Harakiri ★★★★★

Upon first viewing, this classic B&W film directed by Masaki Kobayashi has instantly leapt onto my "50 Favorites" list. Many thanks to Letterboxd member Sam Redfern for providing the YouTube link. I don't know how long it might have taken me to get around to seeing this masterpiece otherwise.

The title, of course, refers to the Japanese practice of "ritual suicide by disembowelment." It came about as part of bushido, the honor code of the samurai warrior class. By the 17th century, peace had come to Japan and warriors were no longer needed. Thousands of them became masterless ronin as the samurai system collapsed. This story describes the tale of one such ronin, who comes to the residence of a local lord to ask permission to commit harakiri in the estate's courtyard.

There's a story within the story, a bit of mystery and some wonderful swordplay in the course of the film. One scene is particularly impressive - a duel fought beyond a graveyard on a windswept hillock that beats any Western showdown I've ever seen. Some might complain that the pacing is slow, but I found it to be absolutely perfect. Pregnant pauses and lingering shots create an atmosphere far better than any score could. Silence builds tension and adds to the suspense.

The final reckoning is a bit over-choreographed, and there are some lighting errors regarding shadows if one wants to pick nits. On the whole, however, this is yet another testament to the greatness of Japanese film-making as well as the universality of themes like duty, honor, compassion and resolve. When folks say, "They don't make movies like they used to," this is the "used to" they are referring to.

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