DVD Review: Hara-kiri: Death Of A Samurai – A Film By Takashi Miike
An epically beautiful film!
Takashi Miike (Audition, Ichi the Killer) follows up his martial-arts-heavy 13 Assassins with a more thoughtful, contemplative film that considers the role of ritual suicide in the ranks of the Samurai in 17th Century Japan. Hara-Kiri: Death of A Samurai, a remake of the Yasuhiko Takiguchi 1963 classic, is told in most part by two long flashbacks, the movie tells the tale of a young unemployed samurai, Motome Chijiiwa (Eita), who is forced to commit ritual suicide by cutting open his stomach (seppuku) as punishment for attempting to con money from a prosperous household. The second flashback comes from an older samurai, Hanshiro Tsugumo (Ebizo Ichikawa XI), who explains to the household the life story of this younger man they dishonoured, before ending in an unusually sombre battle between the samurai and the household warriors.
The film is not what you would expect from Miike, with little violence and just the one large set-piece. What we get instead, is contemplation on the role of the samurai warrior in a time of peace. Where does an unemployed samurai go when there are no wars to fight? How does he care for his family? What purpose do ritual and honour play, and how should these rigid martial rules be applied to those simply seeking a way to survive? In a way this is an extension of the question being posed in 13 Assassins just considered from a more intellectual and personal perspective. Here we have the House of Li, and their Shogun, taking on the role of oppressor, over-lord. From being saviours of the recent wars, they have turned against their fellow samurai clans, bullied their way to the top position, and now hold sway over the lands around Hiroshima Castle. Their rule is a continuation of the martial rules of the Samurai code, but their interpretation is narrow and perverted. They may be Samurai, but are they living up to the code of Bushido?
This is an epically beautiful film, which shies away from the grand spectacle to focus tightly upon a few small locations… a traditional Samurai household, a run-down school, a set of ramshackle homes in the poorest area. There is no need of sweeping vistas and widescreen CGI, the story keeps its focus on the personal and so too does the environment. The attention to detail in these buildings and locales is stunning, but avoids the clinical ‘too new’ appearance of many Japanese and Chinese movie sets by appearing lived in and dated. Miike’s only sop to the traditional are a few occasional lingering shots of Acer trees as their foliage changes colour to match the changing of the seasons; simple and beautiful.
The plot unfolds over quite some time, revealing layer after layer of interconnectedness. While nothing really comes as a surprise, it is reassuringly pleasing when the blocks fit in to place. The kitchen-sink drama that is the history of the older samurai, his daughter and the younger warrior plays out with respect for the characters and their developing relationships. This is a film unafraid of taking its time. The young warrior’s ritual suicide takes almost 10 minutes and is both excruciating and mesmerising to watch.
Where the film loses its way slightly is with the representation of the samurai clan. Other than the elder leader, the rest come across as one-dimensional villains, all too eager to prove their honour by acting dishonourably. It is here that Miike is too heavy-handed. He rams home his point that the Samurai struggled to hold a place of honour within Japanese society once the wars were over, and paints them all (bar our heroes) as being all-consumed with martial honour rather than willing to evolve and grow into warriors of purpose. Hence, the final ‘big’ battle between the older samurai and the clan is muted and a little ridiculous. There is fifty or so of them, all with beautifully forged katanas (swords), whereas our hero has just a wooden blade. The clan never put any real effort into beating him, but allow themselves to be led by the nose on a farcical over-long fight-chase around the clan building. When our hero finally gets his chance to prove his point about real honour and respect being about more than just the warrior’s code, his end comes swiftly, too much like a rushed conclusion to an over-written exam paper because the time is about to run out.
As the second entry in Miike’s feudal Japan series, “Hara-Kiri” stands up well. It is a sea-change from 13 Assassins but works extremely well as a breathing point, a chance to reflect and interpret the world of the samurai he has presented us with. The plot and pacing are superb, and in the leads we see some excellent acting. Where he has been leaden-footed with his villains he can mostly be forgiven, after all, every film needs some easy to understand bad guys. But it is a shame that in a film of such subtle shades and beats, Takeshi Miike’s antagonists are painted so black & white.
Is this a film worth buying and adding to a martial arts collection? Definitely. But get this film for what it says and how it makes you think, rather than for a samurai fight extravaganza. This is certainly one film you need to pay attention to, but one that will reward you and leave you feeling fulfilled.
Label: Revolver Entertainment
Release date: 7th May 2012
Running time: 126 mins
Genre: Asian cinema, martial arts, historical drama
Director: Takashi Miike
Stars: Ebizo Ichikawa XI, Eita, Hikari Mitsushima, Koji Yakusho
Review written by Neil Gardner & Tanja Glittenberg