Saturday, September 29, 2012

Cuts Like a Knife: "Harakiri" (1964)

Also known as "Seppuku," this surprising Japanese tale is beautiful to look at but a discomfort to sit through.

In 1630 Japan, an older stranger comes to a warlord's house to commit harakiri, an honorable suicide involving self disembowelment with a sharp blade. The head of the house tells the stranger of an earlier visitor who came to do the same thing, when in actuality the visitor was hoping to be kept on at the house as a samurai. The members of the house forced the young man to kill himself anyway. The warlord's house has its own traditions: the harakiri seekers must use their own sword to kill themselves and they must choose someone who will decapitate them as the harakiri is committed. The young visitor carried a dull sword made of bamboo, and in flashback we watch his excruciating pain as he tries to do his honorable act before finally being put out of his misery.

It turns out the stranger knew the young visitor slightly. They were from the same warlord's house that was broken up earlier. The stranger readies for harakiri, and names three different men to serve as his "second," the man who will remove his head at the appropriate time. Mysteriously, all three men are ill and cannot come to the ceremony. What follows are many revelations, as we find out the young visitor was the son-in-law of the stranger, and the stranger has taken revenge on the three men, who had something to do with the young visitor's death. Will the stranger, bent on revenge, carry out his threats of suicide, or keep trying to take a few more of the house's samurai with him?

For a forty year old film, the few instances of violence and gore here are jolting. There is much talk of honor here, and this film could serve as a parallel to Japan itself after its defeat in World War II. Should the country bow to honor and humbly accept defeat, or try to rise against its conquerors figuratively and stay proud?

The black and white cinematography here is gorgeous. The film is letterboxed, and every frame looks like a pencil drawing. A climactic duel filmed on a windswept field is so beautiful I did not want it to end. This is the kind of film that would have suffered if shot in color, or would ever fall victim to colorization. The musical score is a harsh combination of ancient instruments and dramatic percussion, resulting in spine tingling moments where only the music tells you what characters are thinking.

At 134 minutes, this is dull. I mean really dull. There are just a couple of action sequences, the acting is great, but there are too many scenes of dialogue that go nowhere. Another problem: although subtitled, many of the stoic samurai warriors barely moved their lips in the scenes, resulting in confusion as to who is speaking while you read the subtitles.

The story is like a good novel, but its execution is too somber and practiced. There are no light moments here, and that really adds to the tension, which comes and goes.

I will recommend "Harakiri," especially to Japanese film buffs, but be prepared for a film that actually seems longer than it is. (* * * *) out of five stars.