Sunday, December 18, 2011

Harakiri (1962)

Masaki Kobayashi's very fine film Harakiri is not subtle in its critique of authoritarianism, nor in the stark contrast it draws between individual moral virtue and a corrupted code of honor. The basic plot, in which a single good man stands up to abusive power, is well-worn, and a staple of action movies from Shane to Bourne. But Harakiri messes with genre expectations and is rich in sub-themes; it also resonates in various ways with the politics of our own time.

At one level this is a simple tale of vengeance, but there are ironic and unexpected twists. Our avenging impoverished ronin hero, Tsugumo, turns the tables on his enemies, the Iyi clan, not primarily by drawing their blood but by using their own code to disgrace and humiliate them.

As in many classic westerns, the manly public sphere of action, honor, and violence is contrasted with the feminine sphere of family and domesticity. Yet in another poignant reversal, the widower Tsugumo finds himself filling the role not only of father but of mother as well, as he cares for his weakening, consumptive daughter and her sickly young son.

The plot unfolds slowly through storytelling and flashbacks, steadily building tension and suspense. The acting is strikingly naturalistic, especially in comparison with what one has grown to expect from the classic Kurosawa samurai films of the same period. Tatsuya Nakadai, as Tsugumo, is a commanding presence. The wide-screen black-and-white cinematography is exceptionally beautiful, sequences of carefully framed stills of courtyards and interiors juxtaposed with dramatic facial close-ups, wind-whipped grass, and swordplay. The music, by the great composer Toru Takemitsu, evokes both ancient and modern.

I think I'll watch it again.

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