Friday, May 3, 2013

Harakiri (Seppuku) (1962)

When it came to the Japanese Samurai culture, this humble reviewer, like many others, has hitherto been feeding on some epic cinema that has always glorified the Samurai clan. The Samurai have most often come across as these larger than life, valiant warriors, steadfast individuals, heroes who live and die by their Samurai Bushido code and show no mercy on the battlefield. And then comes along Masaki Kobayashi’s masterpiece, which completely turns this belief on its head. The other side of this magnificent figure that we have come to idolize is unveiled in a most brutal, gut-wrenching piece of cinema that is "Harakiri" (AKA "Seppuku") (1962).

The title refers to the Japanese ritual in which a Samurai commits suicide by disemboweling himself with the stab of his own blade/weapon. This was a practice adopted by the Samurai in order to die with full honor, either to save themselves from falling into the hands of the enemy in case of certain defeat, or as a means of redemption from a shame brought upon them, or as a capital punishment for unforgiveable offenses!

It all begins one day in the summer of 1630 (era: Feudal Japan), when a wandering, destitute ex-warrior (Ronin), Tsugumo Hanshiro (Tatsuya Nakadai) arrives at the doorstep of the estate of the Iyi Clan, in order to die by Seppuku, rather than live in poverty. Those were the peaceful times, when the warriors had nothing left to do but earn a meager livelihood doing menial jobs. Tsugumo meets with the Hon. Elder, Saito Kageyu (Rentaro Mikuni) of the Iyi clan, who tells him the story of the fate of another hapless ronin, Chijiwa Motome (Akira Ishihama), from the same clan as Tsugumo, who had come to them with the same intentions not very long ago. In those days, there were stories of some shamed Samurai feigning their wish to perform Seppuku, hoping to be offered some pittance or alms and being asked to move on. There had been known cases of the sort that brought disgrace to the revered Samurai reputation. The Iyi clan, with a determination to change this trend, had set an example of Chijiwa, who had shown some visible cowardice when actually asked to perform the ritual rather than offered alms. Despite Chijiwa’s pleas to be given more time, he was forced by the men of Iyi clan to stand by his word and die by Seppuku, with his fake bamboo blades no less, for cowardliness is unforgiveable for a Samurai!

An unperturbed Hanshiro hears Hon. Elder out and assures him that he has no such intentions of chickening out. Hanshiro seems quite determined too as his cold, zombie-like demeanor speaks volumes of his unshakeable will. But just as the ceremony is about to begin, Hanshiro makes a rather unusual request that changes the shape of things to come and how!

Masaki Kobayashi’s treatment of the story is commendable. His masterful storytelling of Shinobu Hashimoto’s intricately constructed screenplay launches an emotional attack on the viewer. And it isn’t a sudden, but a deliberately paced, tortuous attack that grabs you by the guts, slowly soaks you in a cauldron of tragedy, and leaves you out, emotionally drained! Right from the first frame, Kobayashi takes complete charge and successfully keeps us transfixed, so that we get fully involved in the proceedings. He taps the non-linear narrative in the most effective way so as to play with the viewer’s emotions and judging powers. The great deceiver that he is, he first makes us adhere to one side and then resorts to game-changing moves that make us regret our initial thought process by exposing the façade that shrouds reality!

You watch in awe as the story takes some unwelcome turns, all of them powerful enough to jab you where it hurts. What happens on screen is not always pleasant. There is doom lurking about in every corner of Kobayashi’s universe, but it is a necessity in order to put forth the bold statement that is being made via this film about how pride and honour blind the very essence of humanity! Is pride worth more than a human being? How far should one go to protect the honour of something governed by a code that is dictated by man himself? What some other masters like Akira Kurosawa showed us was the heroism of the Samurai. What Kobayashi shows us is that these heroes are, in the end, mortal human beings. In the face of death and disease, even the toughest warrior can be forced to succumb. But does that render him disgraced? In one powerful scene, Tsugumo curses the possession of his blade and denounces it as a worthless symbol! This is not just about the Samurai. It is about any religion/cult/sect in general, and the bodies that govern them. Principles, norms, codes of conduct carry no meaning when it comes to a human being stripped down to his most basic need of survival!

The black and white cinematography, combined with Kobayashi’s use of slow, calculated, gliding camera movements across closed spaces and long hallways, makes the viewer feel like a spirit floating around, being part of the heartrending story that unfolds. The rather strange, traditional but eerie background score further enhances this feeling. Every frame oozes an extraordinary brilliance. The duel in the windy landscapes of the plains of Gojin-in is surreal, beautifully shot and simply awe-inspiring! 

There’s not a single wasted moment here, right up to the jaw-dropping, explosive finale. The climax is also reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa's magnificent "Throne of Blood" (1957) and one can’t help but think that Brian De Palma has taken considerable inspiration to craft the bloody climatic mayhem in his "Scarface" (1983) from this film! And how can a film like this make its mark without sound, believable performances! Kobayashi leaves nothing for naysayers to nitpick on. The performances are all applause-worthy, with Tatsuya Nakadai ruling the roost in one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema that is, quite shockingly, hardly talked about. The magnificent actor displays a whole gamut of emotions, sometimes reminding us of his cold, ruthless act in "The Sword of Doom" (1966) and then doing an about turn and displaying an utterly human side of him! Those eyes and that voice carry a weight that is palpable! 

It is rare to come across films so vast as this, not in its length, but in its spirit. It is rare to have a winning combination of both a partially minimal style as well as loads of substance. "Harakiri" (1962) is a phenomenal, intense film that exposes the hypocrisy of the Feudal Japanese clan system in its naked entirety; a shattering film experience that will leave you overwhelmed and paralyzed long after it has ended.

Score: 10/10

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