August 14, 2005
Copyright The New York Times
By TERRENCE RAFFERTY
THE Film Forum’s bracingly sanguinary “Summer Samurai” series is, among other things, a useful reminder that before Chinese martial artists became iconic figures for Western action-movie aficionados, stern, unsmiling Japanese swordsmen were pretty much all we knew about Eastern styles of violence and the rigorous codes that governed them. We learned much of this, of course, from the peerless Akira Kurosawa, five of whose pictures (including the greatest of them all, the 1954 “Seven Samurai”) are in this 15-film series. But for many of Film Forum’s patrons, I suspect, the revelation of the four-week extravaganza, which starts Friday, will be the fiercely beautiful work of Masaki Kobayashi. His two movies here, “Harakiri” (1962) and “Samurai Rebellion” (1967), are amazing: stirring, subversive and, beneath their dauntingly severe surfaces, sneakily lyrical.
What Kobayashi’s films are not is conspicuously action-packed, at least by the standard of slash-’em-ups like Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” (1961) and Kihachi Okamoto’s “Sword of Doom” (1966) and “Kill!” (1968), all of which are being screened in the series. Both “Harakiri” and “Samurai Rebellion” are slow-burn movies, in which everything builds to a climactic bloodletting, and the point of the violence is not so much its kinetic exhilaration as its tragic inevitability. Travis Bickle, the ticking time bomb of “Taxi Driver,” might well recognize the profoundly alienated warrior heroes of Kobayashi’s pictures as his ancestors.
But the internal conflicts of Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai), the hero of “Harakiri,” and Isaburo (Toshiro Mifune), the hero of “Samurai Rebellion,” are, if anything, more acute than even those of the frustrated young urban loner Travis. These men, in middle age, are facing the realization that everything they believe in is conspiring to betray them: that the social order to which they have been loyal all their lives feels no loyalty toward them. And the lofty, spiritual-seeming principles of their samurai code, which demand unwavering obedience to authority, are no help at all when authority, as is its habit, turns capricious and cruel. Although this is a tough call, it’s at least arguable that living, as Kobayashi’s heroes do, in an absurd universe is actually more deranging than living in the bankrupt, crime-infested, sanitation-challenged New York of the 1970’s.
The dire events of “Harakiri” (showing Sept. 4 to 6) take place in 1630, in the early days of centralization under the Tokugawa shogunate: the power of local feudal lords is diminishing and the samurai whom they once employed to fight their constant battles are now largely unnecessary. Some of these masterless samurai, the movie tells us, have developed a perverse but apparently reliable con: the unemployed warrior presents himself at the house of an established clan and, pleading desperation and disgrace, asks for a place to commit suicide honorably (i.e., with proper observance of the precisely codified ritual). The clan, it’s hoped, will deny the request and give the poor man a job, or, failing that, throw a little money his way and tell him to go disembowel himself somewhere else.
At the beginning, hollow-eyed Tsugumo turns up at the headquarters of the Iyi clan with just such a request, and the Iyi brain trust – hardliners who consider the suicide con shameful – prepare to oblige him. Before Tsugumo will do the deed, though, he insists on telling a story. It concerns a younger samurai who, likewise taken at his word by the stiff-backed Iyi honchos, was compelled to kill himself, very painfully, with a dull bamboo sword. (Kobayashi shows the gruesome act in flashback, and although the scene is elegantly staged, you may feel, as this horror unfolds, that you’ve never been more grateful a movie was shot in black and white.)
Tsugumo, it turns out, has an agenda beyond self-slaughter or simple extortion, and that agenda – not unheard of in this genre – is revenge. Or, at least, satisfaction: some acknowledgment by the Iyi clan that their treatment of the young samurai (the hero’s son-in-law, we learn) was, for all the righteous invocations of honor and tradition, purely barbarous.
After nearly two hours of philosophical debate and mournful flashback narration, “Harakiri” ends the only way it can, with a bloodbath. The climactic battle, a brilliantly choreographed dance of rage and exhaustion, is as exciting as any action-movie addict could wish, but it provides few of the usual vicarious thrills of consummated vengeance. There is, rather, a melancholy, held-breath stillness to the whole sorry spectacle: even at its violent end the movie continues to hover, as it has from its opening scenes, between resignation and cold fury.
“Samurai Rebellion” is a bit less highly regarded than “Harakiri” (which won the Special Jury Prize at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival), but Film Forum has given it pride of place in this series: “Rebellion” is the opening film, and will play for a full week (Friday through Aug. 25). It deserves the honor: if it is a slightly less intense, less scarily focused picture than “Harakiri,” it is also, I think, a subtler one. Set a century later, “Rebellion” depicts a society that appears more settled but is, as the hero discovers, no less treacherous and no more forgiving of perceived transgressions.
Isaburo, a master swordsman, is in every other respect a placid and utterly ordinary family man, with a job, a couple of sons and a wife by whom he is, he ruefully admits, henpecked. Most of the drama, until very near the end, is domestic, revolving around the sorts of issues that might arise in a Yasujiro Ozu film, where they would be resolved, with tight smiles and quiet tears, over endless cups of tea.
Kobayashi’s world, however, is one in which household arrangements can be dictated by forces even more unyielding than those of social convention – in which Isaburo’s clan can demand that the faithful samurai’s eldest son marry one of the lord’s cast-off mistresses, and then, years later, demand with equal insistence that she be returned to the palace. So Isaburo and his son, who has come to love his wife, have to strap on their swords and make a stand.
There’s probably less swordplay in “Rebellion” than there is in “Harakiri,” but the humbler context of this drama makes the violence seem even more shocking, the depredations of authority even more pointlessly malign. And you feel, in Mifune’s superbly nuanced performance, that Isaburo has to work harder than doomed Tsugumo does to make sense of what’s happening to him – to fight his way toward something better than the suicidal resignation that seems the only road out of this skewed moral landscape.
The greatness of these movies is so unambiguous that you’re bound to wonder why Masaki Kobayashi isn’t better known, and I have no good answer for that. The Film Forum series should provide him some belated justice, and if that doesn’t do the trick, the Criterion Collection DVD releases of “Harakiri” (this month) and “Samurai Rebellion” (in October, in a samurai-movie boxed set that also includes, among others, Okamoto’s giddy “Kill!”) surely will.
He was a remarkable director, and the proof is in the delicately controlled style of these anti-authoritarian martial-arts pictures. Every shot is impeccably composed, every camera movement smooth and serene, every cut logical and exact. The filmmaking itself is supremely orderly without being oppressive. That’s an impressive achievement, and in this context a terribly moving one. The clarity of art, Kobayashi’s movies say, is everything. It’s the way out that his noble samurai, for all their skill and faith and courage, couldn’t find.