Takashi Miike returns to the Jidaigeki arena following last year’s remake of Kudo’s 13 Assassins with another remake, this time of Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri (Seppuku). Whereas 13 Assassins was a typical chanbara tale of tyrannous lords who must be defeated in fearsome battle, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Ichimei) is a much more sombre affair which tries to examine the flipside of a samurai: who are they during times of peace, what does their code mean to them then?
The film takes place in 1630; there has been a great union in Japanese politics which means that there is general peace throughout the land. As a consequence of previous alliances, the powers that be have unfortunately decided to take their revenge in the time-honoured manner of bureaucratic manipulation. The clan to which Hanshiro Tsugumo belongs has serious damage to its castle which urgently needs repair, but the Shogun is dragging his feet granting permission knowing that they will finally be forced to go ahead without it, which in turn will mean they’re in breach of the law and can be disbanded. As it’s a time of peace, lords are not in need of large numbers of retainers, so men like Hanshiro are unable to find new lords to serve and are forced into the life of a penniless ronin who must make do with what they can, where they can.
It’s in this state that we first meet Hanshiro Tsugumo as he approaches the house of Li to ask permission to make use of their courtyard to commit seppuku as he’s tired of this desperate life and wishes to die in a manner befitting his station. However, it seems he’s not the first to have made this kind of request; in fact there have been a spate of ‘bluff suicides’ recently - men who’ve no intention of dying but have hoped the house will take pity on them and offer them a position, or even just a few coins to be on their way and not cause any further embarrassment. In the hope of discovering Hanshiro’s true intentions one of Li’s men recounts the sad tale of the last man who tried his luck there. Though he was unprepared, Motome, a young and desperate Samurai was bullied into to committing the final act even though it was discovered he’d even sunk so low as to have sold his swords. They made him cut his belly with the bamboo blade, this house does not tolerate ‘suicide bluffs’. So, does Hanshiro truly wish to die bearing all this in mind? Yes he does, but he may have something else in mind too.
Following the direction he began with 13 Assassins, the first thing to say is that this is very mature Miike filmmaking. He’s very subdued here, there’s very little of the usual Miike blood-thirsty craziness (omnipresent white cat aside). In Kobayashi’s movie, Motome’s suicide was shot mostly focusing on the actors facial reaction to the agonising pain he’s being made to inflict on himself, but Miike being Miike he obviously wanted to show a little more than that. Thus we’re shown Motome repeatedly trying to stab himself with this blunt object, eventually attempting to impale himself on it. This horrifying drama goes on much longer than Kobayashi let it and I’m sure there were a few walk outs towards the end of this scene; sickening seems a word that’s particularly apt. This is the only instance of Miike’s typical indulgence of violence. Interestingly enough one of his innovations is Hanshiro’s use of the bamboo blade in his final battle; here Miike allows Hanshiro to fight back but without further bloodshed in contrast to the finale of the original.
Miike also alters the structure slightly by letting us know Hanshiro’s true purpose a lot earlier. This doesn’t quite work as well as it robs the film of the suspense of waiting for everything to come to together - because we already know at the beginning it becomes slightly less interesting. It’s an odd decision because he also spends much on longer on the central, explanatory flashback. This part of the film is its longest, it does drag in places and it might have played better if we hadn’t already been directly told its purpose. It also probably doesn’t help that when we get to the climactic battle scene at the end it’s not really all that exciting. Somehow the tension doesn’t quite build and it ends up being nowhere near as powerful or as poignant as one feels it ought to be.
The use of 3D in this film is actually very well done and applied tastefully. The title sequence shows this off very nicely with the text lifted impressively off the screen, which turns out to be unexpected bonus when it comes to reading the subtitles. The 3D is never gimmicky, no shooting blood or people trying to punch you in the face from inside the screen, no flying swords or people opening trick cans of things that are designed to pop out at you or anything like that. When it’s good it really works to add depth to the frame, however what you gain in depth you pay for in 3D’s inherent colour muting. Shots that might have looked beautiful in 2D are ruined by the desaturated colour, while some scenes have even come out so dark it’s impossible to see what’s going on.
The performances are all very good - Ebizo Ichikawa doesn’t quite best Nakadai’s blistering performance but he comes close. Hikari Mitsushima also turns in a surprising and moving performance as the sickly daughter, while Eita’s Motome does a superb job of displaying true physical agony. The only thing I would criticise is the portrayal of Omodaka as a villainous thug, rather than dispassionate and coldly calculating; the sort of person everyone obeys even though he’s not actually in charge. At least I can’t understand how he’d have so much influence if he were merely a cruel and bloodthirsty lout.
Miike’s film is more of a straight up melodrama than the nihilistic condemnation of the facade of honour that Kobayashi presented. Miike’s film isn’t quite as good as Kobayashi’s, it never achieves the searing intensity and sense of purpose that Kobayashi is able to reach. However, it’s certainly not a bad film and it’s very interesting to see Miike work this way. It’s more Twilight Samurai than 13 Assassins, which might disappoint those who’ve been sold a chanbara epic, but it’s certainly worth seeing, even as an imperfect curiosity.
Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Ichimei) was screened in 3D as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2011 - the film currently has a full theatrical run planned for the UK in March 2012
It doesn’t live up to Kobayashi’s 1962 effort, nor does it quite succeed on its own terms, but it’s still a fine film in its own right.