Harakiri

Harakiri ★★★★★

***One of the best 150 films I have ever seen.***

Masaki Kobayashi's spiritually redeeming tale of feudal authority and hypocritical corruption is widely considered not only as a masterful cinematic project and a landmark of Japanese cinema, but as the director's towering achievement as well. Resorting to a stunningly poetic cinematography, a brilliant direction, a dramatically compelling and shocking plot, and political and moral elements that, put together, form part of a whole social commentary that significantly searches for the release of the soul and the epiphany of the conscience, Seppuku achieves to reach a new level that cinema had not accomplished before. Introducing a direction style that would use the honor code of the Samurai genre set in past times, top-notch casts, a darker overall atmosphere and brutal conclusions, Kobayashi started with Seppuku an audacious form of filmmaking that sought for justice in unfair situations and a general public's reaction towards the abuse of authority and the unjust empowerment of man, contrasting turbulent war times with new peace times that would start complicated life modifications in the life of the overall society. This is the first attempt of the director to employ a different narrative structure composed by facts that would lead to a single conclusion, leaving the existentialist subject matter used in the Ningen no Joken (1959-1961) trilogy behind. It may also be considered as the greatest samurai film ever directed.

Set in 17th-century Japan during the Shogunate's breakup of warrior clans due to a newly born peace period, several thousands of samurais are thrown to a new life of unemployment and poverty. Causing many ronin to emerge, they start seeking for the most honorable way to end their lives by the ancient and violent ritual of seppuku, consisting in a disembowelment. Hanshiro Tsugumo, an elder warrior and former retainer of the Lord of Geishu until the abolition of the Geishu Clan in 1619, arrives at the gates of the official residence of Lord Iyi asking for admittance so he can perform seppuku and end his life as a worthy samurai. However, he soon finds out that his son-in-law arrived there first under the false pretense of committing seppuku with the hope of obtaining money but was forced to commit the act with a bamboo blade due to the clan's questioning about his intentions. Consequently, Tsugumo starts to plot revenge against the house, revealing the truth about the acquaintance he had with him. The film won the Jury Special Prize of the Cannes Film Festival in 1963, which tied with the film Az Pridje Kocour (1963), directed by Vojtech Jasný. Kobayashi was also nominated for a Golden Palm, which lost against Il Gattopardo (1963), directed by Luchino Visconti.

Kobayashi's direction has finally taken a new course. Inserting cold characters, a brutal plot and an accurate historical context, Seppuku managed to appeal modern audiences in a disturbing, yet fascinating way. The film itself seems to be like a perfect painting, beautifully illustrated with Eastern imagery, extraordinary shots of vast landscapes and cloudy natural terrains, and artistic close spaces. The cinematography reaches a certain degree of human perfection, like trying to convince the world that cinema is indeed an art form. Cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima, who had previously made an astonishingly poetic work in the Ningen no Joken (1959-1961) trilogy and would later work with Kobayashi once more in the horror film Kaidan (1964), offers a complete delight to the senses, compensating the implied brutality of the feature film with heavenly visual tranquility. Talented screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto isn't exempted from contributing to the creation of one of the most majestically crafted films of all time thanks to the screenplay he elaborated with Yasuhiko Takiguchi, which is, once again, an inspirational and marvelous mix of poetic words and dialogues with the particular characteristics of a theater play.

Seppuku is a work of art by itself, like a cinematic place where heaven and hell meet and battle an endless war of love and hatred, trust and deception, family bonds and tragic losses. The whole brilliant and truly first jaw-dropping performance of Tatsuya Nakadai portrays a cold-blooded, yet human character whose motivations have been completely destroyed. In his search for finding the most honorable ending to his life and his past duties, he inevitably has to face the hypocrisy and cruelty of the feudal authorities against his will. Irony is used as a powerful tool that would eventually lead to certain events that were predestined to happen, thus preserving eternal honor. Justice, at the expense of probably necessary sacrifices, is served once again. However, it is the own personality and the very foundations of our moral values and empathetic abilities the ones that complement the partial goodness of the society. As if hardships of life weren't enough, life itself needs a balance in a similar way the peace in Japan, which had just started, opened ways to new forms of cruelty and destiny's irony.

The film heavily relies on flashbacks and memories that may serve as a psychological preparation for the chaotic finale and the predictable conclusion, being "predictable" a positive aspect since the main purposes of the film are strengthened. Tatsuya Nakadai represents a whole society in search for hope and a new beginning that will eventually lead to a general reconstruction of customs, ways of living and deserved peaceful times. Japan may have been represented as the mansion of the clan, and the population as the members of the clan, a population encapsulated between four walls. The typical depiction of the characters' ancestors is also added as a key element in the film, an icon that is ultimately destroyed, bringing death all along, which is ironically symbolized by three muskets carried by coward platoon, thus showing the death of the samurai era and introducing an upcoming period of constant progress and industrialization.

Seppuku tries to avoid controversy and constitutes a complete piece of filmmaking that, nowadays, forms part of Japan's most representative forms of cinematic expression. Despite being the first true samurai film by the Japanese master, it curiously portrays the end of an era, thus transmitting the nostalgia of the dramatic quality that predominated in his films during the 50's. Resorting to the climatic ending tradition, this prime opera culminates in a well-choreographed battle scene which horror and intensity relies on how a single person bravely stands up against a plurality. Being the best film by Masaki Kobayashi, Seppuku shares the epic levels shared in his previous films and contracts them in a 133-minute art piece which violence represents life, equality, honor and ultimate redemption.

100/100

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