Over the course of his productive career (between 2001 and 2002 Miike is credited with shooting a massive fifteen productions), the 51-year-old director has garnered international notoriety because of his penchant for sensationalist violence and graphic bloodshed. He has built a reputation as one of the most creatively insane directors currently working in the film industry today and so, hot on the heels of an acclaimed bloodthirsty 13 Assassins remake, many were anticipating a similarly ferocious samurai tale.
However, in Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, Miike has curiously decided to shoot a surprisingly elegant, practically bloodless 3-D update of the traditional Japanese tale of vengeance, which is more slow-burning Shakespearean tragedy than über-violent slash ’em up.
Hara-Kiri follows the original plot structure for the first half of the film, introducing a middle-aged destitute ronin Hanshirô (played by the excellent Ebizô Ichikawa), who visits the respected House of Ii, run by the obstinate Lord Kageyu (Koji Yakusho). Hanshirô asks the Shogun for an honorable end to his impoverished life, by allowing him to commit hara-kiri – ritual suicide – in his courtyard.
The narrative then jumps backwards in time with a series of extended flashbacks, intercutting an earlier tragic tale of the fate of another desperate young ronin Motome (Eita), who had previously made a similar plea to the house. The parallel stories are of course interconnected, and Miike builds up the suspense of the melodrama by juxtaposing both tales, eventually culminating in the tense final standoff between Hanshirô and Lord Kageyu.
Unlike his other films, Hara-Kiri does not revel in the physical testosterone-heavy tableaux of samurai battle, but instead quietly examines the mental ramifications of being a warrior – especially during peacetime, when they have no real function in society. Exploring the archetypal samurai themes of honour, sacrifice and retribution, it’s a brooding and contemplative film; which is more of a delicately handled family drama than a focus on the bloody samurai act of ritual suicide.
Hara-Kiri is positively PG in the violence department, and without the need for ferocious battle scenes, the addition of 3-D seems to be both a distraction and a redundant construct within the film. The stereoscopics darken the cinematography, kill the depth of focus and depressingly sacrifice the precision and colour of the often-exquisite visuals. Within the gloomy interiors, Miike frames the shots between pillars, doorways and veiled curtains, creating a stage-like space which adds to the sense of a theatrical tragedy, but fails to enhance the pictorial qualities or drive the narrative.
Despite whatever failings may come with 3-D formatting, at its heart Hara-Kiri is a finely made period drama. It is a savage critique of the absurd institutional regulations samurai system, which champions the principle of honour without allowing its disciples any. Miike uses the political allegory of failing traditions and rigid codes to advocate the notion of family; emphasising the selfish existence of the samurai, as opposed to the dedication and sacrifice that comes with familial devotion.
At just over two hours long, Hara-Kiri is not a rollercoaster ride of action, but patient audiences will be rewarded with a emotionally weighty and beautifully crafted story of suffering, sacrifice and vengeance. There is much to admire in Miike’s reverent approach to his source material and his newfound classical restraint – however, it’s a shame that he seems to have lost the energetic spark of his previous films. The choice to shoot Hara-Kiri in 3-D remains an immensely strange one, as the story doesn’t ask for it nor require it. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Miike’s latest fare will find an appreciative arthouse niche, even if it leaves his bloodthirsty fanbase cold.
Hara-Kiri: Death Of A Samurai is out in cinemas on May 4th, and available to own on DVD May 7th.
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