When the Shogunate became ruler of all of Japan eliminating many of the clans that made up the various factions of feudal era Japan, thousands of samurais who had pledged their allegiance to those clans found themselves out of a job. To go so far as to pledge their lives to their superiors only to be turned out into the street with the rest of the common people would have been a huge shock to the men who lived by the code of the samurai and took its teachings to heart. They'd spent their lives at war and really knew nothing else other than to be a samurai and many of them had trouble not only finding employment but just managing to feed themselves.
During this time, it was apparently not uncommon for a ronin to show up on the doorstep of a local lord and ask for their permission to use the courtyard to commit harakiri (also known as seppuku, the art of ritually disemboweling ones self) and at least die an honorable death ensuring them a decent place in the afterlife. With no honor left in life, at least these miserable men, bored and unable to do anything with their lives, could end it all with some dignity. Periodically though, sometimes the Lord would be so impressed with the ronin's sense of honor and his strict adherence to the code of the samurai that he'd offer him a position among is own men as a retainer and thus empower him with a reason to live again, a renewed sense of duty and honor and dignity. This resulted in a truly odd phenomena in which many ronin would take advantage of this and request the use of a Lord's courtyard for harakiri in hopes for a job offer, and if not, at least a small cash donation to keep them on their feet for a while rather than having to go through the ordeal of setting up for and cleaning up after a harakiri ceremony.
Masaki Kobayashi's 1962 film, Harakiri (also widely known as Seppuku), begins when one of the aforementioned ronin, Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai of Kurosawa's Ran and Kagemusha as well as Kihachi Okamoto's Sword Of Doom) shows up on the door step of the Iyi Commissioner and asks for the use of their courtyard to kill himself. They agree, thinking him to be just another one of the extortionist ronin who have been showing up so frequently as of late, and figure that they can call his bluff by telling him the story of Motome Chijiwa (Akira Ishihama). Chijiwa was a samurai who had earlier shown up making the same request. When they granted it, he then back peddled and asked for two days grace so that he could take care of something before returning back to finish himself off. The Commissioner refuses this request and forces him under duress to disembowel himself using his own swords which they've discovered to be made of bamboo. They figure that this story will deter Tsugumo if he is only trying to get some money out of them, but when it doesn't, they realize he means what he says and they let him in and set up for the ritual suicide.
Once he's let in and they see his sincerity in word and deed, he requests that he be able to pick his own second (someone to lop off his head once he's cut his stomach open and finish the job). They agree, but the three men that he requests are not available, all of them home ill on that day by some strange circumstance. With that request unable to be fulfilled, under some duress he convinces the commissioner to allow him to tell a story. He agrees to this on the condition that once he's done, he kill himself and Tsugumo begins his seemingly simple story of hard times and bad luck but when he's finished, the samurai code will never be the same and the Iyi Clan's samurai honor will be exposed for the façade that it really is.
Harakiri is a little on the long side at roughly two hours and ten minutes in length but cutting even a single frame out of this film would be a serious injustice. The story builds so perfectly and twists the audiences preconceived notions with such subtlety that every second of the movie counts. Even if, by the half way point, you're able to figure out where Tsugumo is going with his strange story of family life, it's still such a joy getting to the end that it really doesn't matter if you've got it all sorted ahead of time or not. The ending is a grand finale in the truest sense of the word and Tatsuya Nakadai does such an exceptional job of portraying sadness, anger, and humility that you become completely enthralled with his character and his curious motivations. The man is able to portray such amazing depth with simply the tone of his voice and his facial expressions that it's hard to imagine anyone, even the almighty Toshiro Mifune, nailing this role so absolutely perfectly as he does in this film. His performance completely sucks you in from the get go and the longer his story goes on, the more you become involved with his plight which makes the finale all the more powerful and all the more important.
The supporting cast is also quite excellent in this film, notably the omnipresent Tetsuro Tamba (who seems to have been in just about every cool Japanese genre film ever made) who makes a wonderfully cold hearted heavy in the film. Akira Ishihama is excellent as the sad sack samurai who is forced to kill himself with a bamboo blade under Tamba's watchful eye, and Shima Iwashita (who shows up in Double Suicide and Red Lion) who plays Miho, Tsugumo's daughter, is also quite good in her delivery of a truly sympathetic performance.
Yoshio Miyajima's stark black and white cinematography is about as moody and evocative as it gets, making excellent use of shadows to build atmosphere. The opening scene in which we close in on the traditional armor of a samurai warrior is quite eerie, as are the scenes where Tamba's character escorts Tsugumo through a bamboo forest and then a cemetery to resolve their conflict. It plays out almost like a spaghetti western and is choreographed and photographed with such a keen eye for detail that it would make Sergio Leone (no stranger to Japanese samurai films himself) maybe just a little bit jealous. On top of all that we've got a seriously stark score from Toru Takemitsu who uses traditional Japanese instruments to build a collage of sounds that serve to make a moody film even moodier.
