Masaki Kobayashi’s first samurai film is one of the genre’s major masterpieces, not least for its exploration and criticism of the ritual facades governing the samurai code of honour – if notions of ‘honour’ can legitimately be applied to what is forensically exposed as a viciously hypocritical system that renders men penniless and children fatherless thanks to an unbending refusal to take context and individual circumstance into account.
It’s set in 1630, a time of peace that proves paradoxically disastrous for the samurai who contributed to the Tokugawa shogunate’s victory during prolonged civil conflict. Deprived of their very raison d’être, many former samurai have been forced to become wandering ronin, explicitly forbidden to take on any other kind of employment (one is seen fruitlessly queuing for a labouring job) and treated with widespread mistrust. Desperate to stave off starvation, they devise a scam that involves presenting themselves at the gates of the fortresses of the few extant clans, demanding their right as samurai to commit harakiri (or, more accurately, seppuku, the film’s Japanese title) with all the attendant pomp and ceremony.
In most cases, the supplicants are contemptuously paid off (which of course was their intended outcome), but on one occasion the Iyi clan’s senior counsellor Kageyu Saito (Rentarô Mikuni) decides to assert his authority in his leader’s absence by insisting that Motome Chijiiwa (Akira Ishihama) goes through with the ceremony, even when it becomes clear that not only does Chijiiwa not want to do it, but he even lacks the necessary equipment, having sold his two samurai swords some time earlier and replaced them with bamboo facsimiles. Unmoved, Saito insists that he use them instead.
This early scene and its barely watchable conclusion presents Kobayashi’s anti-feudal argument in kernel form, but the bulk of the surrounding narrative remains to be fleshed out by the older samurai Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai). Saito initially assumes that he intends to pull off the same trick as Chijiiwa, but as Tsugumo gradually reveals his motives in lacerating detail, it becomes clear that he has a very different outcome in mind. A few drops of agreeably dark comedy (three supposedly fearless warriors all pull unexpected sickies for the same reason) leaven an inexorable accretion of human tragedy that turns positively Shakespearean well before the end.
Kobayashi’s control of this material is masterly throughout. Most of cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima’s widescreen compositions are, like Nakadai’s unnervingly calm basso delivery, deceptively measured and tranquil, the camera gliding serenely through the Iyi clan’s various rooms before coming to rest in the courtyard where much of the drama takes place. The ritualistic staging is deliberately contrasted with the horrors unveiled in flashback by Tsugumo’s deceptively calm narrative: after so much tension, the climactic swordfights come as cathartic relief.
The film’s production coincided with a revival of interest in traditional Japanese musical instruments that had fallen out of favour after the war, and Toru Takemitsu’s score is quite unlike that of Fumio Hayazaki’s more westernised accompaniments to earlier samurai films by Kurosawa and Mizoguchi. He makes particularly eloquent use of the biwa, or Japanese lute, whether plucked to emphasise individual gestures or strummed continuously as a background to a more elaborate set piece.
Michael Brooke, Sight & Sound, November 2011
Kobayashi’s style, as his Ningen no Joken trilogy demonstrated, is all too easy to label as ‘heavy’. Here, however, his slow, measured cadence perfectly matches his subject. The essence of harakiri is its rigid ritual: the white ceremonial kimono, the sleeves tucked under the knees to prevent the body falling backwards, the victim’s own sword placed to hand, the swordsman standing courteously by for the coup de grâce, the sword thrust made from left to right and then upwards. The whole ritual is neat, fastidious, unhurried, and the film captures exactly these qualities in the geometric precision of its compositions and camera movements, the reticence which precedes the sudden bursts of action, the calm intricacy of its flashback structure. The dominating image is of Tsugumo sitting neatly in the centre of the white harakiri mat, which is placed exactly in the centre of the courtyard, round the edge of which the samurai of the lyi Clan form a square barrier of swords and spears; the camera moves slowly in behind Tsugumo as he begins to speak, as if politely reluctant to disturb his concentration, then cuts smoothly into flashback.
Round this recurring image, the story itself is beautifully constructed to ensnare the audience with its flashback technique into taking Kobayashi’s point about the meaninglessness of harakiri and honour. It is only when the whole story has been pieced together in reverse, that one realises the full, bitter irony of the situation: that the young samurai has been forced into a cruelly futile suicide by people who themselves live by the code only if the public eye is turned on them.
