Combustible Celluloid
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With: Tatsuya Nakadai, Rentaro Mikuni, Akira Ishihama, Shima Iwashita, Tetsuro Tamba, Masao Mishima, Ichiro Nakaya, Kei Sato, Yoshio Inaba, Yoshiro Aoki
Written by: Shinobu Hashimoto, Yasuhiko Takiguchi, based on a novel by Yasuhiko Takiguchi
Directed by: Masaki Kobayashi
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: Japanese, with English subtitles
Running Time: 133
Date: 16/09/1962

Harakiri (1962)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Home Slice

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

A lone ronin -- or a masterless samurai -- arrives at the temple of Lord Iyi. He asks to use the courtyard to commit hara-kiri, or a ritual suicide. That seems like the beginning and the end of this movie, all in one: a checkmate. But director Masaki Kobayashi instead constructs a masterful chess game, filled with many carefully constructed moves, each arranged to fit in a particular place. It's glorious to behold.

Thus, it would be foolish to give away too much. But the ronin, Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai), has chosen this particular temple for a reason. That reason has to do with his son-in-law, his beloved daughter, and his infant grandson. His hara-kiri is postponed when, allowed to choose his own "second," he selects a man that is not available. His second and third choices are likewise unavailable. He then begs a moment of time to tell his story. Like a brilliant player, he leaves out crucial details until the most opportune moments.

Kobayashi, whose full-color Kwaidan (1964) was so spooky, here uses a widescreen black and white frame with equally effective results. Hanshiro, with a scruffy beard and dressed in black, spends much of the movie on a white platform in the center of the yard, surrounded by white pebbles. Lord Iyi and his men surround the courtyard on all sides. Kobayashi often peers down from the rooftops to get a better view of this: separate, surrounded, but centered.

One of the main elements of Harakiri is something that will be lost on casual American audiences. Many samurai movies look back on that period, pre-1868, with a kind of nostalgia. This movie openly depicts vanity and corruption among the samurai class, showing that the Lord is more concerned with his reputation than with actual samurai honor. In 1868 came the Meiji restoration, in which samurai culture was defeated by the modernization and Westernization of Japan, complete with armies and guns.

In that, Harakiri is not a typical samurai film with slam-bang action every minute. One of the crucial fights -- not occurring until almost at the movie's end -- is not even shown, and another fight is delayed by a long march into the countryside, where the fighters have a bit more room. (A powerful wind kicks up, lending some symbolic drama to the fight.) Ultimately, as great a samurai warrior as Hanshiro is, and as skilled as he is with his sword, he would have given up everything to save one innocent life. And that's something the lords, in all their power, will never understand.

The movie won the Special Jury Prize at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival.

Criterion's 2011 Blu-Ray edition, an upgrade of their 2005 DVD, comes with a high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, a video introduction by Japanese-film historian Donald Richie (who helps explain the movie's historical context, as well as its artistic merit), an interview with Kobayashi (who died in 1996), interviews with star Tatsuya Nakadai and screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto, a trailer, and a liner notes booklet.{subid}&url=hitlist.asp?searchfield=marvel
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