1962, Movies

Harakiri [aka Seppuku] (1962, Masaki Kobayashi)

I was not familiar with jidaigeki but I’ve seen a few of them without knowing it. It’s possible that what I’m going to say about this film only makes sense in western genres and not in jidaigeki but, given that I’ve only a few of these films, I have no idea.

Until its climax, this is almost like an anti-samurai film, focusing on the cruelty and hypocrisy of the samurai code of honour, and notably avoiding any fight scenes for most of its runtime. It’s a remarkable film, given how early it is in (western awareness of) the genre. It’s a revisionist film, notably ahead of revisionist westerns b ya few years and roughly contemporaneous with some of the earliest revisionist gangster films and noirs. But it’s well ahead of most full-on revisionist movements save French New Wave. (Again, I have no idea if this kind of genre revisionism has always been a feature of jidaigeki.)

Told half in flashback (as awkward as that always is), the film begins as tragedy, turns into a revenge film and, spoiler alert, ends as tragedy. There are plenty of really great Japanese tragedies from this time, many of which are period pieces like this, and there are definitely a few that combine them with revenge. (After all, this is a samurai film.) But few do so this effectively, provided, you can get over the idea of a man telling a story to a group of motionless other men for what has to be hours. Even though you can guess what’s coming, it’s still handled pretty adeptly.

The big fight scene, when it comes, isn’t as well choreographed as some. But our standards have come a really long way over time, and there’s enough here for me to not really worry about.

Because, for me, the real value is in how this film entirely upends the samurai code the genre is based on. Even more than the other samurai films that helped transform the Western, this film feels like a massive challenge to all films that celebrate heroic, violent men, particularly loners. More than any other samurai film I’ve seen, this feels like the one that caused the revisionist western, and helped (along with the French New Wave, among other foreign genres) the American Film Renaissance.

One of the best Japanese films of its era, probably one of the best films of its era.


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