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Harakiri is a disturbing word with significant implications, for the word represents a form of ritualistic suicide that samurai would partake in within Japanese society. This film is thereby, on a surface level, one that is about suicide and the specific form that is carried out by the samurai. The film setting is of course placed in Japan (specifically dating back to the early 1600's Edo Period). With a screenplay by Shinobu Hashimoto (Seven Samurai, Rashomon) and direction from Masaki Kobayashi (The Human Condition Trilogy) this shocking, influential, and important cinematic masterpiece is essential viewing.
The story begins with a simplistic setup that suggests that the story that will unfold is one of honor and importance found in adhering to samurai code. The central character, Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai) is an elderly samurai who enters the Iyi temple and claims a desire to commit hara-kiri. The temple leader hears the request and suspicions are soon to arise that Hanshiro had not arrived at the temple to commit hara-kiri at all, but rather to receive a small sum of money to go on his way.
Viewers soon learn that this is a common issue for the house and for other clans throughout the entire Japanese country. In a attempt to bring the "truth" of his reason for coming to the Iyi clan, Hanshiro is then told a story of a lone ronin by the name Motome Chijiiwa (Akira Ishihama), who had attempted to make a similar request and who was forced to commit hara-kiri in the end, and with his sword made of bamboo (which also made the act incredibly painful). Hanshiro has an interesting response to hearing the story... for he has something to share with the entire clan. Hanshiro arrived at the front door of the Iyi Clan to tell them a story of his very own connection to Motome Chijiiwa.
The film that unfolds following these events is one of several flashbacks (always relevant to the action taking place on screen in the film's "current-time"), and of a bitter rant from a man with a message to share with those who will listen. Hanshiro tells a story of great tragedy to those within the Iyi clan; one that brings a message quite different from following through on samurai honor and committing the act of hara-kiri.
Harakiri proves itself to be thematically rich and rewarding upon deeper analysis of the story. This is a film that focuses on injustices, on an understanding of perception, and how that perception can affect situations and those involved in them. The screenplay is one that focuses on a simplistic structure and story in a literal sense of understanding. Ironically, according to screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto, all of these themes were brought forth from critics and viewers of the film. Hashimoto set out to make a film about a man with an angry rant that focused on the idea of hara-kiri yet the story that unfolds is one of great intelligence, apparently subconscious in themes and conscious in a poetic style of storytelling that is a signature mark of the great screenwriter Hashimoto as one of Japan's finest writers for the cinema.
The acting is uniformly brilliant. Each performer seems to bring a unique approach to these characters, and the end result is a wide selection of dynamic performances. No one excels quite as well as Tatsuya Nakadai does; Nakadai delivered one of the greatest performances in Japanese cinema. It is difficult to imagine anyone walking away from the experience without feeling moved by a profound performance for the character of Hanshiro Tsugumo.
Masaki Kobayashi is an unflinchingly brilliant director who was probably one of the greatest successful perfectionists in Japanese cinema around the time that he made Harakiri. Kobayashi seems to have full control over his work with each sequence appearing to be flawless in execution. Harakiri is so brilliant a film as to not have a single second of wasted footage or framing. Imagine Kobayashi as the general of a peaceful troop of soldiers working together towards a harmonious sense of truths. Harakiri is a samurai film that is a quiet drama of devastating importance more than it is a mere action spectacle of simplistic entertainment.
The cinematography by Yoshio Miyajima adds a great deal to the excellence of Harakiri as well. Many scenes conclude on notes of theatrical lighting where a small silhouette of light against darkness has importance in bringing the viewer closer to the emotions of the characters. The film also has great camerawork throughout, with the framing consistently excellent and movement poetic to behold.
The film also has the benefit of a fantastic score by Toru Takemitsu -it was one the composer's early works and it has remained a monumental achievement in understanding the importance of sound in film. There are many scenes with minimalistic quiet, disrupted only by quiet sounds of both beautiful and inherently sad instrumentation that capably adds detail of great importance.
