Harakiri June 21, 2008Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1960s , trackback
Living where I do and having an interest in some form of the popular arts (film, music, literature) has allowed for many opportunities to view people whom I admire up close. It’s a weird sensation, undoubtedly, but even stranger is when it stops seeming like a big deal. I never have anything worthwhile to say or ask so I usually just politely demur or thank the person if there’s an autograph involved. I’m always (overly) cognizant of trying to avoid embarrassing myself, first and foremost, and, additionally, not bothering anyone more than is absolutely necessary. I rarely take pictures, not because I wouldn’t like to have them, but more to avoid the trouble. So I play the role of observer and soak it all in. This establishes a bit of a routine that prevents nervousness and the like, but also keeps me from losing my marbles when so-and-so is a few feet away, especially if I’ve watched/read/listened to so-and-so’s work enough to imprint their sensibilities somewhere in the midst of my own budding tastes and opinions.
That’s a long, explanatory introduction to my experience of watching a beautiful Scope print of Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri at Film Forum and then immediately watching the film’s star, Tatsuya Nakadai, get up from his seat three rows in front of mine to read a few prepared statements and take questions from the small, 150-member or so audience. Difficult to not be affected by that kind of breaking of a 46-year-old fourth wall. The idea that Nakadai, whose films essentially are Japanese cinema of the 1960s, would be in the same place where I was still seems unimaginable. This is arguably Japan’s greatest, most versatile movie star. I’m with the Mifune mifunites as much as the next person, but Nakadai has him beat in terms of a filmography to rival most any actor in any country at any time. Nakadai’s versatility alone, moving from Kobayashi’s The Human Condition trilogy and Harakiri to The Face of Another, films with Kon Ichikawa, Mikio Naruse and Hideo Gosha, and starring in Kurosawa’s two epic achievements of the 1980s, Kagemusha and Ran, remains astounding. I’m not saying he’s Japan’s best actor or that Mifune was inferior, only that Nakadai showed a greater range and worked with a wider array of directorial talent than Mifune. I wouldn’t trade the latter for anyone, but if someone put a tantō against the skin covering of my entrails, I’d pick Nakadai over Mifune.
With that unpleasant image in mind, how about upgrading to the entirely gruesome shot of Akira Ishihama trying to commit the film’s titular act with a dagger made of bamboo. On DVD, reclining on one’s couch in privacy’s creature comforts, the scene feels affecting and uncomfortable. But projected onto a large screen, in a darkened room with a full audience, it’s nearly unbearable. The black and white cinematography hardly mitigates the palpable pain, even if the blood is inky black instead of deep red. That crude oil look that blood has in black and white films seems to be far more effective than the distractingly fake stuff of horror movies and Peckinpah westerns. Unless I’m seeing internal organs, this scene in Harakiri ranks with any in terms of audience discomfort. When the viewer is sitting helpless in a screening room, hardly able to even avert one’s eyes, the excruciating length of time Kobayashi lets it play out is squirm cinema at its best. Part of the scene’s extraordinary nature is that it comes in a film that’s largely nonviolent and only contains any action sequences in its very last part, which even then Kobayashi playfully avoids showing in their entirety.
Still, I think those final, vengeance-infused showdowns between Nakadai and everyone else, scored to perfection by Tôru Takemitsu, are what the viewer largely takes away from Harakiri. The actor admitted after the screening that he couldn’t compete with Mifune’s madman swordsmanship, but Kobayashi’s film is only concerned with the climactic scenes of Nakadai against everyone else in the aftermath of a great deal of background having already been established. Though Kobayashi aligned himself with the popular reading of the film as a plainly harsh attack against feudal Japan, as well as the more modern powers behind the country’s entry in World War II, I also think it’s important to remember how essential the title is. This is a film about, concerned with, and in critique of the practice of seppuku, and one wholly without an endorsement. It’s like the samurai equivalent of suicide bombing. Nakadai’s own words, when answering a not entirely well thought out question from an audience member, probably sum things up best. He said something to the effect of not being able to support any government that requires its citizens to kill themselves, regardless of the reason.
As an increasingly conflicted American who hopes to soon find the flame of hope in his own country, it’s too easy to forget the courage of filmmakers and actors like Kobayashi and Nakadai. Japan is hardly the first nation one associates with radical directors of the 1960s, despite the somewhat subtle subversions everywhere in the films of Teshigahara, Imamura, and Oshima, but the ones who did place their politics on screen did so with extreme skill. Certainly Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain is one of the most striking and compelling films against the practice of war that I’ve seen. Kobayashi was apparently outspoken all along, somehow navigating through Japan’s studio system for years before turning independent. Harakiri is a stark slap against the cheek of the country’s insincere history on film. Kurosawa romanticized the samurai to an extreme that wasn’t completely his fault, but nevertheless remains to this day. How many wasteful Americans proudly own an “authentic” samurai sword? The answer: too many.
I’m in the minority, but I’ll gladly take Harakiri over any of Kurosawa’s samurai films, or anyone else’s, for that matter. By facing the glaring hypocrisy head on and without apology, Kobayashi destroyed the Western myth of samurai as honorable warrior with one deft slash across cinema. There are few images more damning against a nation’s symbolic heritage than Nakadai destroying the armor edifice late in Kobayashi’s film. The director, as well as Shinobu Hashimoto’s expanded adaptation of the source material, simply refused to adhere to Kurosawa’s wandering ronin populist images found in Yojimbo just one year earlier. Harakiri’s retainers are insects with swords. They obey the orders of a corrupt master without considering any consequences, ethical or otherwise. As Kobayashi brilliantly lays out both with contained subtlety and obvious conviction, true honor is a foreign concept to these men. There’s the idea of maintaining total conviction to the samurai calling, but it’s all at the expense of freethinking. The parallels, essentially, are abundant for any military-based dictatorship, either in confirmed action or Orwellian doublespeak. Kobayashi would not be happy with my country circa the last seven plus years.
Politics aside, it’s a bit of a disservice to assign Harikiri as a film strictly concerned with an agenda. It’s a great movie period. I had it at number twenty in my 1960s list, and, while it may be difficult to really scare up a spot any higher, it’s completely deserving of that ranking. What begins somewhat deliberately envelops the viewer to an extent hardly common or easily explained. The simple storytelling of the Rentaro Mikuni character’s flashback, leading to Nakadai’s recounting of his experiences in broken parts, may be deceptive in its simplicity, but only a skilled combination of artists could keep the viewer repeatedly mesmerized. By the time Nakadai’s displaced ronin unveils one of the great minor twists in film history, affixed in an intricate topknot itself, the viewer is transfixed on the actor’s every move.