At the beginning of Takashi Miike’s previous film 13 Assassins (my number 3 film for 2011), a feudal Japanese lord protested against the hierarchy by committing seppuku (or hara-kiri, that is ritual suicide by disembowelment) in front of a royal palace. While the camera stayed above the waistline, the sound effects of flesh and organ being torn and the twisted expressions on the actor’s face were enough to shake anyone to the core. Now Miike has chosen that scene as a centrepiece for his latest film.
Like 13 Assassins, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai is also a remake of a Japanese film from the early 1960s, although the original Hara-Kiri is the far more renowned film. Miike, one of the most prolific filmmakers in the world, has shot his remake in 3D, injecting incredible texture into his film, although he has stuck far too close to the original in terms of story.
As in Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 film, Hara-Kiri tells the tale of Hanshiro Tsugumo (played here by stage actor Ichikawa Ebizō XI), a masterless samurai who comes to the fortress of the Ili clan asking to regain his honour, after years living in poverty, by committing seppuku in their courtyard. To dissuade him from making a mess of their abode, the caretaker of the fortress (13 Assassins’ Kageyu Saito) tells him the sad story of a young ronin who came to the Ili clan hoping to extort money by threatening hara-kiri on their doorstep. Worried it might lead to a wave of extortionist samurai paying visits, the Ili clan called the ronin’s ‘suicide bluff’. Despite the young man’s last minute protestations, the caretaker insisted he go through with his suicide.
Tsugomo is not dissuaded by this tale, and prepares for his seppuku. But when it comes time to choose his second (the man who decapitates the suicidal samurai once disembowelment is complete), no one can be found fit for the job. While the Ili clan’s best warriors are sought out, Tsugomo regales the caretaker with his life story, which has more than a few twists to it.
None of Miike’s trademark wildness is on show here; the pacing is slow, calm and realistic, much like the first hour of 13 Assassins before that film was interrupted by flaming cattle and forty minutes of exploding swordsmen. The experiment here is the 3D, which Miike uses far more skillfully than many of his American counterparts. Slow and steady movements around subtly detailed environments reveal some of the finest 3D imagery we’ve yet been shown. Sadly, several of the indoor scenes are so dark that it is necessary to tilt your 3D glasses to your nose to make out the faces of the actors. The best and worst of 3D is all here.
The performances are strong, especially Ebizō’s, and the humanist dialogue captures well the film’s main theme of honour versus morality. Sadly, the film forsakes much of the mystery of the original in favour of intense melodrama, and because of this the middle act is frustratingly elongated. By the time we reach the climax, it is hard not to just want it all to be over. The payoff, shockingly, is less exciting than in the frenetic original, now 50 years old.
Miike has crafted a beautiful film, but in sticking so closely to the original and then choosing to emphasise its weaker elements, has failed to make a film that fully justifies itself. Kobayashi’s film is hard to come by, but worth tracking down as an alternative to this solid but misstepping effort.
Oh, and if you’re worried, while there’s a lot of blood and the sounds are grotesque, no, no bowels are seen pouring from stomachs. Because that would probably be a deal-breaker for some.
(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)