Sunday, 21 October 2012

Absolute Cinema - Harakiri

Absolute Cinema is a continuing series of moments that I illustrate a moment of cinematic transcendence. These can be a single element or a variety of cinematic techniques that come together in such a way that elevates cinema. It might be an entire sequence or just a particular shot, edit, score it doesn't even have to be on purpose. It is a moment exclusive to cinema as an art form.

[Entry 4] Absolute Cinema: Harakiri

The Emptiness of Honour

By 1962 Japan was coming off the golden age of samurai films, aside from Kurosawa's epics there was the likes of Teinosuke's Gate of Hell and Inagaki's Samurai Trilogy and like other popular Japanese characters they became icons of pop culture and their influence spread world-wide as their code and style began to be integrated into Western filmmaking (even directly in The Magnificent Seven, a remake of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai.) Enter Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri, a fierce evocation of the individual in the face of a corrupt and hypocritical system, a breakdown of Japanese culture and destruction of a cinematic ideal. 

The film opens with the image of an idol, of a god, of an empty suit of armour. It is an image of impressive power, but it is a false power. It is a metaphor for the facade of honour, something that has been at the centre of Japan's cultural development, and was brought under scrutiny after WW2. Soon after ronin Hanshiro Tsugumo (played by Tatsuya Nakadi in one of the great performances) arrives at the manor of Lord Iyi looking to commit seppuku and therefore regain his honour after the collapse of his clan. But when the he is informed of a younger ronin who also took his own life, things become more complicated, and Hanshiro has his own story to tell...

Harakiri is the anti-samurai film. There is an apocalyptic sense to it, filtered through the stark black and white photography, staging and canted camera angles. As an extension of his protagonist, Kobayashi directs with composed restraint, but scathing with anger beneath the surface that erupts into violence the film's final minutes. But this is not the thrilling climax found in the golden age, those times have gone. There is nothing to revel in here. There is only a despairing, hopeless act of death. It is here that Kobayashi delivers one of the most profound moments of cinematic destruction.

By tearing down the statue the corruption of the system, the hypocrisy of Japanese culture and the facade of honour have been exposed. With it, Kobayashi exposes one cinema's most favoured ideal; the warriors' code and the noble death. It is all bullshit. Nothing is gained - not honour, not nobility. In death, there is only death. 

Harakiri ends with the armour rebuilt, the disruption off record and system intact. But its effect lingers long after. Brutally fierce, cruel and emotionally draining. It is a masterpiece of blood, sword and snow.

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