & white Japanese movies this is definitely a must see. GREAT.
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