Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Harakiri (Masaki Kobayashi, 1962)

As with so many other Japanese directors, Masaki Kobayashi used the jidai-geki genre and its focus upon the past to comment on the present. After his three-part WWII epic The Human Condition, Kobayashi went even further back in time to the beginning of the Edo period, after the Tokugawa shogunate had fully consolidated power and settled in to its two-century reign. The director specifically hones in on this precise moment of dawning peace, when the reduction of daimyo resulted in samurai suddenly becoming masterless ronin in a society that had no need for additional warriors. This reduced much of the nobility to conditions of extreme poverty even as it demanded their continued fealty to the feudal order and codes of honor.

One of those codes was the ritual suicide from which the film takes its title. Harakiri is structured around the build-up to an expected act of seppuku, and it shows a particularly gruesome example of one during that escalation. Even today, we consider dying for one's cause an act of extreme nobility and resolve. For Kobayashi, however, it is merely the most repellent example of how the rules of a strictly hierarchical society efface humanity and suppress the will of the individual. The end result rates with the most biting of Mizoguchi's period pictures as Japanese cultural criticism.

Harakiri begins with Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai) arriving at the palace of the Iyi clan requesting that he be allowed to use their courtyard to commit harakiri. A penniless ronin, Hanshiro looks more ragged than even Toshiro Mifune's ersatz warrior in Seven Samurai; a wiry beard hangs in patches on his face like steel wool glued to his cheeks, and hair skews out behind his wide, seemingly wild eyes. He looks so defeated that his request for one last honor seems genuine, though when Saito, the clan's counselor, sits to speak with him, the film slowly reveals layers of horrific depth that make even the idea of slashing oneself to death seem lighthearted in comparison.

Rentaro Mikuni provides a well-groomed contrast for Nakadai as his Saito speaks—or perhaps it is more accurate to say that he solemnly intones—to Hanshiro. Without betraying any emotion, Saito relates the tale of another masterless samurai of the clan Hanshiro used to serve coming to the Iyi palace with the same request. Flashbacks show that young man, Motome Chijiwa, pleading for the same privilege, but Kobayashi throws off the sense of stoic composure that defined the film to this point (and afterward). Where Hanshiro, despite his unkempt appearance, is gathered and emotionless, Motome betrays unease and anxiety; one look at him and it's clear he does not truly want to kill himself.

Slowly, the pieces fall into place. The Iyi clan meets to discuss Motome's proposal, and one of them reveals that ronin have been showing up at some daimyos' doorsteps asking for permission to kill themselves, only for the lords either give them some money out of pity or to even hire these samurai as retainers. For higher-ups of the Iyi house, however, such charity represents a sign of weakness, and they secretly come up with a sadistic plan to ensure their clan's status in the region.

As the film moves back and forth between the present and this flashback, Kobayashi gradually separates his immaculately composed frames from reason. Kobayashi's camera, previously at eye level and perpendicular to the shoji screens and tatami floors, cants at disoriented angles and zooms with emotional purpose on facial expressions as the world collapses on Motome's desperate scheme. Yet as the camera spins further out of control, the objects within the frame only grow more disciplined. Kobayashi pulls back into a canted high-angle shot of Motome being forced into following through on his bluff, his jittery, terrified body shivering at the center of Iyi samurai sitting like gargoyles around him.

The disciplined posture of those samurai is but one of many dark ironies arranged in the mise-en-scène. Their unfeeling response to a man's fear is the result of conditioning to the samurai code, which they uphold even as they cruelly invert it to punish Motome. The film's slow pace works to its advantage in such scenes, holding out shots to let their dark meanings achieve maximum impact. The clan leaders further hold Motome to samurai code by forcing him to use his own swords for the ceremony. The problem? He long ago sold his real ones for money, replacing them with bamboo props. An already petrified boy pales further when he is reminded that a samurai's swords are his "soul," and he struggles to even pierce his skin with the flimsy fakes, much less perform the cuts necessary.

This horrific scene would make Kobayashi's point about the barbarity of this feudal code of honor even if the film ended here. Ishihama's face is hard to watch as he rams the blunt stick through his gut, the camera swooning so much it resembles a semi decapitated head at the end of a seppuku ceremony, wherein a second slices through all but a slight bit of skin on the neck to leave the head barely attached. Back the present, Kobayashi only pushes in on the faces of Saito and Hanshiro, the former waiting for the latter to blanch, the latter still committed to his desire for death. But now, a hint of something even darker than suicidal urges plays over Nakadai's face.

In a way, Harakiri is one of the first great revenge movies, the piecemeal revelation of Hanshiro's true motives a brilliantly choreographed connecting of plots that evokes double the tension by play out suspenseful scenes and then linking them with deliberation. But as masterful as Harakiri's plotting is, the nature of Hanshiro's connection to both Motome and the callous Iyi warriors who had him killed goes deeper than narrative. Through Hanshiro's skilled manipulation of Saito's patience (amusingly a stand in for testing the audience itself), he exposes the falsity of samurai codes and any other method of robbing the individual of his freedom. As much as Saito, Omodaka, Kawabe and the rest pervert Bushido, even they still believe in it. But as Hanshiro buys time before his own courtyard act by gradually tying together numerous threads, he ultimately uses his acts of revenge to prove how cowardly people truly are when faced with their own disgraces. As such, Hanshiro's vengeance is not merely physical but psychological, challenging an entire mindset with its hollow worthlessness.

Much as Harakiri speaks to Japan's history of dehumanizing hierarchical control—something that not only applies to complicity in an enslaving feudal system but laid the groundwork for WWII atrocities as well—its conclusion captures the dark totality of any major system of social order. Having been shamed and bested by this filthy, dejected ronin, the Iyi clan stands to lose tremendous face. But then Saito steps in, listing all deaths as illnesses and ensuring that the truths revealed in that courtyard die in it. This resembles more the nihilistic political thrillers of post-Nixon Hollywood than postwar jidai-geki. Whatever sense of victory Harakiri has is short-lived, and that's even before one considers that clearly this awful system will live on for centuries. Its only sense of hope lies in the knowledge that the shogunate will collapse far sooner than it thinks, but even then it will only be replaced by another heartless, dehumanizing order.

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