“One cannot be betrayed if one has no people.”

Seppuku

Seppuku (AKA Hara Kiri). 1962. Directed by Masaki Kobayashi. Shochiku Co. Ltd.

Masaki Kobayashi (Yes, Pete Postlethwaite’s character in THE USUAL SUSPECTS, quoted above, seems to be named after him) was the nearest you could get to a conscience objector in WWII Japan and still live. Conscripted into the army he refused to fight or be promoted to a rank above private. When he started making films he brought with him a fierce sense of anti-authoritarianism, a contempt for the status quo, and a lust for justice.

Geometric compositions present the clean, rational panels of Lord Iyi’s manor. An ordered world. We drift down perfectly-squared off corridors like the phantom protagonist of LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD. But in a back room lurks a scary suit of armour in smoky backlight, like a creature from Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY.

The armour is Japanese society at the start of the Edo era: fierce, martial, sturdy, and filled only with an inhuman vacuum. “The samurai code of honour is an empty façade,” insists Tatsuya Nakadai, our protagonist, as he waits for death. It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing anybody could get away with saying in an Akira Kurosawa movie, although the writer of this one originated RASHOMON, the film that introduced Kurosawa and Japanese cinema to the west.

Scene-setting: Japan is swarming with ronin, masterless samurai, and they roam around begging for money and threatening to chop themselves up if they don’t get it. The nobility is sick of this and has started to call the ronins’ bluffs, forcing them to commit seppuku as promised. Nakadai arrives at Iyi Manor apparently quite determined to follow through on his suicidal mission, but just as we reach the point where it seems likely to be a very short movie (half an hour in) the plot starts jumping and jiving in unexpected ways.

For Nakadai is on a mission not of self-immolation, but of revenge. The House of Iyi has destroyed, in roundabout but unutterably cruel fashion, his daughter, son-in-law and grandson. The film is merciless in coldly laying out the facts of his case. Shots of a sleeping toddler coated with spray-on sweat make us feel like spectators at a cot-death. And while Nakadai has nothing left to live for, he’s determined not to cross to the next world without righting at least some of the wrongs done to his loved ones.

I’m not much of a one for depressing films, but movies like this, and Kon Ichikawa’s FIRES ON THE PLAIN, seem able to go into very dark places indeed and emerge with such beautiful images and feats of narrative that the effect is curiously uplifting and energizing. A Man is going to be Destroyed. He is going to cause considerable collateral damage on his way out. And all trace of this is going to be erased from history. Nothing will be learned. But we, the lucky viewers, will know all about it…

Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai)

Tatsuya Nakadai is someone I have liked, but underrated. He seemed like the poor man’s Toshiro Mifune in RAN, where Mifune would have run amok and made the film his own.

Tosh entered movies after being demobbed, aimed for the camera department and missed, finding himself, to his own considerable embarrassment, the greatest leading man in the country. He covered his discomfort by attacking every role with maximum ferocity: there seemed no part he couldn’t convey by shrieking and glowering. A neurotic braggart? Easy, just yell and prance around. A quiet, dignified businessman? Glare and bark until pink smoke issues from the celluloid. A wicked bandit? Scream like a maniac. A vanquished nobleman? Scream louder. He could shoulder-charge his way into any character, and the gusto always worked.

Nakadai lacked Mifune’s endless reserves of wanton mania, but in SEPPUKU we see what he had instead: a voice as deep as Mifune’s (I well remember my friend Kiyo explaining, “Japanese audiences like their leading men…extremely masculine.”); a sinewy, tightly-coiled physicality; a stare that bores through the lens, the audience, the fabric of the World.

There is much talk of the World here: how you can’t fight IT, can’t change IT, IT is what IT is. All of which Kobayashi might agree with, but he finds it intolerable. Whatever the cost, whatever the futility of the struggle, we must defy the World, embodied in that spooky damn suit of armour, sitting smugly behind the scenes as death sentences are doled out like sweeties. This film is a cry of rage at that malevolent tinpot general.

Kobayashi, who made the lovely KWAIDAN in wondrously lambent colour, here applies his considerable stylistic verve to widescreen black-and-white. SEPPUKU has the classic flatness and geometrical precision of Japanese graphic art, and at other times it goes into pop-art sixties expressionism, all canted angles and crash zooms, like an episode of BATMAN with added evisceration by bamboo stick. The clashing tricks are a perfect match for the narrative’s dizzying spins and reverses which deliver the required tragic inevitability while provoking spluttering cries of “What fucking next?” every twenty minutes.

Here is a more compassionate use of bamboo:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bQgXccbxHbM

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3 Responses to ““One cannot be betrayed if one has no people.””

  1. Just got to reading this, an amazing piece on a monumental film.

    SEPPUKU has more in common with films like Ford’s THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, Bertolucci’s IL CONFORMISTA and SALVATORE GIULIANO than any other Samurai epic at that time. Showing how myths are formed and institutionalized culturally and politically. And also very unconventional use of narrative.

  2. Yes, extraordinary storytelling. And aided by the fact that you simply don’t expect it to go to the places it goes to. Kobayashi’s take on myth-making is much more acerbic than Ford’s, of course. Ford is perhaps more ambivalent than he’s given credit for, but Kobayashi goes the opposite way: he HATES the samurai code!

    I’ve been very tardy about watching his other work, but I’m conscious of the fact that there’s not much available, so I’m pacing myself. And also, The Human Condition is quite a commitment to take on — maybe once Hitchcock Year is over!

  3. Kobayashi was not a prolific film-maker, I’ve only seen SEPPUKU myself. Haven’t got to REBELLION yet. And don’t know when I’ll see THE HUMAN CONDITION. He reportedly made some films early on that got into controversy but he’s obviously, as they said in the good old days, “subject for further research”. Martin Scorsese is a huge fan of his films and the two well known jidaigekis influenced his Gangs of New York and he modelled Jack Nicholson’s death where he gets shot in the stomach in The Departed on this film.

    Kobayashi dislikes the Samurai institutional justifications not the personal valour and rectitude of the Ronin played by Nakadai(who is a truly great actor). The idea of Harakiri is brutal and awful self-immolation but the level of meaning he institutes in it provides the obsolete ritual with a level of grandeur. He’s the last samurai ultimately, the one who gives it tragic grandeur. Not unlike John Wayne in The Searchers or Liberty Valance. Kobayashi does not question the idea and concept of the Samurai or the Bushido. It’s attacking the Church, not the Bible to use a metaphor.

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