(Masaki Kobayashi, 1962)
It's only when you see a film as set upon savaging the assumptions and hypocrisies of the Samurai class - and by extention, of the Samurai genre - that you realise just how romanticised the Samurai has been by popular culture, and primarily, by Japanese cinema. The noble Warrior, living and dying according to a strictly defined code of honour, is an attractive and romantic ideal, and one many films have celebrated and underlined. But Samurai, like Knights in Medieval Europe, were trained warriors whose chief purpose was to maintain the status quo in the class structure, protecting the Rich and their interests from the mass of the people, who had nothing.
In Harakiri, Masaki Kobayashi approaches this truth. His film positively bristles with an angry contempt for the way of the Samurai. The story is folded into quite a complex double-flashback structure, following the hard times that have befallen a samurai and his family, which drive him to ask at a clan's house for permission to commit seppuku in their courtyard. Then the same happens with another Samurai; older and calmer, he seems to have another agenda. Once he has a captive audience awaiting his dramatic act, he recounts his life and reveals his real reason for requesting seppuku, and it involves revenge..
Kobayashi is a supreme stylist and this film is quite magisterial. Beautiful compositions make the most of the hard lines and grids of period Japanese rooms and brilliantly express the power dynamics in the many intense conversations captured by his camera. That camera moves in slow, slight increments, helping to build up the tension through over two hours of patient, precise storytelling. And that storytelling damns the samurai, exposing the injustice, cruelty and inflexibility at the heart of a society in thrall to such a violent and restrictive cultural phenomenon.
That would not be enough if the dramatic elements did not work in their own right, but work they do. This is primarily a tragedy, driven by the samurai code, and it contains a couple of agonising sequences: the first, almost unwatchable seppuku, performed by an impoverished young samurai with a bamboo sword, and later, the discovery of his fate by his wife and father-in-law. The performances are slightly overheated but that seems operatic through the lens of Kobayashi's surgical directorial vision, and it all leads up to an inevitable and incredible climactic explosion of violence and swordplay, which manages to be both cathartic and tragic.
Most importantly, it's a tremendous ending to an extraordinary film, a film which is moving, beautiful and riveting.