By Don Simpson | February 2, 2013
Director: Takashi Miike
Writers: Kikumi Yamagishi (screenplay), Yasuhiko Takiguchi (novel Ibun rônin-ki)
Starring: Kôji Yakusho, Eita, Ebizô Ichikawa, Naoto Takenaka, Hikari Mitsushima, Munetaka Aoki, Kazuki Namioka, Hirofumi Arai, Ayumu Saitô, Goro Daimon, Takashi Sasano, Takehiro Hira, Baijaku Nakamura, Ippei Takahashi, Yoshihisa Amano
Following 13 Assassins, director Takashi Miike opts to stick with the iconic world of Japan’s samurai. Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai takes place in 17th century Japan during a particularly peaceful time in the country’s feudal era. Things are so peaceful, in fact, that samurai find themselves unemployed; the nobly heroic warriors of Japanese culture have suddenly been relegated to the most impoverished ranks of society.
With nothing else to lose, samurai have started to appear on the doorsteps of the most powerful lords, pleading for the honor and privilege to commit ritualistic suicide in their courtyards. Of course the end goal of this recent rash of “suicide bluffs” is for the samurai to be quietly offered employment or money by the lord; actually going through with hara-kiri is not a preferred outcome, usually for either party.
The house of Lord Ii has no intention of falling for the bluff of a young samurai who appears on their doorstep. Kageyu (Kôji Yakusho), Lord Ii’s right-hand man, unflinchingly plays chicken with Motome (Eita) until the penniless ronin has no other choice than to take his own life. Kageyu recants this story to ward off the next potential suicide bluff who approaches Lord Ii’s doorstep. This samurai, Hanshiro (Ebizo Ichikawa), is different; it seems this is not a bluff at all, Hanshiro really wants to go through with the grisly spectacle. First, Hanshiro wants to tell Kageyu a story…
Based on Yasuhiko Takiguchi’s novel Ibun rônin-ki — which also inspired Masaki Kobayashi’s seminal Harakiri (Seppuku) — Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai serves as a jaded critique of the samurai code and the feudal society who entertain themselves by watching loyal warriors kill themselves because of an antiquated and hypocritical moral code. Around this, Miike develops a revenge fantasy flick in which Hanshiro confronts his mocking and sadistic oppressors; these, the very same people who passively observed as Motome repeatedly stabbed his stomach with a flimsy bamboo sword.
As he did with 13 Assassins, Miike uses this canvas to comment upon a culture whose economic well-being rests firmly upon a state of fear and perpetual warfare. Even the most powerful militia are rendered useless during peaceful times; war provides them with purpose, employment and happiness. Without war, the samurai in Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai are deemed to be useless to their society. A few samurai, like the ones retained by Lord Ii’s house, are lucky enough to have gainful employment; but with the ever-shifting political climate of Japan’s feudal period, they could very well be the next ones attempting a suicide bluff.
Also, once again, Miike pits the blindly obedient against the morally just; but rather than going down a rabbit hole of pure blood lust, our protagonist takes the high road. Hanshiro essentially does more damage with a symbolic bamboo sword and his words than he ever could with an army of samurai wielding glistening steel blades. Fighting the all-powerful House of Ii with violence is not the answer, instead Hanshiro seeks to neuter them with guilt and shame — which is a much more powerful offense against samurai than any physical weapon.
Being that Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai was originally released in 3-D, one would probably expect Miike to escalate his violence to another dimension; instead, he does quite the opposite. Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai is a carefully-plodded, slow-moving, Japanese samurai film that is reminiscent in tone and style to that of Masaki Kobayashi, Kenji Mizoguchi and Akira Kurosawa. Miike even plays with a Rashomon-esque narrative device of layering stories within stories, and telling these stories from varying perspectives. Other than the use modern technology (digital cinematography, 3-D projection), everything else about Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai is quite classic, specifically the intricacy of details and coloring of the production design, the careful framing and composition of shots, and the sharp depth of focus. Of course it is that very same modern technology that is the only real distraction for me, as I have not yet come around to acclimating to watching digitally-shot samurai flicks (or westerns, for that matter); for now, that is a sacrosanct world of classic cinema that still demands to be shot on the fine grains of film.