Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Production: Shochiku Co. (Kyoto); black and white, 35 mm, Shochiku GrandScope; running time: 135 minutes; length: 3,686 meters. Released 1962, Japan.
Producers: Tatsuo Hosoya with Gin-ichi Kishimoto; screenplay: Shinobu Hashimoto, from the novel by Yasuhiko Tokigushi; photography: Yoshio Miyajima; editor: Hisashi Sagara; sound: Hideo Nishizaki; art directors: Jun-ichi Ozumi and Shigemasa Toda; music: Toru Takemitsu.
Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai (Hanshiro Tsugumo); Shima Iwashita (Mihio Tsugumo); Akira Ishihama (Motome Chijiiwa); Yoshio Inaba (Jinai Chijiiwa); Rentaro Mikuni (Kageyu Saito); Masao Mishima (Tango Inaba); Tetsuro Tamba (Hikokuro Omodaka); Ichiro Nakaya (Hayato Yazaki); Yoshio Aoki (Umenosuke Kawabe); Jo Azumi (Ichiro Shimmen); Hisashi Igawa, Shoji Kobayashi, Ryo Takeuchi (Young samurai); Shichisaburo Amatsu (Page); Kei Sato (Masakazu Fukushima).
Awards: Cannes Film Festival, Special Jury Prize, 1963.
Richie, Donald, The Japanese Movie: An Illustrated History, Tokyo, 1966.
Mellen, Joan, Voices from the Japanese Cinema, New York, 1975.
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Iwabuchi, M., "Kobayashi's Trilogy," in Film Culture (New York), Spring 1962.
Donaldson, Geoffrey, in Films and Filming (London), March 1963.
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Blouin, Claude R., "Kobayashi: L'Homme et l'oeuvre," and "Kobayashi, à l'uquam: Anarchiste ou utopiste?," by G. Therien in Cinéma Québec (Montreal) February-March 1974.
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* * *
Seppuku marks Masaki Kobayashi's first venture into the genre of jidai-geki (costume drama). But his choice of a historical subject entails no lessening of the distinctive social and moral preoccupations which informed the contemporary subjects of his earlier films. Rather, those preoccupations are intensified by their placement in a historical perspective, their universal relevance underlined; while in the stylized conventions of the samurai ritual, Kobayashi found the ideal context for the slow, measured cadences of his cinematic language. The result was his finest film to date, a work of masterly narrative construction and outstanding visual beauty.
Through an intricate pattern of flashbacks, the story is revealed to us in reverse. The ronin (masterless, hence destitute, samurai) Tsugumo, who comes seeking to be allowed to commit ritual suicide in the house of Lord Iyi, is told a cautionary tale of the fate of another ronin, Chijiwa, who had made the same request. In his turn, Tsugumo relates his own story: he already knew of Chijiwa's brutal death, for the man was his son-in-law, and he has now come to take vengeance on the Iyi clan. The film culminates in a superbly choreographed explosion of violence.
As so often in his films, Kobayashi's concern is with the solitary, courageous individual who stands against a corrupt, inhuman and oppressive system. The vaunted samurai traditions of honor and nobility, as professed by the members of the Iyi clan, are shown to be a hollow sham, adhered to only in public view. In the film's opening shot, a huge suit of armor, surmounted by a horned battle helmet, looms out of the mist, to eerie and impressive effect. This armor, it transpires, embodies the ancestral spirits of the Iyi household, who pay it exaggerated deference. But in the final headlong combat, Tsugumo contemptuously knocks it out of his way, then uses it as a shield. The armor, like the samurai system, is an empty show.
The recurrent image in Seppuku is of Tsugumo in his black robes (having refused the white ones appropriate to the ritual suicide), seated cross-legged on the white harakiri mat in the center of the courtyard, surrounded by the massed spears of the Iyi warriors, and speaking in calm, unhurried tones. Around this image of charged stillness, the action of the film proceeds through visual compositions of intense lyrical beauty: most notably in the duel between Tsugumo and Omadaka, finest of the Iyi swordsmen, breathtakingly staged as a formal ballet of stylized, sweeping gestures amid long wind-tossed grass. Kobayashi's coolly reticent camera perfectly matches the rhythms of his studied narrative, supported by Toru Takemitsu's evocative score and, in the central role, a performance of epic stature from Tatsuya Nakadai.
Seppuku was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the 1963 Cannes Festival, the first of Kobayashi's films to become widely known in the west. It was to be equalled in visual beauty by Kaidan (Kwaidan). In his most famous film, Joiuchi, he once again made telling use of the samurai system as the epitome of an ossified, authoritarian tradition. Seppuku, though, combines both elements in unsurpassable fashion, and remains the most achieved expression of Kobayashi's central belief that all systems, even the most malignant and entrenched, can be resisted by the power of "sheer human resilience."