A masterpiece gets the Masters of Cinema treatment
A mother recently found herself being evicted from her council accommodation because of her son’s involvement in the riots which beset England. Many applauded the responsible council leader’s unambiguous message of intolerance for wrongdoing. Why, after all, should decent law abiding citizens pay their taxes only for her, and her like, to have children who get involved in decimating town centres and destroying some people’s livelihoods. Many thought that homelessness and conferred guilt were wholly appropriate responses at this time of national emergency, and many didn’t think for a second about what life her and her family would now have because of this rightous judgement. Masaki Kobayashi’s majestic Harakiri concerns itself with another incident where the powerful visit a lesson upon the powerless. Within a samurai Lord’s courtyard, a young ronin is forced to commit seppuku because he had used his proposed ritual act as a pretense for begging. The clan chose to visit upon this fellow a lesson that they hoped would dissuade others from following his example. They saw a feckless beggar on the make, a ronin who had even sold his sword rather than retain it as evidence of his samurai “soul”. They granted his request then forced him to commit the act of ritual disembowelment using his blunt bamboo sword and a message was sent to anyone else who would come in anticipation of their mercy.
The tale of this young man is related by the clan counsellor to an older man who comes some time later also asking to be allowed to commit seppuku. The older man listens intently and without shock, and earnestly protests that he does not want to beg but to die. His wish granted, the ceremony begins in front of the clan’s retainers but none of the “seconds” chosen by the older man can be found, all citing illness. A messenger is sent to the men to see if they can perform this duty and in the meantime, the older man, Hanshiro Tsugumo, regales all present with his own tale of woe – a tale inextricably linked to the younger man.Harakiri is shot with a tremendous eye for the period and composition which suggests the shades of good and evil and rich and poor. The acting is undeniably theatrical with an emphasis on the melodramatic, and the pace is often surprisingly slow. In essence, this is a surprising game of cat and mouse, a call to arms against power misused and a shocking morality play that proves Tsugumo’s belief that “samurai honour is a facade”. Like some jidai-geki before it, but far more powerful than any of the genre I can think of, Harakiri strips power bare and reveals its corruption and arbitrariness for all to see.
Kobayashi made something of a career of revealing dark secrets and telling the truth to power. His Human Condition trilogy is possibly one of the greatest achievements of Japanese cinema, a history of a Japan between wars that few wanted to acknowledge. The director’s partnership with Yoshio Miyajima, his cinematographer, allowed for an incredible unity of image and subject matter, and the beginning of their work with composer Toru Takemitsu here gives notice of the truly extraordinary combination of story, words and score that became Kwaidan two years later. I think though that Harakiri is the finest of these works. The stately movement to genre staples like the confrontation between Tanba and Nakadai, the wonderfully elliptical reveals of the story and a thoroughly modern sense of outrage that pervades the film – these are particular treats I enjoy. The first seppuku scene retains an appalling scene of villainy and is supremely awful to watch, as gruesome as anything modern Japanese film-makers achieve with the technology they can now take advantage of. It will be instructive to see what Takashi Miike’s 3D remake can do with this sequence.
Perhaps only in Sword of Doom does Nakadai reach such iconic heights, his work here is endlessly riveting, calmly insinuating and all wrapped up in a rage against the unjust. In this genre, vengeance is usually the point at which the action comes to an end, and it is the mark of Harakiri’s greatness that valedictory compensation is not the end as politics overwhelm what we have witnessed replacing the truth with an official version. And that is a story as old as time, whether in 1630 or 2011.
Masters of Cinema package a dual disc edition for those who are yet to join the world of HD as well as the rest of us. The BD is region B locked with a rather sweet sign if you try to load it into an inappropriate player:Each disc offers exactly the same extras, although the DVD is NTSC encoded. Included as well in the set, but not unfortunately in my review copy is a 28 page booklet including an interview with the director and a new essay by Philip Kemp.
The discs are given classic menus taken from stills within the film, which are easily used and understood. The two extras are an interview conducted by fellow film-maker Masahiro Shinoda and the original Japanese trailer. Both of these are in HD on the blu-ray with lossless sound. In the short interview, Shinoda asks very long questions whilst Kobayashi is much more laid-back, sharing anecdotes such as Keisuke Kinoshita’s original dislike for this film and his own description of Kinoshita as his mentor.
Video and Audio
This transfer is officially licensed by Shochiku and encoded using the MPEG 4/AVC codec at 23.98 frames per second. Some of the underlying print is rather dark with some evidence of wear in rare scenes, but generally this is a terrific transfer with excellent depth and grade to the contrast, nigh perfect black levels and superb detail. Having first seen this film on a R3 disc artifacted and interlaced to hell and back, this is a special viewing experience of a magnificent film.
The sole lossless audio track has some rare moments of background noise but again hearing Takemitsu’s score with such clarity and definition is magical. The optional English subtitles are very clear and easy to read, and the standard of English is excellent.
A masterpiece of Japanese cinema is presented with great care and sensitivity.
For those looking to experience Harakiri on the big screen the film will be screened exclusively at the ICA in London between 16 and 22 September. Details here.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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