Thursday, December 23, 2010


I've long been an appreciator of Akira Kurosawa's work, but I haven't once seen something by him that captivated me as much as Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri. It's not only my new favorite samurai movie, it's one of the great film tragedies of all time. Kurosawa's period films are well known for their epic scope and adventurous tone, but Harakiri is much more contained and dark, both of which work in its favor. The majority of the film takes place inside a single mansion, and I honestly wish it spent even less time elsewhere. The story flashes back to past events in other places to explain the story, but all of the regular action is in this one location, and I was basically enraptured for every second of it.

Tatsuya Nakadai plays Hanshiro Tsugumo, a grizzled and distant ronin who wanders into a lord's estate and asks permission to commit ritual suicide via disembowelment within its walls. It takes place in a time during which peace reigned which left many former samurai out of work, and it was hard to find ways to even stay fed. Some opted to honorably kill themselves, but in the story, it's been going around that after one such ronin made the request, he was instead giving a position at the estate instead. Other samurai since made the same request without ever intending to actually kill themselves, content to receive handouts and be sent on their way. The particular place where Tsugumo makes this request received a similar visitor months earlier, and rather than letting him walk off with some money, they forced him to do what he requested, even making him do so with his bamboo blades after he sold the steel ones. A man tells Tsugumo this story and advises him to just walk away with his life, but he is steadfast in his desire to die within this building's walls.

From there we start to learn a lot more about how Tsugumo knew the other samurai and why he's so dedicated to dying, as he explains it to the other men present while waiting for his second (the one who will decapitate him after he completes the act). I was already fairly familiar with the plot specifics before I saw the movie, but the knowledge never dulled the impact of what was on screen. Information is doled out at a near-perfect pace, only slowing down a bit during the more depressing segments, scenes which would have passed with a bit less boredom if the framing story wasn't so mesmerizing. There are moments of incredible brutality, triumph, and sorrow all throughout the plot, and it's hard to overstate just how remarkable watching it is.

The black and white cinematography is gorgeous, and the leisurely pace and measured, considered acting add tons to the intended mood. Nakadai is a very intense actor, and the movie just wouldn't be the same without the slowly building rage behind his vacant stare. The rest of the cast is good as well, and while the beautiful film work is enough to keep you interested in the beginning, the shocking violence of some of the scenes in an early 60s film and tension that builds through the entire two hours before the climax will have any true film lover totally entranced to the end. I'm really gushing here, but it's a seriously amazing movie, and even people who don't care for cinematic history should enjoy the last twenty minutes for just being well done bits of action. I was so impressed, I'm actually kind of looking forward to seeing Kobayashi's The Human Condition, a nine-hour trilogy that's looming on my Netflix queue. Awesome film.

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