Harakiri is on occasion brutal, particularly in the young samurai’s terrible agony with his bamboo sword, and in the final, pointless holocaust: necessarily so, for the act of harakiri, in spite of its graceful preliminaries, is brutal, and Kobayashi has to make his point graphically. Elsewhere, however, reticence and stylisation predominate. When Tsugumo hears that his closest friend intends harakiri, for instance, the camera follows urgently as he rushes headlong down a flight of stone steps, but when he bursts into the room, he (and the audience) are faced by a screen which blocks the view; and Tsugumo’s great sword battle on a windswept heath with Omodaka, the most skilful of the three swordsmen, is stylised in Kabuki manner with great sweeping strokes and gestures so that it becomes a stunningly choreographed dance.
Curiously enough, Tatsuya Nakadai’s brilliant, Mifune-like performance as Tsugumo, which turns him almost into a legendary hero, should work against Kobayashi’s anti-militaristic purpose, but in fact doesn’t. Like all great legendary heroes, Tsugumo resorts to violence in a good cause; and his demonstration of unshakeable courage and probity becomes almost a ritual denunciation of the hollow concept of honour by which he and his like are expected to live. But even if one feels – as some critics have remarked – that being gory is not the best way to deplore wanton bloodshed, Harakiri still looks splendid with its measured tracking shots, its slow zooms, its reflective overhead shots of the courtyard, and its frequent poised immobility. And one sequence, at least, might not have shamed Mizoguchi: the sequence in which Tsugumo and Omodaka stride through a strange and ghostly graveyard to the heath where the wind riffles through the long grass as they begin their wild, statuesque duel.
Tom Milne, Monthly Film Bulletin, May 1965
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Production Company: Shochiku Co. Ltd.
Producer: Tatsuo Hosoya
Assistant Producer: Ginichi Kishimoto
Screenplay: Shinobu Hashimoto
Based on the novel by: Yasuhiko Takiguchi
Director of Photography: Yoshio Miyajima
Editor: Hisashi Sagara
Art Directors: Jun-Ichi Ozumi, Shigemasa Toda
Music: Toru Takemitsu
Sound: Hideo Nishizaki
Fencing Master: Seiji Iho
Tatsuya Nakadai (Hanshiro Tsugumo)
Shima Iwashita (Miho Tsugumo)
Akira Ishihama (Motome Chijiiwa)
Yoshio Inaba (Jinnai Chijiiwa)
Rentarô Mikuni (Kageyu Saito)
Masao Mishima (Tango Inaba)
Tetsurô Tanba (Hikokuro Omodaka)
Ichiro Nakaya (Hayato Yazaki)
Yoshio Aoki (Umenosuke Kawabe)
Jo Azumi (Ichiro Shimmen)
Hisashi Igawa, Shoji Kobayashi, Ryo Takeuchi (young samurai)
Shichisaburo Amatsu (page)
Kei Sato (Masakazu Fukushima)
100 YEARS OF JAPANESE CINEMA
Early Summer (Bakushû)
Mon 18 Oct 14:30; Tue 19 Oct 20:35; Wed 20 Oct 17:50; Thu 18 Nov 20:20 (+ intro by Professor Alastair Phillips, University of Warwick); Sun 21 Nov 11:30
The Flavour of Green Tea over Rice (Ochazuke no aji)
Mon 18 Oct 18:10; Wed 20 Oct 20:40; Thu 21 Oct 14:40; Mon 8 Nov 14:30; Tue 23 Nov 14:40
Tokyo Story (Tôkyô monogatari)
Mon 18 Oct 20:20; Thu 21 Oct 14:30; Sat 13 Nov 14:10; Tue 30 Nov 14:00
Throne of Blood (Kumonosu-jô)
