Hara Kiri: Death of a Samurai
Directed by: Takashi Miike.
Written by: Kikumi Yamagishi based on the novel by Yasuhiko Takiguchi.
Starring: Ebizô Ichikawa (Hanshirô Tsugumo), Kôji Yakusho (Kageyu), Hikari Mitsushima (Miho), Eita (Motome).
Remaking a masterpiece is hardly ever a good idea – and make no mistake about it, Masaki Kobayashis 1962 film Harakiri is a masterpiece – one of the greatest of all samurai films. Unlike many samurai films which are set near the end of the samurai era, to show the crumbling of a honorable society, Kobayashi set his film near the beginning of the samurai era to show how the samurai era was never great – that their much vaunted concept of honor was really just a hollow, meaningless veneer. Kobayashi made a masterpiece, and every other telling of this story should pale in comparison.
But Takashi Miike has never been a filmmaker who is easily intimidated. He has made a career – and developed a rather healthy cult following – by being the most extreme of all the extreme Asian directors. Since he made his directorial debut in 1991, Miike has an astonishing 88 directing credits – ranging from theatrical features, to straight to DVD titles, to TV miniseries, to episodic television, as well as the odd short film or segment of an omnibus film. He has developed a reputation because his most well-known films are extremely violent and disturbing – from the bloody as hell Ichi the Killer, to the Hitchcockian thriller with a disturbing twist in Audition, to his over the top musical of a murdering family The Happiness of Katakuris, to the demented Visitor Q about the most disturbed family you could possibly imagine, to his surreal, Lynchian diversions like Izo and Gozu, to his episode of the short lived American TV series, Masters of Horror, deemed too disturbing for broadcast. Miike has made one extreme film after another after another. You would think with so many films on his resume, that some would feel merely phoned in – rushed through shooting and editing and put out there simply to make money. But although I have not liked all of the films of his I have seen (which is really, just a fraction of what he has made), that has never been the case. Last year, Miike took a step towards respectability with 13 Assassins, which for me was the best samurai film in years. And with Hara Kiri, he has even outdone that. Some of his fans may want him to go back the extremes of his earlier films – but for me, I like the new, tamer Miike. He seems to be learning that sometimes, less is more.
The movie follows the same storyline of the original. A masterless samurai, or ronin, Hanshiro Tsugumo (Ebizo Ichikawa) shows up at the gates of the great Iyi clan, requesting the honor of seppuku – or ritual suicide – or their hollowed grounds. The master of the Iyi samurai is frustrated – “another one” he says – and we get the story that many masterless samurai are showing up at their gates – and the gates of the other big clans – feigning seppuku, hoping that the clan will take pity on them, and either give them a job, or at least a few coins, to simply go away. They let Hanshiro in, and tell him the story of the last samurai who requested the honor – a young man named Motomo – who when he realized the Iyi clan was actually going to grant his request – and not just give him some money – requested time, and then begged for just 3 ryo to leave. But the Iyi clan wanted to send a message – and made Motomo go through with it – even going so far as making him use his own, pathetic, bamboo sword, to do it, and make him go through agony before finally ending his life. Do you still want to go through with seppuku, they ask Hanshiro. Of course. He has only one request – that the same man who was Motomo's second (or the man who will end his life after he eviscerates himself) be his as well. The only problem is they cannot find him. So Hanshiro asks for one of two other samurais – and again, they cannot find them. At this point, the Iyi clan is getting genuinely suspicious of the man they have let in. They want to know his story – and so he tells it.
Most of the movie is made up of Hanshiro's tragic story – going from a high ranking, and wealthy samurai for a great clan, to a penniless single father, raising his daughter and the son of an old colleague who has died. He is a loving father, and eventually a doting grandfather. But things go horribly, tragically wrong – and that is what has led him to the Iyi clan’s door. He fully intends to die – he just wants to shame the Iyi clan first – and show their thin veneer of honor for the hollow lie that it really is.
I’m sure that many of Miikes most diehard fans are going to be disappointed by Harakiri. The movie is mostly talk, and although when the violence in the movie happens – the brutal seppuku of Motomo early in the film, and the epic, one against many samurai battle climax – happens, it as bloody and violent as they could hope for, they really are a minor part of the movie. This is a tragic story about how those who are punished are not the ones who are responsible. Hanshiro, and Motomo, are powerless to change their lot in life. They were not responsible for the collapse of their clan, but it is they, and not their master, who has to pay the price of that collapse.
The film is the most gorgeous film that Miike has ever made. The opulence of the Iyi palace is offset by the dire, shacks that Hanshiro lives in. Miike, like Kobayashi before him, favors long takes – often shot through doors or windows, and slow tracking shots, that often times is obscured by polls on their journey. When the beautiful snow falls at key points in the film, we know that death is near.