Saturday, June 21, 2008

Masaki Kobayashi: Harakiri

True to its title Masaki Kobayshi's Harakiri is an extremely grim and brutal film. It is also spellbinding and a stunning piece of work, quite simply the best samurai film I have ever seen. Although the story is set in medieval Japan (1630) it is quite obviously filtered through the sensibilities of immediate post-war Japan. By critically interrogating the Samurai code of honour and attendant elements of feudal culture it is obviously a response to the calamities of Japanese history (in the second world war). Pacifism, introspective humanism, critique of masculine and traditionalist codes of honour are some of the recurring themes in post-war Japanese cinema but in Harakiri these come out as particularly powerful. It might be possible that I was not really prepared for its grimness, bitterness and intensity (and to be honest I don't really like the samurai or chambara films all that much), watching it felt like being hit by a bullet train.

I won't reveal anything about the plot and I will suggest not to read anything about it before watching the film because the way the story is told the effect is cumulative as plot surprises and revelations pile up one after another. (It is told through multiple episodic flashbacks). Tatsuya Nakadai is simply astonishing in the main role of the aging Samurai. He said that when he was first offered the role he was skeptical about it and thought he wouldn't be able to do it. He is a man of average physique which works well in this role because his strength seems to come out of his will and intensity more than his body and physical prowess.

Kobayashi's visual style is also stunning. His shot compositions, camera movements and framing are highly formalistic and stylized which makes the sheer visceral impact of the film all the more surprising and effective. The swordfight scenes are also highly formalistic which may disappoint fans of the genre who may be expecting more fast paced action. Even then the final standoff between Nakadai and hordes of other fighters will take the breath away of even the most jaded of fans. The film was adapted from a story by famed screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto, who also wrote many of Kurosawa's early classics like Rashomon, Ikiru, The Bad Sleep Well and The Seven Samurai. A few words about the soundtrack which was done by famous avant-garde composer Toru Takemitsu, most famous for his collaboration with Hiroshi Teshigahara (The Woman in the Dunes, The Face of Another). The music is very "modernistic" in the sense that it is not easy to assign a particular emotional register to a particular sound. Or, it may be that I am just not familiar with the Japanese instruments. It is also used brilliantly in the film by Kobayashi. Music just doesn't fill up the "empty" scenes but adds new meanings and depth to what would be a conventional and predictable scenario.

This is really a must-watch not just for the fans of Samurai and Chambara genre but also for those interested in the post-war golden age of Japanese cinema (quite simply one of the genuine high water-marks in the history of this art-form). I had earlier linked to the film forum series on Nakadai which has some nice quotes and details about the film. For those who are curious the wikipedia entry on Seppuku. It is also available on an excellent criterion DVD. Don't read the reviews just rent the DVD!


puccinio said...

One of the biggest fans of ''Harakiri'' is none other than Martin Scorsese who was highly influenced by the film. His ''The Departed'' has two death scenes that are homages to this film...that of (SPOILERS) Jack Nicholson's and Martin Sheen's.

His ''Gangs of New York'' was also heavily influenced by it.

Brandon said...

Thanks for the info Puccinio, I love chambara cinema and Harakiri is easily in my top 10 faves of the whole genre. Probably 3rd fav all time. I had no idea Scorsese was a huge fan. The Departed is a fantastic film too and Gangs has it's moments.