Directed by Masaki Kobayashi
Starring Tatsuya Nakadai, Rentaro Mikuni, Shima Iwashita, Akira Ishihama
“Swordsmanship untested in battle is like swimming on land”
Tatsuya Nakadai as Hanshiro Tsugumo
Wow…life is good. One of the great films of Japanese cinema finally gets released by Criterion and finds its way into my hot little hands. It wasn’t that long ago that I finally was able to find this film on VHS only and was happy to have it, even it that format. Harakiri was recently released by Criterion.
Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai), a middle-aged ronin presents himself at the gate of the Iyi Clan domicile. Tsugumo is suffering the same fate as many other men, he is no longer retained by any particular clan, he has become a ronin or masterless samurai, struggling to even maintain a meager life. He wishes to commit seppuku rather than to continue to live an impoverished life.
Inside, Kageyu Saito (Rentaro Mikuni) is very upset that yet another poor ronin is begging at the gate for compassion. He is upset because quite often the ronin do not want to actually commit seppuku, but rather beg for handouts. Saito suspects the same from Tsugumo. He reluctantly allows Tsugumo inside and proceeds to tell him the story of another poor ronin that showed up at his step one day named Motome Chijiiwa (Akira Ishihama). Chijiiwa, coincidentally, is from the same defunct clan that Tsugumo once served.
Motome Chijiiwa presented himself with a bamboo sword at the Iyi Clan home. Motome Chijiiwa was forced to carry a bamboo sword as he has sold his superior blade in order to care for his sick wife and child. Chijiiwa does secretly hope that the Iyi Clan and head retainer Saito do not force him to commit seppuku, but rather give him a meager handout so that he will be able to get a doctor for his ailing wife and child.
However, inside the chest of Saito beats an extremely cruel and chilly heart. Saito and his Iyi clan decide to force poor Chijiiwa to commit seppuku with his own bamboo sword. This scene in which Chijiiwa tries to excruciatingly perform this ritual with the bamboo sword is powerful, harrowing and unforgettable.
Saito further extends the agony by denying Chijiiwa the assistance of another samurai cutting off his head in order to end the torturous ritual. Chijiiwa is forced to bite off his own tongue to finally bring his tragic life to an end.
Tsugumo listens to all of this intently. I ask you now to remember a fact I mentioned earlier. The fact I am referring to is that Tsugumo and Chijiiwa were from the same defunct clan. Now, Tsugumo presents himself at the feet of the same man that tortured one of his fellow associates. The scene is now set for Tsugumo to confront Saito and his remaining Iyi clan about the cruelty they have committed towards Chijiiwa.
Harakiri makes several profound statements against rigidly militaristic societies and the hypocritical nature of the codes of bushido. The scene in which Tsugumo realizes the empty nature of the bushido code and is disgusted by the worthless symbols and ideals he has clung to for many years is tremendously intense.
Tatsuya Nakadai gives an incredible performance as Tsugumo. He is truly one of the greats of Japanese cinema. The performance by Rentaro Mikuni as Kageyu Saito is equally impressive.
The direction by Masaki Kobayashi is impressive in its respect for the story that is being told. He gracefully shifts focus between the painful story of Chijiiwa and the story of Tsugumo. While at a running time of 133 minutes, the film does film at times feel like a more disciplined hand at the editing table might have been needed, it still does not detract from the power of this spectacular film.
Harakiri is a “must own” for any true chambara or samurai film fan. There is no question that this film is one of the best of the genre. This film belongs right next to your cherished copy of The Seven Samurai, Rashomon, and Samurai Rebellion (another film directed by Kobayashi and starring the incomparable Toshiro Mifune). It simply doesn’t get any better than this.
Harakiri is presented in anamorphic widescreen. The film has been lovingly restored and looks fantastic. I did not notice one instance of grain or artifacts. The contrast is impressive and the detail is great. A first rate presentation of this film.
Harakiri is presented in its original Japanese mono format. While not as perfect as the visual presentation of the film, it is still very good. I did not notice any instances of hiss or distortion and all dialogue is crystal clear and easily understood.
The Packaging and Bonus Features
Harakiri is presented in a two disc amaray case with a cover that is a nice nod of respect to the original poster for the film.
There is a plethora of bonus features to explore on this release. First, there is a 32 page booklet that includes an essay written by Joan Mellen about the film and a reprint of her 1972 interview with director Masaki Kobayashi. This booklet contains a wealth of information and was a very enjoyable read.
On disc one, an 11 minute featurette entitled Donald Richie Introduction is offered. Richie is a familiar name to any Japanese film fans. He introduces the film and compares Kobayashi filmography to other famous Japanese directors. Also presented on this disc is the original trailer.
Disc two offers the Masaki Kobayashi Interview, coming in at almost 11 minutes. It was conducted at the Directors Guild of Japan in 1993. The most interested moment of this interview is when Kobayashi discusses how he arrived at the story of Harakiri.
Coming in at almost 15 minutes is the featurette entitled A Golden Age: Tatsuya Nakadai remembers Harakiri. Nakadai is still a vibrant and engaging man and remembers fondly his experience making this film. He recalls that he almost decided against taking this role and what a supportive and inventive director Kobayashi was. The featurette entitled Masterless Samurai: Shinobu Hashimoto on Harakiri comes in at almost 13 minutes and is an interesting look at the writer of this seminal film. It is interesting viewing and another nice addition to the list of bonus features including in this release.
Also included is a gallery of poster art from various countries.
All things considered, an impressive assortment of extras.
Overall ( Not an Average) 10/10
The Movie 10/10
The Video 10/10
The Audio 9/10
The Packaging and Bonus Features 10/10
Overall ( Not an Average) 10/10