I’ve recently been watching quite a run of quiet little domestic dramas from the 1930s directed by Mikio Naruse, which I liked well enough, yet I feel a little conflicted I’m giving the best review now that I’m back on the rather more familiar cinematic terrain of the chanbara (samurai film) and jidaigeki (period drama, in this case the mid-18th century). That said, Masaki Kobayashi is one of the real ones in Japanese cinema; after all, he made the equally brilliant Harakiri (1962) and Kwaidan (1964). He’s possibly an even greater stylist in some ways than Kurosawa, whose mythos he’s obviously building on by using the same screenwriter as wrote Seven Samurai, and by casting Toshiro Mifune only a few years after Yojimbo and Sanjuro as Isaburo, the ageing vassal to a local clan warlord (daimyo). He’s also cast Tatsuya Nakadai as Isaburo’s closest compatriot, each of them competing to be the greatest swordsman in their territory — a detail set up in the opening scene that will, of course, come back into play at the end.
Kobayashi knows brilliantly how to frame and cut shots, and there’s an architectural sense of space amongst these formal indoor settings, with careful use of dollies and zooms to move around the rooms, until of course the walls of the house are removed to help aid the upcoming battle. All details point towards a final showdown, as the moral drama unfolds, in which Isaburo’s family become embroiled in a struggle over a woman — indeed, the Japanese title more straightforwardly frames the story as being one focused on a traded wife, a pawn in a struggle between clan chief and his vassal. While there’s no overt conflict until very near the end, the film methodically moves towards this outcome, ratcheting up tension with the aforementioned technical skills, not to mention a brace of fine performances, not least from Yoko Tsukasa as the traded wife Ichi, and Go Kato as Isaburo’s son Yogoro whose wife Ichi becomes.
- Relatively sparse extras include a three-minute segment of a 1993 interview Kobayashi did with Masahiro Shinoda (who directed Double Suicide), in which he offers a few reflections on this film, notably that Mifune was not focused on it at all, somewhat coasting through the project, though of course still acting effortlessly well.
- The only other extra is the Japanese trailer, which cuts together most of the film, including the final confrontation.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masaki Kobayashi 小林正樹; Writer Shinobu Hashimoto 橋本忍 (based on the novel 拝領妻始末 Hairyo Tsuma Shimatsu by Yasuhiko Takiguchi 滝口康彦); Cinematographer Kazuo Yamada 山田一夫; Starring Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎, Go Kato 加藤剛, Yoko Tsukasa 司葉子, Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 16 April 2020.
A film named after ritual suicide was never likely to be a thrilling prospect (at least not to me; you do you if that kind of thing gets you excited). However, it turns out this Japanese samurai-era thriller has very little actual seppuku in it, indeed one could argue that the very idea of this kind of ritual dishonour is what the film is keen to address, because neither of the masterless samurai (ronin) who enter the Iyi clan house, both looking haggard and desperate, is really looking to commit suicide. Instead, through a series of elegant shots and beautiful compositions arranged around the hardened and determined face of Tatsuya Nakadai in the lead role as Hanshiro, we get a series of flashbacks that make it clear that there is little honour in the samurai code and that plenty of people (like the Iyi chief played by Rentaro Mikuni) manipulate it to their own ends. In fact, there’s an ultimate bitterness and anger at the way in which those who have fallen on hard times are treated, and the brutality of the Iyi response is what Hanshiro is seeking to confront. It’s a film with depths of darkness in every frame, as within each character, and while it has a lot of the generic tropes that other more famous films (those of Kurosawa for example, and Rashomon doesn’t feel too distant to this one), but it twists them in complex ways: a fight sequence isn’t just a bit of fun swordplay, it’s a fundamental question of honour, and unlike in Kurosawa’s films it’s just one man against a (flawed, ignoble) system.
- There’s a ten-minute introduction by film scholar Donald Richie about the themes and meaning within Harakiri.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masaki Kobayashi 小林正樹; Writer Shinobu Hashimoto 橋本忍 (based on the novel 異聞浪人記 Ibunronin ki by Yasuhiko Takiguchi 滝口康彦); Cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima 宮島義勇; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Rentaro Mikuni 三國連太郎, Akira Ishihama 石濱朗; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 20 March 2020.
There is no doubting this film moves at a slow and deliberate pace and makes as much use of silence as it does of sound, but these are feelings that pass fairly swiftly as you get drawn into the uncanny atmosphere created by the studio sets and bold non-naturalistic use of colour (Kobayashi’s first film in colour, after a career of monochrome political and social dramas, some of which will show up later in the collection). There are four stories here, the longest being the third, “Hoichi the Earless”, but all of them largely revolve around the living betraying the secrets of the dead and being punished for it. The other stories are likewise strong, from the shortest, “In a Cup of Tea”, in which an author (Osamu Takizawa) is haunted by a face in his tea, to the first two: “The Black Hair”, following a poor swordsman (Rentaro Mikuni) who foolishly leaves his first wife to seek his fortune; and “The Woman of the Snow”, wherein a strange woman (Keiko Kishi) saves a young fisherman (Tatsuya Nakadai, doing his best gormless expressions), but with a caveat. It’s all set in a mythologised era in which the living and dead seem to live closer to one another, with characters like Takashi Shimura’s priest in “Hoichi” being unfazed by the idea of an undead army gathering in an amphitheatre to listen to blind bard Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura)’s epic oral tale unfold. We listen to it, too, and it’s a wonderful thing, but then Toru Takemitsu’s score throughout is revelatory, with its musique concrète textures integrated into the action almost as a chorus (and sometimes replacing diegetic sounds altogether).
Criterion Extras: This new disc presents the full 183 minute cut (the older Criterion release only had the shorter cut), and adds some more extras. There’s a 15 minute archival interview with the director reflecting on his work, as well as a fuller piece with an assistant director who worked on the film and explains the genesis of this latest restoration.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masaki Kobayashi 小林正樹; Writer Yoko Mizuki 水木洋子 (based on stories by Lafcadio Hearn); Cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima 宮島義勇; Starring Rentaro Mikuni 三國連太郎, Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Keiko Kishi 岸惠子, Katsuo Nakamura 中村嘉葎雄, Takashi Shimura 志村喬, Osamu Takizawa 滝沢修; Length 183 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 10 April 2016.