Hara-kiri (1962)

Hara-kiri is a 1962 samurai film directed by Masaki Kobayashi and starring Tatsuya Nakadai. Generally speaking, I don’t really like Japanese live action films much. I don’t know why I keep watching them. They are mostly garbage. Fortunately, this one was a lot different.

It’s hard to explain what this movie is about without spoiling everything that happens. So, I’ll just give you the gist of it. During the feudal period in Japan, many samurai were left without masters (ronin). Some would go to the homes of lords and ask for a place where they could commit Hara-kiri to die with honor. Sometimes, though, certain ronin would not kill themselves, and refuse to leave the Lord’s home unless they were paid off.

Nakadai shows up at the home of one such lord. He is a ronin and wants to commit Hara-kiri. The lord is away, so Nakadai speaks with his head counselor. The counselor is uncertain about letting Nakadai commit Hara-kiri, because the last ronin who showed up for this very purpose did so as a bluff to get money.

Nakadai assures the counselor that he does indeed wish to die. So, they arrange everything for him. Before he kills himself, he requests a specific person to assist his Hara-kiri ritual. That guy isn’t available. So, he requests another, who also isn’t available, and another, same thing. Everyone is perplexed by this, and Nakadai reveals more about himself.

Hara-kiri weaves a fascinating tale combining truth and lies, and honor and disgrace. The story is utterly fascinating, and leaves you desperately wanting the next shred of information. There are numerous surprises in store for the viewers. The ending was amazing once all the pieces of the puzzle were finally put together.

Hara-kiri is a masterfully made film. The black and white imagery is bold, with striking contrasts expertly placed to draw the eye to certain parts of the screen. Very few shots occur straight-on, with most everything being seen at acute angles, perhaps playing to the subtle notion that nothing Nakadai says can be taken at face value (at least not at first). The music is sparse, but plays at just the right times, adding the necessary emotional weight when needed.

The script is equally excellent. The film alternates between Nakadai’s current situation and various flashbacks. The flashbacks gradually lead up to the current day. The way the scenes are interspersed, they become tiny cliffhangers spaced throughout the film. Each time something shocking happens in the current day, we flash back to learn more about Nakadai’s past, and desperately await the next big revelation.

The acting is also extraordinary. I’ve seen a lot of samurai films and a lot of anime, and generally the acting can be pretty abysmal. Usually, the characters just scream at each other. Not so in this film. There is nuance in every performance, and excellent portrayals of a wide range of human emotions. Nakadai is in a league of his own here. He starts the film stone-faced, a man so withered and miserable he seems incapable of any emotion. But as the film goes on, the façade cracks, and you seen his other emotions such as joy, sadness, and anger. He reaches an almost manic fever by the end of the film when his true motivation, and fury, is unleashed.

Kobayashi’s film rails against the Japanese political system. It questions the samurai code at every turn. Why should they follow such an outdated and rigid system when doing so robs them of their humanity? The film also plunges the darkest depths of the human soul, and shows us to what lengths someone will go when they have nothing left to lose.

There is very little action in the movie. It is a dramatic thriller through and through. Even though it features samurai, don’t go into this one expecting non-stop sword fights. But it is so well written, so perfectly paced, and so excellently directed, the dialogue itself will keep you on the edge of your seat. The middle portion of the film does slow down a bit, and some might find their patience flag during that portion. But the finale is explosive, and well worth the time investment to reach that point.

There is also a 2011 remake of the film. It slavishly adheres to the original, yet loses all the elements that made the 1962 film so great. The flashbacks are told in a more straightforward manner, the acting feels more lethargic, and the message is muddied. I wouldn’t bother watching it ever again.

Hara-kiri is an incredible film that is a true study of the human condition. It doesn’t matter if you like samurai movies or Japanese movies. This is a film that is so enthralling it transcends genre. I rarely use the word “masterpiece,” but it is applicable here.

Verdict: Awesome

4 Responses to “Hara-kiri (1962)”

  1. 1 Themaster20000
    September 4, 2016 at 1:16 pm

    One of the few films I’d consider perfect. Even though Takashi Miike did the remake,I have zero interest in it since you can’t improve on this film at all.

  2. September 6, 2016 at 1:48 am

    For you to acclaim a film as a “masterpiece” it must truly be excellent. I’ll track it down and give it a watch based on your say so.

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September 2016


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