- Apr 24, 2006
- Charlotte, NC
- Real Name
- Matt Hough
Japanese director Masaki Kobayashi had been directing films for ten years when he helmed what is undoubtedly his masterpiece Harakiri. In a riveting combination of dramatic narrative and thrilling action set pieces, Kobayashi fashions a new kind of samurai movie: not the fast-paced, no-holds-barred thrillfests that Akira Kurosawa had made so popular, but rather a thoughtful and more pessimistic look at the tradition that alternately celebrates and condemns it all at once. Even with one of the most adventuresome climaxes in movie history, the movie is really a think piece, and what it asks viewers to consider is heady stuff indeed.
Directed by Masaki Kobayashi
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 133 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0 Japanese
Release Date: October 4, 2011
Review Date: September 30, 2011
In 1630 Japan at a time of a lengthy peace, poverty-stricken samurai warrior Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai) appears at the house of Iyi asking to commit harakiri in their courtyard with all the proper rituals and respect for his office. The Chairman of the house (Rentaro Mikuni), however, is suspicious that the samurai is only requesting this in an attempt to work on their sympathies and get a monetary payment from them to leave. So, he recounts to Tsugumo what had happened to the last samurai who had made this same request, a young warrior named Motome Chijiiwa (Akira Ishihama) who was forced against his will to actually carry out the ritual suicide using a sword not made of metal but of bamboo. Tsugumo insists he’s serious about his intent, but before he proceeds, he asks to explain to the convened house members his own story, a tale that coincidentally (or not) also involves the same Motome Chijiiwa that the Chairman had mentioned.
The screenplay by Shinobu Hashimoto expertly blends together the forward narrative of the piece with appropriate flashbacks at precise moments as Tsugumo tells his story (and Hashimoto certainly knows from flashbacks: he wrote Rashomon). As the tale unfolds and we begin to see how all of the stories tie together, the thrill of the pieces becoming a whole is one of the unmatched marvels of cinema. Kobayashi’s direction is majestic throughout using the widescreen frame to compose various interesting formal arrangements for the ritual ceremony (sometimes straight-on, sometimes from overhead) but keeping these moments balanced with the inventive back-and-forth storytelling of the script which includes the three visceral sequences of violence. Chijiiwa’s seppuku is almost unbearably real, and Kobayashi times to the millisecond how much to show us and how much to cut away from. As for the two climactic samurai attack sequences, these come almost on top of one another: the first in an evocative field of waving tall grass and the second as the entire membership of the Iyi household descend on Tsugumo, a sequence with such sustained tension and unfettered gasps of violence that one will want to watch it again as soon as it’s finished. It’s nothing like Mifune’s bravura body slashing in his Kurosawa films but rather a more realistic and solemn look at the blood, sweat, and tears from this kind of desperately brutal encounter.
Tatsuya Nakadai’s performance as Tsugumo is a tour de force portrayal of unforgettable magnitude. Only thirty when he made the film, he’s playing a man twenty years older than his actual age, and he’s so believable that one almost weeps for the exertions this old man must undergo. As the pathetic Chijiiwa who is forced through desperation to his own immolation, Akira Ishihama is completely heartbreaking. Tetsurô Tanba plays Omodaka, one of the more conceited and sneering of the Iyi samurais, with real power and distinction (that showdown with Tsugumo amid the waving grass would have been the film’s undoubted showpiece had the final assault not come almost immediately afterward). Rentaro Mikuni as the head of the Iyi house brings his frosty indifference and stoic nonchalance to every one of his scenes to impressive effect.
The film has been framed at its theatrical 2.35:1 aspect ratio and is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. This is another of Criterion’s stunning black and white high definition achievements with an exacting and impressive grayscale that is simply breathtaking with its inky blacks and pure whites. Sharpness couldn’t be better, and you’ll clearly see the actors' pores in every close-up. Despite a stray dust speck here and there, there are no other artifacts here to suggest the age of this marvelously photographed movie. The pale white subtitles are generally easy to read but sometimes get a little lost when they play in the foreground of the sand garden where much of the movie takes place. The film has been divided into 26 chapters.
The PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) sound mix does a more than respectable job blending the dialogue, ambient sounds, and decisive music of Taru Takemitsu into a seamless whole. There is some slight but noticeable hiss that crops up fairly consistently, but otherwise age-related audio artifacts have been cleaned up and are no problem.
All of the video featurettes are presented in 1080i.
Donald Richie’s introduction to the film is actually more of a video critique, so those who haven’t seen the movie are advised to watch it after an initial viewing unless you want major surprises spoiled before you get to experience them for yourself. It runs 12 minutes.
A 1993 interview with director Masaki Kobayashi finds the director looking back on the film and his achievement with great pleasure. This runs 9 ¼ minutes.
“A Golden Age” features leading actor Tatsuya Nakadai looking back on his work with the director in this film and The Human Condition in a 14 ½-minute interview that was taped in 2005.
Screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto speaks about the film (only eleven days to write the script) and his work with director Kobayashi (whom he found very exacting) in this 12 ¾-minute interview conducted in 2005.
The film’s theatrical trailer runs for 3 ¼ minutes.
The enclosed 33-page booklet features a cast and crew list, some tinted stills from the movie, and two pieces by Japanese film scholar Joan Mellen: a think piece on the director and his film and a lengthy interview with director Kobayashi conducted in 1972.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc and the title of the chapter you’re now in. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
4.5/5 (not an average)
Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival (The Leopard took the Golden Palm), and while it was wildly successful in Japan, it has been slow to catch on in this country. This new Criterion Blu-ray release of this masterful period drama of despair and revenge contains a reference video transfer and strong audio along with the usual interesting assortment of quality bonus material. Highly recommended!