Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Remake/Review: Harakiri (1962)

    An undisputed classic.

    This week I‘m trying out a new feature, where I‘ll spend a week looking at remakes and the films from whence they came. Today we have the original 1962 Harakiri, and then later on in the week we’ll take a look at Takashi Miike’s 2011 remake, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai.

    For many, the samurai film - and indeed the majority of Japanese cinema - begins and ends with Akira Kurosawa. Understandably so, as Kurosawa is absolutely one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. But Kurosawa was only one piece of the Japanese film industry that sprang up and thrived in the late forties, fifties and part of the sixties; one of the most creative and provocative eras of film history, when Japanese cinema boasted the likes of Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Kon Ichikawa and a host of others. These filmmakers brought a distinctly human core to all their films - crying out against injustice and corruption following one of the most regrettable periods in their country’s history. But for all their questioning of authority and traditional values, none quite reached the level of biting, angry criticism as Masaki Kobayashi. Kobayashi had a bone to pick, as evidenced by his first samurai film, Harakiri.

    Taking place in 1630 and right at the beginning of the Tokugawa shogunate, Harakiri tells the story of Hanshiro Tsugumo, a former samurai who lost his master years ago and who’s been barely scraping out a living ever since. At the end of his rope and looking to put an end to his shame and suffering, he arrives at the House of Iyi and requests a proper place to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) to keep his honor. The clan is hesitant to approve Tsugumo’s request, as several displaced ronin (masterless samurai) have made a habit of visiting houses and using the threat of seppuku in order gain a few coins out of pity. The House Iyi is also on edge after previously having another ronin named Motome Chijiiwa dropping by under the same pretenses, only to have second thoughts at the last instant. But despite their previous experience, the clan grants Tsugumo’s request, and - as you can probably imagine, otherwise this would be a very short film - we find out there is more to Tsugumo than is readily apparent…

    The ever-versatile Tatsuya Nakadai plays the lead role, and at first was hesitant to take on the project - the 30-year-old Nakadai felt he was way too young, and thought the role would be better suited for Toshiro Mifune, anyway. But by that time, Mifune was already an icon (the Japanese John Wayne, if you want to take the cheap route) - everyone saw him as the stoic tough guy from Yojimbo and the like, which in many ways the role of Tsugumo is almost a direct reaction against. Kobayashi was really making an anti-samurai movie of sorts; where tough-guy posturing only gets you a sword in the belly. What Nakadai brings to the role more than anything else (and he brings a lot) is a sense of vulnerability. He faces down the entire clan in the film’s climax, but he’s not some kind of unstoppable badass. Well, okay… he is a badass, but Nakadai’s portrayal always, always puts the humanity front and center - much like the swordfight at the end of Rob Roy, Nakadai makes us feel the pain and sheer exhaustion that comes from an elongated physical confrontation. Also remarkable are the changes Nakadai puts the character through: when we first see Tsugumo, he’s a burnt-out shell of a man, seemingly dead on the inside. But that wasn’t always the case, as through various flashbacks we see that Tsugumo was once a noble warrior and loving father. The transformation the character goes through is staggeringly well-acted by Nakadai - his best role is probably between this and Ran, although I think I might have to give the final honors to Harakiri.

    That back-and-forth structure is staged to fantastic effect by Kobayashi, building a growing sense of unease from the very first frame. Screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto wrote the majority of Kurosawa’s films, and here draws parallels back to Rashomon by telling the story of the film mostly in flashback. Kobayashi cuts between the past and the present day to stunning effect, allowing scenes to play out and then cutting right before the climax of the scene (such as the opening, where we never actually see Tsugumo ask to commit hara-kiri, and instead cut to one of the samurai telling his master after-the-fact). It’s an effective way to build tension, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats through the dialogue-driven drama. Very atypical of a samurai film at the time, there’s almost no swordplay until the very end, where the film explodes into sensational violence. The effect is quite explosive, and it’s hard not to cheer when Tsugumo - his tale fully told - throws the topknots of his fallen foes on the ground, challenging the entire House of Iyi in the process. Kobayashi also never shies over the horror of the violence, as an especially brutal scene shows the young ronin Motome forced to commit seppuku with a bamboo sword.

    As impressive as the craft of the film is, its true power lies in the thematic depths it plunges. I wasn’t kidding earlier when I said Kobayashi made an anti-samurai movie - here he pulls an Unforgiven and completely demystifies the warrior-class and their code of honor (bushido). A veteran of the war, Kobayashi had first-hand experience of the follies of placing honor and loyalty to such a way of life above all else, and crafts his film as a scathing indictment of the warrior culture that began with the Tokugawa era and lasted until the fall of the Empire after WWII. Throughout the film Kobayashi cuts away to a suit of armor hanging in the Iyi clan’s house - an empty, soulless thing, representing the fa├žade that is the code of bushido. When all is said and done and Tsugumo makes his point rather empathetically, the whole event is swept under the carpet by the House’s counselor, Kageyu Saito (Rentaro Mikuni), who is far more concerned with keeping up the appearance of honor rather than real honor. Indeed, the lord of the House of Iyi is never once seen in the film; further reinforcing the utter waste of the lives taken to save face for his house’s name. Kobayashi seems to arrive at the conclusion that ancient codes put into place by the old ruling class did nothing but diminish the culture as a whole; the emptiness inherent of placing fealty to a lord or ruler over the life of one man slowly eroding society over time.

    Harakiri is at once a spectacular entertainment and a bold statement of a film; one of the very best of Japanese cinema, and also one of my absolute favorite movies.

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