Kinotherapy’s review published on Letterboxd:
Calling a film great is one thing, attributing it to the many different reasons such a film would be critically acclaimed such as cultural, thematic, artistic, technical impact, is another. A great film should have at least one of these traits; however, how rare it is that a film comes a long and astounds audiences in all of these key aspects that make a film not only great, but permanently cement it as a classic throughout time. An important cry of vengeance for it's country and giving other viewers around the world a glimpse into it's people, customs, and spirit. This is the legend of "Harakiri."
Masaki Kobayashi may have come after the four great masters of Japan (Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, Mikio Naruse) however he deserves the title of the fifth master for his daring, groundbreaking and outspoken contributions to his countries cinema. His masterpiece "Harakiri" depicts a brilliant narrative structure. In the opening scene we're not entirely sure what we're in for, but things are slowly revealed to us in a story of desperation, corruption and tragedy. It's a story that could have chosen to be told chronologically, but wouldn't have nearly the same impact as it does. This is one of the best examples of non-chronological storytelling. Some films don't know how to use this technique and make something fragmented and incoherent, while others simply play out conventionally not granting us any surprises. Harakiri knows just how to use the flashback scenes to it's advantage and make the audience more emotionally engaged. Once a bit of information is revealed to us we sit up curious to know what is going on and who the mysterious Ronin really is. You could say the whole film is build-up to an exciting action scene but I mean that in a good way. "Harakiri" doesn't tease you around, it's a mystery that you become deeply invested in. You grow attached to the samurai with every passing scene as well as come closer and closer to what his true intentions are, brilliantly weaving uneasy mystery, with progressive empathy.
I of course have to talk about the stunning visuals which are sure to leave a memorable impression on you. Not just the camerawork but many of the scenes will just stay with you. I particularly love the seppuku in the beginning of the film in which a graphic amount of blood is seen spilling from the man's chest. It was pretty shocking for the time and the effect still holds up to this day. However what everyone wants from a good samurai movie are the camera angles, the widescreen format, the slick movements between motion and reaction and every frame in "Harakiri" delivers on bringing you this experience. The lush textures of the grass or the sand just encase you and are emphasized by the aspect ratio. The close ups are even more intimate and bone chilling, that despite being a black and white world, it all just pops out at you and feels so real and visceral.
Calling "Harakiri" a samurai movie is slightly misleading. It's not an adventure film like "Yojimbo" or "Seven Samurai" it's more of a mystery drama; an iconoclast against Japan's corrupt authority using samurai. This is of course the major theme of "Harakiri". Kobayahsi has stated that all his films are about resisting authority, a virtue personal to him. As you look back at classic Japanese cinema many directors were in fact making films about the past vs the present. Ancient values vs modern ways. Harakiri may not be the first to lash out against old dynasty's but seeing shame brought to these uncaring hypocrites feels so triumphant. There's a suit of armor which is admonished by the house, empty, and hollow much like their values. Looking strong and valiant on the outside, but on the inside, is nothing. Hanshiro reveals that the house members themselves don't even stick to their own code. After all what is the good of the house? They don't help the poor, they are uncaring of generally everyone who isn't in their clan, and when great shame is brought upon their members, they cover it up, eliciting even more shame. It's a tragically happy ending as Hanshiro accomplished all that he wanted to by talking this superficial house down with him and exposing their false honor.
A system that values topknots and suicide as honorable. What a façade that all is. That doesn't determine how good you are as a person or how much valor you have as clearly shown by the corrupt clan Hanshiro takes on. That someone should end their life because of an unprecedented haircut is plainly absurd and Kobayashi masterfully mocks these powers and brings shame to the hollow gleams of armor they represent.
It all builds up to one of the best climaxes ever put to screen. After hearing the Ronin's tale, and taking his side over these heartless cowards, you want some kind of justice served. The house samurai attack Hanshiro who fights back talking as many of them down with him as he can. This scene is incredible! An exhilarating, action scene that is paced in just the right way. It's choreographed, shot, and timed perfectly! The way the blocking builds up suspense for a few moments before someone strikes. I particularly love the shot in which all the fighters are shifting to the side slowly as the camera tracks them. It's as if Kobayashi somehow had the lock-on technology that camera's have now, it's a seamless tracking shot! It almost tricks you into thinking "Harakiri" is an action film, that the whole film was build up just to get to this incredible scene! But it was worth the wait!
All the other great components of "Harakiri" must be seen, felt, witnessed. Take a journey back in time so that you may relive the thrill over and over and over. After watching you'll be replaying the film in your head, thinking about every second and every frame of what you just witnessed. A man's story, his ethics and integrity. His past, his present, his world. A social-political outburst and a devious victory. Mystery, mind, flashback, rebellion, triumph, true honor and one hell of a battle, You will never forget "Harakiri"