Harakiri ★★★★½


[originally written on my blog]

Wish I'd revisited this right before seeing Miike's 3-D remake, so I'd have a better sense of how Kobayashi prevents the woe-is-me flashback from bogging down the entire movie. That's still the weakest element by far, but I think its potential bathos gets forestalled by (a) starker, more elemental direction in the flashback scenes themselves, but even more crucially (b) constant leaps back to Nakadai telling the story in his creepy dead-eyed affectless manner. (If memory serves, Miike lets the entire flashback play out in a single tedious movement.) Everything else is heart-stopping in its meticulous, procedural way, from the excruciating account of Motome's bamboo-blade travesty to the windswept faceoff between merciless avenger and remorseless enforcer. And while Miike's finale merely reprises Nakadai's crazed recklessness in The Sword of Doom, Kobayashi's is notable for how contained and cautious it is—this may be the only remotely credible depiction of a single swordsman doing battle with a small army, a skirmish that lasts as long as it does only because no member of the small army is especially eager to be the dude who gets sliced up so the others can move in behind him. Institutional effacement plays much more bleak and cynical in the original, too—indeed, the entire movie hinges on perverse decorum (on both sides), which is what makes its ugliness so uniquely unnerving. But then, we're talking about a culture that chose to ritualize one of the most painful suicide methods imaginable, treating self-inflicted disembowelment as if it were a trip to the notary public. In that sense, the American title—Harakiri (better known in the West, but more vulgar) rather than Seppuku—couldn't be less appropriate.