Hara-Kiri: Death Of A Samurai (LFF)
Takashi Miike’s follow-up to the universally acclaimed 13 Assassins takes another look at samurai honour (in 3D!), but does it have to look so damn much like the original film…?
When impoverished samurai Hanshiro Tsugumo (Ebizo Ichikawa, Space Battleship Yamato, Musashi, Sea Without Exit) visits the House of Li. Asking to commit seppuku in their grounds, he is told of the cautionary tale of young Motome Chijiiwa (Eita, Azumi, Hanging Garden, Memories of Matsuko), who came to the house under the same pretence. His swords made from bamboo told a different story, that he was simply a peasant trying to extort money from the house’s retainer rather than have the shame of death on their hands – but didn’t stop them from forcing him to commit the act with the wooden blade in order to teach any future frauds a lesson.
Tsugumo then reveals he knows all about Motome, that in fact he was very close, his son-in-law. He then recounts the tale of how Motome, the proud son of a local official and samurai, came to be struck so low as to try and get three ryo from the house. And how he has come for revenge…
As with his previous film, Hara-kiri explores the honour of samurai – but if 13 Assassins showed officials trying to save face while plotting to execute a prince, Hara-Kiri questions their honour completely. It shows them playing at their roles with pompous ceremony, despite never having seen action. When it comes to facing Tsugumo, an older, poor, tired ronin, he shows them up for the frauds they are.
Like 13 Assassins, Hara-Kiri begins with the act of seppuku itself. The cruelty of the scene, the bullying of Motome to desperately try impaling himself on his blunt wooden blade, is viscerally shown with (literally) gut-wrenchingly sound accompaniments. More than 13 Assassins, it feels like the work of Takashi Miike, and yet, it’s almost the exact copy of the same scene in Masaki Kobayashi ‘s film of the same name – because like 13 Assassins, it is also a remake.
Superficially Hara-Kiri appears to be a safe follow-up to 13 Assassins, another samurai film after his last was so well received – it even shares some of the same cast. But then Takashi doesn’t seem to be able to go far in his career without courting some kind of subversive element. This time it is to remake Masaki’s classic original with, at points, an almost shot-for-shot replication in story and composition, and to make it in 3D with very little utilizing of the dynamic – if anything it’s the antithesis of what a 3D movie should be, slow and still. (And with a distinct lack of the ‘pointy things’ poking at you from the screen.)
There’s no doubting Takashi’s appreciation for Masaki’s work. His next film Kwaidan is a master class in atmospheric horror at the heart of every great Japanese horror since, from Ringu to Audition and Dark Water. His takes on samurai themes like Hara-Kiri and Samurai Rebellion blew apart clichés and took a completely different view on them much like Akira Kurosawa. If anything, Masaki had an even more contemporary style of direction (or, you might argue, more of a Japanese sense of pace and composition) – meaning Takashi’s film adds very little in terms of the 50 years between the films.
It’s not what I would call, as has been stated in publicity, a ‘reimagining’ – it’s far too close to the original for that, from set design to opening titles… even lead Ebizo Ichikawa is the spitting image of original star Tatsuya Nakadai (Yojimbo, Sanjuro, The Wolves) down to the wispy whiskers. It’s not like he paid Kim Jee-woon’ s The Quiet Family such reverence when he remade it as Happiness of the Katakuris. Whether deliberate or not, Takashi comes close to parodying the current overwhelming trend for remaking movies.
That’s not to say he doesn’t bring some new ideas to the film. Takashi drops much of the voice-over narration from the character of Tsugumo to show us instead, upping the melodrama stakes as Sawako Decides and Love Exposure star Hikari Mitsushima appears as Miho, Tsugumo’s frail daughter. In comparison, it’s almost overplayed, with events changed and moved around from the original to bring the story to near hysterical levels.
The highlight is Tsugumo using his son-in-law’s wooden sword to hold off Li’s forces, easily getting the better of them despite his age and their better (real) weaponry. But perhaps the biggest change is to entirely remove the fight scenes between Tsugumo and the three men he held responsible for Motome’s death. Whatever concessions Masaki made towards an audience wanting to see a samurai film with sword battles is completely thrown to one side – the fights make a mockery of his opponent’s skills with them lasting just seconds. It fits better with the overall point of the film, though will hardly appeal to modern audiences expecting every action sequence they see to better the last.
Other scenes omitted from Takashi’s version include young Motome trying unsuccessfully to get work as a labourer, turned away as samurai’s with swords have a reputation for trouble. Instead much of Motome’s plight is reduced to a scene where he eats a broken raw egg of the path, with Takashi’s direction lingering unpleasantly on his feverish efforts to lap up every last drop.
On both films, the samurai statue looms big, heralding the warriors life to which they aspire. If anything, the implication is far greater in the original film that the retainers and samurai have learnt nothing from this encounter, covering their tracks and embarrassment.
The set design for Hara-Kiri is immaculate; though admittedly often close to the original it adds patterns and textures. There’s a wonderfully low key but atmospheric score by Ryûichi Sakamoto (Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, Black Rain, Appleseed, The Last Emperor). The cast gives a solid performance, though notably Hikari Mitsushima didn’t risk shaving off her eyebrows and blacking her teeth as the original Miho did, an accuracy few seem to follow nowadays. Again it’s as masterly directed as 13 Assassins, though in some ways more characteristically Takashi in tone. Audiences who have never seen the original will love it…
Those who have, however, may wonder what the point of the exercise is… Utterly successful and strangely disappointing in equal measures.
Hara-Kiri: Death Of A Samurai was screened as part of the 55th London Film Festival, 2011. This post was originally published 20 October, 2011.