As a director, Takashi Miike’s reputation has been largely defined by sheer excess, whether it be through the graphic violence of cutting a foot off with piano wire, the twisted sexuality of extreme sado-masochistic fetishes or just general filmmaking productivity–since the early 90’s, he’s made a staggering 80+ films. Throughout this extensive career, he has, however, developed a habit of contradicting his distinctive “extreme Japanese cinema” label by hiding behind the occasional genre film. Like a chameleon, he’ll meticulously follow the conventions of his genre du jour and suddenly, whether it be through a moment of black humor or a complete subversion of expectations, Miike will throw in a twist, just to let us know we can’t ever assume anything with him. In his 2011 chanabara (samurai) pic Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, he comes full circle: his remake of the 1962 Masaki Kobayashi classic is restrained and loyal to a fault. Viewers experiencing the story for the first time will likely be pleased, but those expecting a unique Miike flavored take on the famous tale will just as likely be disappointed. The twist here seems to be that there is none.
Set in the early times of Japan’s peaceful Edo period, Hara-Kiri continues the themes of 13 Assassins (Miike’s 2010 foray into the genre) questioning the samurai codes of honor and exploring the sacrifices necessary to keep the peace. When a mysterious ronin, Hanshiro Tsugumo, arrives at the door of a great feudal house, requesting use of their courtyard to commit ritual suicide and die an honorable death, the senior counselor of the clan, Kageyu Saito, is naturally suspicious. He believes it to be a “suicide bluff”–a common ploy where penniless samurai make the dramatic request in hopes of receiving money as a deterrent, allowing everyone involved to save face without the mess of a public disembowelment. But to pay one ronin off would set a precedent that others would surely exploit in the future. So instead, Saito attempts to dissuade Tsugumo by recounting the cautionary tale of Motome Chijiiwa, a ronin who recently made the very same request.
To say anything more would ruin this onion of a tale with layers that beautifully peel away as motives are revealed, sympathies shifted and honor compromised. The scenario is innately chanbara and there aren’t any life lessons to impart beyond perhaps “Try not to cut your belly open with a blade,” but Hara-Kiri speaks to a complex and suppressed frustration in the same human and universal way that 12 Angry Men, A Separation and British period dramas do. A palpable life-or-death tension hangs in the air throughout the film as characters struggle with the constraints of conflicting laws and personal codes of honor. The motif of an empty suit of samurai armor constantly asks what good a rigid code is when there’s no humanity beneath it. And though there is the requisite, climactic crossing of swords, the stirring battle of words, honor and conduct is just as important.
There’s no doubt that Miike does Kobayashi’s masterpiece justice. His leads –famed Kabuki actor Ebizo Ichikawa and veteran actor Koji Yakusho– give powerful yet restrained performances to match their predecessors. The Ryuichi Sakamoto score adds a subtle solemnity and elegance. And Nobuyasu Kita’s cinematography captures the clean precision of the original, but also plays with foreground and background space, framing shots through doorways and around bodies to give the visuals a new depth specifically for the 3D format. Lacking a great deal of spectacle, action and movement, Hara–Kiri focuses the camera work on immersion within its confined locations and it works splendidly, even in 2D.
When this faithful remake owes most of its success to the original though, it’s hard to justify its existence beyond financial gain. Miike’s divergences are a mixed bag–his first and third acts are more efficient, while the second act flashbacks become overlong and tedious. This version feels a bit bleaker and more polished, but it lacks some of Kobayashi’s punch; Miike rarely shows an enthusiasm for a moment to match the original’s duel in the windy fields. An extra shot or two of gold coins does help update the film and shift its commentary from a cynical post-war view of Japan’s military culture to a cynical view of the financial crisis and the sacrifice of individuals to preserve the system. It’s a new perspective worthy of an essay perhaps, but not for a singular voice like Miike to devote so much of his time to a largely unnecessary rehash.
Still, for those who haven’t seen the original and aren’t lazy, it may be worth a trip to the cinema to see this version in its 3D, big-screened glory. Everyone else will simply have to take solace in the probability that Takashi Miike has finished making 2 more movies in the time it’s taken to read this sentence.
Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai will be available On Demand on July 18, 2012 and have a limited theatrical release in New York and Los Angeles on July 20, 2012.