Tue 19 Oct 18:10; Thu 21 Oct 20:35 (+ Inside Cinema: Akira Kurosawa); Wed 27 Oct 20:30; Tue 9 Nov 20:40; Fri 12 Nov 14:15 (+ Inside Cinema: Akira Kurosawa); Sat 27 Nov 20:50
Early Spring (Sôshun)
Tue 19 Oct 14:30; Wed 20 Oct 20:15; Thu 21 Oct 17:30; Sat 20 Nov 14:50; Tue 23 Nov 17:40
Tue 19 Oct 20:55; Thu 21 Oct 17:55; Fri 19 Nov 14:30 (+ Inside Cinema: Akira Kurosawa); Fri 26 Nov 18:10; Sun 28 Nov 12:00 15 (+ Inside Cinema: Akira Kurosawa)
An Actor’s Revenge (Yukinojô henge)
Wed 20 Oct 14:15; Mon 1 Nov 14:30; Thu 11 Nov 20:40 (+ intro by Jennifer Coates, The University of Sheffield); Sat 20 Nov 12:15
Souls on the Road (Rojô no reikion)
Fri 22 Oct 18:00; Sat 30 Oct 15:30
A Page of Madness (Kurutta ichipeiji)
Sat 23 Oct 13:00; Mon 15 Nov 20:50
Silent Cinema presents: I Was Born, But… (Otona no miru ehon – Umarete wa mita keredo)
Sat 23 Oct 15:00; Sun 28 Nov 14:45 (+ intro by Bryony Dixon, BFI National Archive curator)
Our Neighbour, Miss Yae (Tonari no Yae-chan)
Sun 24 Oct 12:40; Mon 1 Nov 18:15 (+ intro by season co-programmer Alexander Jacoby)
Humanity and Paper Balloons (Ninjô kami fûsen)
Sun 24 Oct 15:00; Tue 2 Nov 20:45
Talk: A Time of Change and How Japanese Film Bore Witness to It
Mon 25 Oct 18:20
Children of the Beehive (Hachi no su no kodomotachi)
Mon 25 Oct 20:45 (+ intro by season co-programmer Alexander Jacoby); Mon 8 Nov 18:20
The Life of Matsu the Untamed (aka The Rickshaw Man) (Muhomatsu no issho)
Tue 26 Oct 20:40; Sun 7 Nov 11:40
Fallen Blossoms (aka Flowers Have Fallen) (Hana chirinu)
Sun 31 Oct 13:00; Wed 3 Nov 18:20 (+ intro by Japanese film scholar Alejandra Armendáriz-Hernández)
My Love Has Been Burning (aka Flame of My Love) (Waga koi wa moenu)
Fri 5 Nov 18:30; Mon 15 Nov 17:40
Love Letter (Koibumi)
Sat 6 Nov 12:30; Sun 21 Nov 14:40 (+ intro by Irene González-López, co-editor of ‘Tanaka Kinuyo: Nation, Stardom and Female Subjectivity’)
An Inn at Osaka (Ôsaka no yado)
Sat 6 Nov 15:30; Sun 21 Nov 18:00 (+ pre-recorded intro by Professor Hiroshi Kitamura, College of William & Mary)
Sun 7 Nov 15:50; Tue 23 Nov 20:40
Marital Relations (Meoto zenzai)
Sun 7 Nov 18:20; Thu 25 Nov 18:00 (+ pre-recorded intro by Professor Hideaki Fujiki, Nagoya University)
Sansho the Bailiff (Sansho Dayu)
Mon 8 Nov 20:40; Sun 28 Nov 18:20
She Was Like a Wild Chrysanthemum (Nogiku no gotoki kimi nariki)
Tue 9 Nov 18:20; Tue 30 Nov 20:40
Wed 10 Nov 18:00; Tue 16 Nov 20:25
Night Drum (Yoru no tsuzumi)
Wed 10 Nov 20:50; Tue 16 Nov 18:15
Talk: Female Archetypes in Classical Japanese Cinema
Thu 11 Nov 18:10
Fri 12 Nov 18:20; Fri 26 Nov 21:00
Elegant Beast (aka The Graceful Brute) (Shitoyakana kedamono)
Wed 17 Nov 20:50; Sat 27 Nov 18:30 (+ pre-recorded intro by Professor Yuka Kanno, Doshisha University)
Talk: The Family and Home in the Golden Age of Japanese Cinema
Thu 18 Nov 18:00
Fri 19 Nov 20:50; Tue 30 Nov 17:50
Tokyo Olympiad (Tôkyô orinpikku)
Sat 20 Nov 16:40; Wed 24 Nov 18:40
In partnership wtih
With special thanks to
With the kind support of:
Janus Films/The Criterion Collection, Kadokawa Corporation, Kawakita Memorial Film Institute, Kokusai Hoei Co. Ltd, Nikkatsu Corporation, Toei Co. Ltd
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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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