HARA KIRI

(Japanese title: Seppuku)
(1962)
With Tatsuya Nakadai, Rentaro Mikuni, Shima Iwashita, Akira Isihama,
Directed by Masaki Kobayashi
Black and White
Reviewed by JB

The unusual "7 Man" method of Hara Kiri     Although less prolific than some other famed directors of Japan, Masaki Kobayashi is nevertheless regarded as one of the country's finest filmmakers.  The three films I have seen so far by Kobayashi (Hara Kiri, Kaidan and Samurai Rebellion) all share the same hypnotic, dream-like pace that can be described as "relentlessly stately".  It is a slow, deliberate style of storytelling that can be confounding to Western audiences, especially in today's entertainment environment where we are not allowed to think about anything too long before another explosion, chase scene or nude body is thrown out at us to keep us "entertained"  (Some Western entertainment today reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut's classic story "Harrison Bergeron" where people who think too much are subjected to random loud sounds as to keep them from being smarter than any of their neighbors.)

    Kobayashi made a film about the most famous of Japanese cinema archetypes, the samurai, and dared to say, literally, that "this thing we call samurai honor is nothing but a facade."  However, you don't need to fully understand Japan's history or customs to enjoy this poetic film.  And by enjoy, I don't mean laugh, smile and feel all cuddly inside.  It is a fiercely dark and depressing, sometimes upsetting film.  Early on, the disembowelment ritual of hara kiri, also known as seppuku, is displayed as graphically as Kobayashi could in 1962.  Later, Kobayashi spends much time showing us a feverish child who is clearly dying.  It is the kind of film that once made me joke "It has a happy ending - everybody dies."

     The story is brilliant in its use of flashbacks to reveal layers of detail that fill out and define characters to whom we are introduced at the beginning.  A poor samurai, superbly played by Tatsuya Nakadai, enters a noble house and asks if he can commit hara kiri there, as his life has been stripped of everything which gave it meaning, and he wishes to die a death befitting a samurai.  Attempting to talk him out of it, the feudal lord relates the story of another samurai in a similar position who requested the same thing some time back.  When the feudal lord has finished his tale, the poor samurai then tells a tale of his own, in which everything we have been led to believe in the feudal lord's story is found to be misleading.  It is a simple as that, and yet it remains fascinating and absorbing for its entire two hour and fifteen minute running time.

     Like Kobayashi's equally brilliant Samurai Rebellion five years later, Hara Kiri is about one man pushed to the edge of hopelessness by mindless bureaucracy and hypocritical custom and so takes one final, almost certainly fatal, stand against the forces of government. To put it plainly, it is about a man who is mad as hell and is not going to take it any more. 4½ - JB

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Copyright © 2008 John V. Brennan, John Larrabee