Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai
Details: 126 mins, In Cinemas 14 March 2013, Japan,
Synopsis: Seeking a noble end, poverty-stricken samurai Hanshiro requests to commit ritual suicide at the House of Ii, run by headstrong Kageyu. Trying to dismiss Hanshiro's demand, Kageyu recounts the tragic story of a similar recent plea from young ronin Motome. Hanshiro is shocked by the horrifying details of Motome's fate, but remains true to his decision to die with honour. At the moment of the hara-kiri, Hanshiro makes a last request to be assisted by Kageyu’s samurai, who are coincidentally absent. Suspicious and outraged, Kageyu demands an explanation. Hanshiro confesses his bond to Motome, and tells the bittersweet tale of their lives. Kageyu will soon realise that Hanshiro has set in motion a tense showdown of vengeance against his house.
Remake of a classic misses its mark.
[Director Miike] seems curiously disengaged from much of the actual narrative.
Some careers appear transparent: easy to track, and therefore to assess. We know, for example, that every two years or so a new Michael Haneke or Pedro Almodovar film will come along, premiering at Cannes before enjoying a global cinema run. We may quibble as regards our personal preferences—we may like their films or not—but we know more or less what to make, in canonical terms, of Haneke and Almodovar.
And then there’s Japanese director Takashi Miike. Prolific to a fault, the extraordinary pace of his output (IMDB lists eight features in 2002 alone, and ten so far this decade) has required a certain degree of good faith on the part of his international fans, most of whom can only hope to access a fraction of his filmography.
And for once it’s impossible to blame the timidity of distributors; Miike, it could be argued, has no one to blame for his neglect but himself. Since his international breakthrough in 1999, with Audition—still one of the finest examples of J-horror ever put onscreen—he’s left critics, buyers and programmers struggling to process a filmography notable as much for its unpredictability as its volume. In Miike-world, complex, bloody yakuza dramas (the Dead or Alive series) alternate with taiyozoku-like high school melodramas (Crows Zero and its sequel), while labour-of-love genre homages (Sukiyaki Western Django) bump up against contract-filling ‘mainstream’ pics (Ace Attorney) and numbed, pink movie-style exploitation flicks (Visitor Q) . . .
One could claim his most conventionally ‘auteurist’ quality was a talent for provocation, the appalled/aroused fascination with violence and sexual taboo that disfigured (often literally) films like Ichii the Killer. But if that’s so, what are we to make of his occasional detours into goofy family fare like Ninja Kids!!! or Zebraman? Or a big-budget superhero flick like 2009’s Yatterman, for which the word ‘zany’ might have been invented?
His international profile experienced something of a resurgence in late 2010, with the premiere of the Jeremy Thomas-produced ‘13 Assassins’, a gleeful adventure, set during the waning days of the Edo Period, that found this perennially-inconsistent director operating at the peak of his powers. Classical in form, refined in execution, it seemed a far more confident, more considered piece of work than usual, and hinted that Miike might at last be growing up.
Distilling the best parts of The Loyal 47 Ronin and The Seven Samurai, that film was a remake of a 1963 original—the first of a trilogy filmed, in widescreen B&W, by Toei journeyman Eiichi Kudo. This one, too, is a reworking of an earlier classic—in this case, one of the greatest Japanese movies ever made: Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 drama of the same name. He even mimics the opening credit sequence—though Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score is far less astringent (and innovative) than was Toru Takemitsu’s.
Told mostly in flashback, the narrative is both elegant and harrowing: Hanshiro, an unemployed Samurai, presents himself at the house of a feudal lord; destitute and humiliated, he wishes, he says, to use their courtyard as a space in which to commit ritual suicide.
In fact his request is a bluff—many of his peers have made the same gesture, at various mansions, only to have the master of the house take pity on their plight and place them in his service. But the prefect of this house responds by telling him the story of another ronin, Motome, who turned up and made exactly the same request—but whose bluff was called by a shogun anxious to set an example to those who would follow.
The fact that Motome’s sword, when unsheathed, was found to be made of bamboo rather than steel, only added to the horror of his predicament. Shown in loving close-up (and 3-D!), this blunt-blade seppuku sequence is distinguished mostly by lashings of bloody viscera, and some memorably gastric sound-design. All reminding us, in case we’d forgotten, where Miike-san’s real interests lie. (This is, for better or worse, the antithesis of the tasteful, inert samurai dramas of Yoji Yamada.)
But where 13 Assassins was a model of extremely modest expectations being surpassed—a simple revenge pic, it was, essentially, a long, painstaking set-up leading to an unusually satisfying pay-off—this one is more ambitious, and also more diffuse.
It’s easy to see what attracted Miike to the material: a nihilist by inclination, he surely appreciated the abject pointlessness of Motome’s sacrifice, and the opportunity to depict the cruelty, corruption and hypocrisy that lay beneath the supposedly noble samurai code. Yet he seems curiously disengaged from much of the actual narrative. The biggest structural departure from the 1962 original—the hour devoted to Montone’s back-story—seems actually to bore him, and as one gliding tracking-shot dissolves tastefully into another, only serves to highlight the limitations of his new, grown-up mise-en-scene; it’s only when battle is finally joined, and blood is spilled, that his filmmaking settles back into its familiar, sordid rhythms.
But that’s twenty minutes out of two hours. The rest aspires to the level of Shakespearian tragedy—which is to say, to the level of Kobayashi’s original—but falls far short, seeming at times more akin to Victorian melodrama. In the end, it’s notable chiefly for the production design of Akira Sakamoto and Kazuto Kagoo, the burnished cinematography of Nobuyasu Kita (as ever, better experienced in 2-D than in 3-D), and the performance of Miike regular Koji Yakusho, as the prefect Kageyu. Handsome, coolly imperturbable, Yakusho holds the screen effortlessly, seeming more than ever like some Japanese Gary Cooper, and renders the younger leading men—Ebizo Ichikawa and single-monickered ‘Eita’—almost bloodless by comparison. Which is pretty ironic, in a Miike movie.
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