Masaki Kobayashi might not be as well known as Akira Kurosawa but with Harakiri, more so than with his other widely acknowledged masterpieces like Kwaiden and Samurai Rebellion, he's made a film that rivals anything that Kurosawa made in terms of sheer atmosphere and heavy mood. High praise? Definitely, but not undeserved. This is a dark film, atypical of the samurai genre that it plays within the confines of. It throws the hypocrisy of its story into the viewers face and makes no apologies for it. A metaphor for the corporate take over of Japan? Very likely but one done in such a skillful way that it never seems too heavy handed - it's pure, visceral, cinema.
Criterion's 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is very, very nice. It isn't perfect – there are a few spots where the grain is a little heavy, there's some mild print damage in the form of some specks here and there (mainly during the first five minutes or so of the film), and you're bound to notice some shimmering especially along the lines on characters clothing and on the blinds in some of the indoor scenes as well as along the lines of the buildings. But overall, Harakiri looks pretty excellent. The contrast levels are very nice and the transfer does a great job of providing very clean, distinct separation between the blacks and the whites in the image – there's never any muddying or blurring. There's an insane amount of both foreground and background detail present in the image and you can see every bead of sweat and every piece of stubble on Tsugumo's face. Shadow detail is excellent and this is truly one of the finest black and white transfers I've seen in quite some time.
Compared to the Hong Kong release from Panorama, this release is a huge improvement. The Hong Kong disc looked like it was sourced from a tape and it lacked the clarity and definition that make this new transfer such a joy to behold and it was also non-anamorphic. Criterion's high definition transfer has been cleaned up considerably and the softness and lack of detail problems present in the Panorama release have thankfully been corrected for this release, giving fans of the film a reason for much rejoicing. Harakiri looks flat out fantastic on this DVD.
The film is presented in its original Dolby Digital Mono Japanese language soundtrack with optional subtitles available in English that are clean, clear, easy to read and free of any typographical errors. There aren't any problems with distortion in the mix in and this mix sounds just fine for forty plus year old film. Dialogue is pretty crisp, and the film's score comes through very clearly with just the right amount of punch in just the right places (which is a real plus as the score goes a long way to making this film as moody as it is). Sound effects are spot on and nothing overshadows anything else. The final scene in particular sounds quite good, with the gruff sounds of the skirmish coming through very clearly. There are no alternate language dubs provided nor are there any other subtitle options aside from English. There are no closed captions provided on this release.
Spread across two discs, here's what you'll find in terms of supplements:
One of the two extra features on the first disc is a video introduction from Japanese film scholar, Donald Richie. He gives us a quick rundown on the importance of the film, how it serves as a metaphor, and how he was lucky enough to have the chance to see it play theatrically as well as some specific aspects of the film that he appreciates personally. It's a nice introduction, it sets up the film for us and it provides us with a few things to keep in mind before starting the feature itself. Also contained on the first disc is the film's original theatrical trailer.
The rest of the extra features are on the second disc. First up is an excerpt from a Director's Guild of Japan interview with Masaki Kobayashi conducted by Masahiro Shinada (director of Double Suicide) who repeatedly refers to Harakiri as a masterpiece. Kobayashi listens to the questions and comments intently while taking long drags off of his cigarette and muttering to himself a bit, but when he does get around to answering he proves to be a pretty interesting subject. He explains where this film fits into his career and also the impressive cinematography that was created for the feature. All in all, while it's a brief interview clocking in at roughly ten minutes, it's a pretty interesting one and a rare chance to see the director talk about his work. Also on this disc are two brand new video interviews. The first interview, A Golden Age is with the star of the film, Tatsuya Nakadai who reminisces about the film's showing in Cannes which he attended with his wife, and with the director, and how many of the European women cried out during the bamboo blade seppuku sequence. The second interview, Lone Samurai is with the film's wild haired screenwriter, Shinobu Hashimoto who discusses how Kurasawa's films made him want to write a samurai story and where some of the inspiration came from for Harakiri. This one chimes in at just under thirteen minutes in length.. A gallery of international poster art rounds out the supplements on the second disc.
Inside the keepcase is a thirty-two page insert booklet that contains an essay on the film from Japanese film scholar Joan Mellen, as well as a reprint of an interview that she conducted with director Masaki Kobayashi in 1972 in which he discusses the merits of his career, how Kurosawa changed the face of Japanese cinema forever, and of course, the making of Harakiri. Also inside you'll find some technical information about the transfer, complete cast and crew credits for the film, credits for the DVD production, and a listing of the chapter stops. Plenty of pictures are provided throughout that make this one fun to look at as well as to read as the essay makes some interesting comparisons to the metaphorical nature of the film.
An absolute masterpiece of a film, Harakiri gets the kind of treatment that it completely and utterly deserves from The Criterion Collection. Top notch audio and video and some tantalizing extra features that put the film into context and explain its history as well as that of those who helped create it make this one a completely worthwhile endeavor. Highly Recommended!
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.