January 17, 2010

In Slicing Nobility, 'Harakiri' Hones Unkindest Cuts

After watching Masaki Kobayashi's brilliant film Harakiri (aka Seppuku) recently, I'm starting to wonder why this director isn't better known.

This guy was, at his best, as visionary as Akira Kurosawa, and as much of a technician as Kenji Mizoguchi. Kobayashi has a distinct style (which includes telling camera zooms and pictorial, static images), as well as a critical voice. And nowhere is that more pronounced than in Harakiri.

This 1962 masterpiece tells the story of a ronin (masterless samurai) who visits the house of a great noble family with the intention of committing ritual suicide (harakiri or seppuku) there. Only problem is, the clan is suspicious because it had forced another such ronin who appeared on their grounds with the same intentions to do the gruesome deed, owing to the group's belief that all that individual wanted was a handout--not a "spectacular" death.

Bad move, clan dudes.

Harakiri has Kobayashi's magnificently choreographed fight scenes and beautiful cinematography, as well as an aesthetically gory ritual suicide scene, but the real highlights are the tense dialogue that carry the action, as well as an infusion of bitter irony that, to a certain extent, mirrors negative masterpieces such as John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (also 1962). Kobayashi's film seems to suggest that for some people, there's no way out of a prescribed fate--and the reason for that is a sense of duty and the rigidity of enforced code. And, like Valance, Harakiri suggests that there's a backstory to every person that determines his or her character. This is heady stuff for a chambara film...but of course, this is no ordinary chambara film. It's a movie made by one of the strongest individual talents in world cinema, who should be better known.

And better appreciated--at least, outside the circle of those who understand his genius.


  1. I've had this for a while and just can't get myself to watch the movie (fearful it'll be too dark/depressing). Much of his lack of appreciation stems from, what I can only imagine, is a lack of Western release historically. Kurosawa's so well known because his films are so spun into the history of modern cinema in the US.

  2. I agree with you, Ryan, on the probable reason fro Kobayashi's relative anonymity in the United States. But I urge you to see it: If you can get through the harrowing harakiri/seppuku scene, you'll find the film to be quite rewarding--elating, rather than depressing, as I find all great films are. Cheers.