Sunday, December 12, 2010

Saturday Movie Madness: Masaki Kobayashi's HARAKIRI

The Samurai code is a funny thing, especially back in the 17th century when the Shogun basically put a whole bunch of samurai out of work when wars and battles to be fought were quashed.... actually, not really.  It's a serious matter, serious as a heart attack on a 50-foot bull.  It's a system, a bureaucracy like most others, in the guise, or absorbed, in a code, one that is taken so deadly that those who decide to must 'opt-out' of life.  That is, it's really the only way to go aside from the shameful ronin path.  And yet there is a system in place for that, too: Harakiri, or its brother-name, Seppuku.  Ritual suicide, with a swipe across the gut, specifically from left to right as precise as possible for disembowling, all at the audience of the given clan's samurai, and then beheading by a 'second', a samurai deemed fit to finish off the task so the spirit can go to the "other side".  Oh, what a code!  What indeed; a crock.

That is, really, for the protagonist of this story, Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai), the last of his family and a tried and true ronin, who comes to the Lyi clan's domain in 1630 to kill himself, stone-faced and barely without any emotion.  Before this, however, he hears from the Counselor at the clan about the story of another Samurai who very recently came to the clan in desire to commit harakiri: Motome Chijiiwa, a fresh-faced young gent who insisted on it, then backed off from his earnest stanced.  He claimed in fact (the Counselor says it's all the truth, and Kobayashi doesn't steer us off here) that Motome needed a moment - that is, another one or two days to decide for sure.

A fraud, they say!  There had been others, reportedly, who frauded fellow samurai clans with Harakiri as a way of blackmail; pay off or die on the premises.  Not so for Motome: his bamboo sword, the only one he has (he sold off the other one we learn much later), and he does this task with much difficulty.  Tsugumo doesn't recall this Motome (played with shockingly revealing innocence by Ishihama), who was a former samurai at the clan at Hiroshima.  A lie, actually, as he was very well acquainted with him.  More to the point, Motome married his daughter, Miho.  While the Lyi clan waits upon Tsugumo's desired second (that is, seconds, all three of them he asks for), he tells his story.  And it ain't pretty.

Masaki Kobayashi's film crackles and cuts deep.  It's a major work of art by a classically-enthused storyteller, focused on always moving the story forward with characters who reveal their complexity within the society they're in, and who is looking to break ground in this form and genre: the samurai action drama.  He does by telling his story with patient but efficient timing (the story cuts back and forth from Tsugumo's storytelling spot on the mattress in the courtyard with a measured but brisk enough pace), and when it strikes its hell-hot.  It comes close (or just) to be my favorite of all samurai pictures.

It's the one that, even more than Kurosawa to an extent, holds up its legend high in its period setting, strips it bare, and by the end it scrambles to resemble order and decency for the mythos the samurai clan depends on maintaining.  The man once said, 'When legend becomes fact, print the legend.'  This is fact as legend, of high stakes life and death straits in a medieval society with a 'code' for those up top (i.e. privelege and respect), and every other man/woman/child for themselves.  Harakiri's storytelling is part of the point of it all: it's a spellbinding film about telling a story that everyone must hear, even if one doesn't want to, and what information makes things known at first and as it un-coils every layer is more tragic, incendiary, and, in its final reels, bad-ass.

As Nakadai tells his tale, the one that came before it of his younger, more vulnerable son-in-law ("Poor Motome" as he says), it's given further depth and tragedy of a life lost to the "fraud" of the samurai way.  And Kobayashi as a directoer will not, cannot, for the morality of it all, avert his cinematic gaze from that first abhorrent Harakiri scene in the courtyard.  He keeps his lens, always in close-ups, on Motome's face, inexorable in pain and covered in swear, or on the wound itself, gushing blood in its awkward, innocent manner.  It asks you, demands even, that you be caught up in the kind of pain he's in.

It's a scene of very harsh effect, for the length it takes to get the "deed" done (I'm almost reminded of the length we stay with Aaron Ralston's arm in 127 Hours), and preceded in a lead-up in cut-aways to faces of the clan looking on in anticipation with a score by Toru Takemitsu. It's music loaded with string strokes like sword swipes.  It's a score, by the way overall, that is not so conventional as to come in and give precise cues (it's not, for example, like Kobayashi's movie music for The Human Condition movies, more conventional in its epic scope).  Sometimes the director prefers his scenes with cold, stark silences, and other times music comes in like an act of aggression, or of sorrow.

Complimenting the scope of the story, which builds and builds but only so often until it needs to pop, is how Kobayashi and his DP frame his characters.  At times its instinctual: wide shoots of the courtyard, men poised, just perfectly, totally in step, and Nakadai's Tsugumo, the troublemaker in the center, also in control and almost so in control that it errs the Counselor, who often in shots paces back and forth or looks on with his cold gaze and tone of voice to try and match his would-be opponent.  Then, the close-ups of the faces.  I loved the shots of Tsugumo as he very calmly but firmly explains his story to the clan.

We can take seeing him like this when he's cool and laying his story down so close, and it's incredible to see the little moments in Nakadai's face in these shots.  It's when he starts to laugh, a kind of maniacal, helpless laughter of a man with nothing to lose, that Kobayashi has to pull back to a wide again.  And when it comes time for him to finally reveal his true intentions for coming to the Lyi courtyard, some solid, quick zooms do just the trick.  And many times, almost like Kobayashi means to sneak up on us, for true meaning to reveal itself, the camera moves sometimes slow and sometimes quickened on a face, a beat, anything that matters.

One of those things is Nakadai in this role.  He's nothing less than astonishing, and I was astonished for how much depth was revealed as Tsugumo's story of the trafgic of his family went on.  Like his character in the 10-hour epic The Human Condition, only here condensed to 133 minutes, Nakadai digs deeper into this being the more we see of him, so that by the time all is said and done in the film we have to think back to how much he was doing really with so little in the early scenes when he's just first being a veruy smooth motherfucker in the presence of the Counselor one-on-one.

And watch him as he's in those scenes as his family falls apart, his daughter and grandson stricken with fever, and his intense reaction at his son-in-law's body being brought to him.  This is acting that tears apart the soul of the character.  He does this all the time, be it for Kobayashi or for Kurosawa especially with Ran and Kagemusha.  He's an actor that if Scorsese had worked more with Japanese fellows would be at the top of his list.  He's consumate, incredible, passionate, and we feel for him every moment on screen, especially those where he goes nuts.

So the same can be said for the drama of the movie.  And yet I'd be remiss if I left off one last goodie for the sake of the film, that one last cherry on top to make it the masterpiece it is: intense and harrowing sword-play sequences.  If one's seen Samurai Rebellion also by Kobayashi, one knows his skill at staging men with swords battling it out like it's a nervous breakdown.  And here we get two levels of the sword-play, one with one-on-one battles where Tsugumo takes on the three samurai who so callously came to his home with his body and treated him so awfully in the Courtyard, and it's fascinating and terrifying to watch because we know what he's really going after here, which is their ponytails.  There's one sequence in particular that goes all the way out to a windy-grassy field, and the build-up to out out-ranks the best shoot outs in westerns.  The other is the final climax, however, I can't really spoil, and wouldn't want to even if I could.  You just have to see it for yourself.

Suffice to say, Tarantino would feel a little humbled by it, all Kill Bill Vol. 1 considered.

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