Harakiri is one of the greatest films in Japanese cinema. The filmmaking is brilliant from every major contributor. It is one of the most tragic films I have ever witnessed and at the same time it is one of those rare courageous works of art that one shouldn't overlook or ignore. Fans of Japanese cinema should consider this an essential film in understanding Japanese culture and filmmaking.
Presented in the original theatrical aspect ratio of 2:35.1, Harakiri arrives on a 50 GB Blu-ray disc with a stunning High Definition AVC encode that meticulously captures the beautiful cinematography. A layer of film grain is properly preserved, contrast is excellent, black levels are incredible, and the print itself has very little print damage or dirt (these instances occur with only minor ramifications on the image). This is a nearly flawless presentation and one that easily represents another fine release from Criterion.
Harakiri has received a lossless uncompressed mono soundtrack in the Japanese language with optional English subtitles provided. The sound quality is magnificent with great clarity that effectively captures the dialogue and music throughout. The subtitles are naturally well-done with proper translations and few (if any) errors.
Each bonus feature included on the Criterion Blu-ray release of Harakiri is presented in 1080i High Definition.
Introduction by Donald Richie (11:58) - This Japanese Film Historian recorded a video introduction for Criterion in 2004. This piece gives a number of significant insights into the film in both a historical and a thematic context. However, the ending of the film is discussed and it would be better for any viewers who have yet to see the film to view this supplement afterwards.
Excerpt from a Directors Guild of Japan interview with director Masaki Kobayashi (9:06) - Moderated by Masahiro Shinoda and conducted on October 14, 1993 at the Haiyuza Theatre in Tokyo, Japan this interview offers some rare insights into Kobayashi's views on the film and the collaboration between artists that made it possible. Kobayashi seems both a bit shy and humble in the interview, and a brief run-time means it isn't as comprehensive as most would want, but it has a few worthwhile moments which make it well worth checking out for fans of the filmmaker.
Video Interviews with star Tatsuya Nakadai (A Golden Age - 14:29) and screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto (Masterless Samurai - 12:51) are included. Both interviews were conducted in 2005 exclusively for the Criterion Collection. Nakadai gives strong commentary on his acting method. Interesting stories in relation to working on the set and discussions with others are plentiful. He acknowledges the great acclaim of the film and seems quite proud of his strong accomplishment. Shinobu discusses the critic and audience reception to the film and his own process of writing the screenplay without analyzing the themes that were later discussed in depth by audiences. He also recounts some interesting information in relation to working with both Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi.
Original theatrical trailer (3:11) is a brief trailer shown for the film prior to its release. It contains some interesting moments of footage of the actual filming of Harakiri.
Criterion has also included a fascinating 31 page booklet with a well-written essay by film scholar Joan Mellen about the importance of Harakiri (with historical context as well) and a reprint of Mellen's own 1972 interview with director Masaki Kobayashi. The interview contains insights into all of the films by Kobayashi and it is reasonably in-depth discussion that gives some insight into themes Kobayashi would explore throughout all of his work and the views he has on his contribution to cinema as an art form and in the context of exploring ideas of individuality in society. There are many notable details, it is essential reading, but readers should be prepared that a major aspect of the ending to Kobayashi's three-film epic The Human Condition is spoiled - in other words, anyone who hasn't seen these films first should wait to read the included booklet for Harakiri.
Harakiri won a Special Jury Prize from the Cannes Film Festival in 1962 and was already being called a masterpiece upon its initial theatrical release. Harakiri is an unquestionably important film about societal injustice and the story remains magnificently compelling. The statement "This film is a masterpiece!" is sometimes over-used... but this isn't one of those instances. Harakiri is a masterpiece of Japanese cinema that belongs in every cinema-lovers collection. DVD Talk Collector Series.
Neil Lumbard is a lifelong fan of cinema. He aspires to make movies and has written two screenplays on spec. He loves writing, and currently does in Texas.