FROM THE VAULT: 1962
Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai, Rentaro Mikuni,
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
The film: Although it won the Special Jury Prize at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival, several members of Harakiri's opening screening audience reportedly passed out during the first scene of ritual suicide, or seppuku (which is also the film's Japanese title). The first half-hour of Masaki Kobayashi's harshly subversive criticism of the samurai ethic is not for the squeamish.
One of the first films to question the blind loyalty of the bushido code of honour, at the same time Harakiri points a controversially accusing finger at Japan's wartime behaviour and at the modern culture of unquestioning obedience to corporate authority.
In 1630, an unemployed samurai (or ronin), played by Tatsuya Nakadai (Kagemusha, Ran, right) arrives at the estate of a nobleman, asking to be allowed to commit a dignified suicide on the premises, since he can no longer survive with honour in the outside world. Before permission is granted, he's told the cautionary tale of another ronin - shown in flashback - who recently visited the house for the same reason. Believing the earlier petitioner was bluffing in order to gain employment, the household samurai forced him to carry out his request, even though by this time his steel blade had been traded in for one of blunt bamboo, making the process of disembowelment (harakiri) particularly drawn out (hence the fainting French audience).
Nakadai's character, we later learn, is this man's father-in-law. It also transpires that the household's top three swordsmen - each instrumental in the son-in-law's demise - have mysteriously gone missing in recent days.
One of the few samurai films of Japan's 'Golden Age' of cinema to seriously rival the period output of Akira Kurosawa, Harakiri is a true masterpiece, not just of the jidai-geki (period drama) genre, but also of suspense and of political and social criticism. 'This thing we call samurai honour,' says Nakadai's disillusioned character early on, 'is ultimately nothing but a facade.' With that comment, a generation of cinema heroes at once became misguided villains. And Japanese cinema was never quite the same again.
The extras: Disc one features an introduction by Japan film scholar Donald Richie, which gives away the dramatic ending, so save it till after you've seen the film.
On disc two there are three interviews - one with director Kobayashi (Double Suicide, Kwaidan), and one each with leading man Nakadai and screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto (Seven Samurai, Rashomon). Also included is an illustrated 32-page booklet containing an essay by film writer Joan Mellen and a reprint of her 1972 interview with Kobayashi. Criterion's digitally restored, black-and-white 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer, complete with new subtitles, is superb and long overdue for English-speaking audiences.