Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Like Melville and Ophuls, Masaki Kobayashi is becoming one of my major finds during this Criterion quest. I had previously seen - and greatly admired - Kwaidan, his anthology of ghost stories, but had not made the connection between that film and his other three inclusions in the collection, the invigorating and satisfying Samurai Rebellion, his epic miniseries The Human Condition (which I have yet to see), and this film, the best of the three I have seen so far, Harakiri.
Apart from the pure emotional impact of the story, which is as moving, involving, and ultimately tragic as it wants to be, two things stuck out to me while watching the film. The first is that Kobayashi is a visual artist first and foremost. He is interested in the spaces in which Japanese culture is experienced. Unlike someone like Ozu, however, he isn't concerned with those depictions of space reinforcing traditional concepts within the culture. So shots here are almost impossibly complex in their conception, most notably in the blocking and camera movement, particularly pans which creep across the samurai compound, bending and shifting with their wide angle lenses. The positioning of figures becomes almost parody through the movie, as if someone accidentally standing directly behind another person would be immediately removed from the set. The movie is packed with visually striking images - wars of symmetry, extreme close-ups broken with wide shots, blood splattered walls - making the movie's themes that much more memorable.
These themes are the second thing which struck me about Harakiri. Unlike Samurai Rebellion, which seemed to be a call for samurai honor within the individual, this film rejects the samurai philosophy entirely. In the same way that The Wild Bunch or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance were myth-busting Westerns, Harakiri is the anti-samurai film, a rejection of the honor, courage, and sacrifice that were the keystones of earlier Japanese films. It's also one of the most anti-establishment films I've ever seen. A largely cynical look at the nature of power and its ability to make the concerns of the individual essentially invisible, the film hopes to shed light on power's inability to empathize, or even recognize its own missteps in the face of suffering and disaster. The final shot of the armor restored to its place is at once pessimistic and optimistic: there is always someone there to replace the trappings of power, just as there is always someone who will have the courage to risk and ultimately sacrifice all to destroy it.