(Harakiri, Japan - 1962)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Rintaro Mikuni, Akira Ishihama, Shima Iwashita
Genre: Drama/Swordplay
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Screenplay: Shinobu Hashimoto from the novel by Yasuhiko Takiguchi
Cinematography: Yoshio Miyajima
Composer: Toru Takemitsu
Runtime: 135 minutes

Seppuku is a story of massive unjustifiable layoffs leading to disgraceful acts and deaths. It is a criticism of the then current Japanese society that used their samurai history as its subject, but most of the points it makes are more true of the east and west today, as the idea of working for one company for life has all but disappeared. The film explores many issues including conflicting obligations, adherence to ritual and tradition, superficial honor vs. true honor, political corruption, presented truth vs. actual truth, and loyalty to the profession vs. loyalty to the family. It looks at how everyone clings to perceived rank even when it is no longer the case, considers how much one should stray from their values at a time when everyone else has strayed from theirs, and illustrates how a more complete truth can totally change the meaning of a true story.

The film takes place during one afternoon inside the "honorable" house of a feudal lord, where Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai) has come to commit seppuku (the "honorable" ex-warrior suicide by ritual disembowelment). It is a battle of wills between Tsugumo and the acting head of the clan, Hon Elder Kageyu Saito (Rentaro Mikuni). Yasuhiko Takiguchi's story is undoubtedly excellent on paper, but that much better because of the way Masaki Kobayashi tells it. The first third is told by Saito, who forced the most merciless version of seppuku on Motome Chijiiwa (Akira Ishihama) to set the precedent that anyone who came to the Iyi Clan's house to kill themselves better plan on doing just that because, unlike some of their neighbors, they would not be granted the ex-warriors a pittance to do it elsewhere. What's important about giving this much time to Elder, and doing so from the outset, is Elder gets to set all the viewers perceptions on the characters. The final two thirds are told by Tsugumo after he announces he knew Chijiiwa, and he totally shatters your perspective on the past to the point it's pretty scary to look back at what you believed.

The framing of the story, mixing the flashbacks with the present, is perfect because everything is a story within a story. The present represents the relationship between the individual and the society he lives in, while the past, which creates the present and the future, represents the relationship between the society and the history they choose to record. The segments reveal enough that you get an idea where the story is going, but keep enough secret so you can still be fooled by your preconceptions and can't even guess the stopping points. The story doesn't build up in any traditional manner. It raises the tension in the flashbacks then returns to the present to lower them. Then it raises the tension in the present only to lower them by going back to the past. In addition to allowing for a lot more mystery, this way of breaking the material up allows both tracks to keep building without having to provide a payoff until the end.

"By taking the initiative, you tie my hands," said Hon Seibei, who hoped to confront Tsugumo about the money he keeps borrowing. Seppuku is a chess match between Saito, who holds the power because Tsugumo is in his house and he's got countless swordsmen to back him up, and Tsugumo who is a master verbal strategist with some tricks up his sleeve.

The rectangular set design and fluid tracking shots delineate the class system the movie is criticizing. The corners and the general tightness (small hallways and corridors) show the oppressive bonds of the system. The clan surrounds Tsugumo with the members equally spaced out against the blank walls on a higher plane, so their superiority is shown by their constant looking down on him and the fact that no matter where he turns, they have him trapped. The cinematography and design are so precisely detailed with the characters and sets interacting in a way that makes things seem vast yet claustrophobic, overcrowded yet empty. They create the perfect relationship to the society they are depicting where everyone is forced to fight for their survival but nothing is truly available. Of course, much of the camera movement focuses on Tsugumo. He is stationary, and at times practically seems so tied down by society that he's in freeze frame, but the occasional camera dollying in and out expresses his attempts to maneuver his way out of the oppressive system, to free others from it by exposing the truth.

Some of the story's power comes from the real source of evil being unseen. Saito is merely the representation of corruption in the story, but he is just dealing with the current unemployment situation in a way that is less than honorable. The guy that put the 12,000 out of work is no where to be found, hidden away somewhere with all his profits while the little guy tries to figure out where his next meal will come from and the lesser well off people like Saito figure out how to deal with Mr. Layoff's decision.

Despite its samurai genre categorization, Seppuku it is not at all an action film. It is an intelligent anti-samurai film that's primary concern is exposing much of the honor surrounding them and their times has been falsified. It constantly teases violence, but finds ways to avoid and/or postpone it. When it does actually come at the end, it finds ways to distract you from it so you don't care that it's purposely not delivering on its supposed promise. The whole film is expressed through form, posture, minimized movement, and the spatial relationship between the characters. The action scenes are true to that, focusing on the warriors preparing to strike. The blow itself is not that important, it's setting it up, and that's what we see when Tsugumo takes on the Iyi clan. He must keep the entire group out of his range so they can't jump him, and force one to attack at a time so he can beat them.

At times, Seppuku seems extremely violent. However, when you actually analyze you see almost nothing. Everything is in the expressions of the performers and the visual and audio effects. The unforgettable scene where Chijiiwa is forced to commit seppuku with his bamboo blades is similar to the famous chainsaw scene in Brian De Palma's masterful Scarface. You come out of it thinking you just saw the most gruesome thing, but really you just imagined it all. It shows the power of suggestive filmmaking can greatly exceed even the most believable gore, and certainly can have a much more lasting effect.

What really stands out about Seppuku is the intensity. There is a mental violence that just exceeds anything physical. Nakadai is excellent here, much better than in his starring roles for Akira Kurosawa like Kagemusha and Ran, because he is at his most toned down. There is nothing animated about his sly performance, which says a lot about how people maneuver in the setting because one wrong move and he's in a battle outnumbered probably 80-1. It also keeps the story from becoming sensational. Nakadai is actually virtually motionless for half the movie, kneeling in the middle of a room where he tells his life story to the clan. This helps make the performance interesting though because he has to use his voice to seize and maintain power, and his personality can only come out in subtle facial movements.

The great Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu (Woman in the Dunes, Kwaidan, Dodesukaden, Antonio Gaudi, Ran, Kuroi Ame) provides one of his first scores here. One thing I really like about him is he understands the effect of shutting up. Scenes with great dialogue don't need to be scored. I was flipping to another film about the ability of the power's that be to write the "truth" the other night, JFK. To me the crucial part is where Donald Sutherland provides Kevin Costner with the inside information to get him to look why Kennedy was killed and who has the power to cover it up. At some point after I'm totally hooked on his story, the vaunted John Williams starts getting so loud and obnoxious he practically drowns it out. Takemitsu will jar you by coming back in suddenly to make a key point stand out, but he doesn't feel he has to make noise just to let you know he's there. He doesn't use that many actual notes, but maximizes them by holding them to create a humming reverb type of sound. The beauty of his work is the layered quality he creates by bringing in a different instrument strongly as the previous is fading away.

One job of movies is to point out the absurdity of society. Motome is threatening seppuku because he's so poor he can't afford to pay a doctor to try to save his sick child and wife. If he could earn money he could spend it in this useful way and perhaps save their lives, but he can't earn money because he's a samurai and at that time no one felt they needed warriors during long periods of peace. The clan won't give him money, but they'll replace his old robes with some expensive new ones. It's very important, you know, that you have clean new robes to spill your guts all over, and obviously god is the type that wants people looking their sharpest when they arrive at his gates.




* Copyright 2003 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *