In the West, Takashi Miike is best known as the director of shock horror films like Audition and Ichi the Killer. The controversial ultra-violence of these films has garnered him a cult following. With his latest, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, Miike seems to come of age, crafting a mature and artful remake of the 1962 classic Harakiri.
Death of a Samurai retains Miike's brutal edge, but it deals in a different kind of suffering; exploring the world of ritual suicide during the waning era of the samurai. Hanshiro Tsugumo arrives at the house of a feudal lord requesting use of his yard to perform a ritual suicide. Suicide bluffs have become a way for down-on-their-luck men to receive handouts or even jobs, but Hanshiro has other plans. As the lord of the house and Hanshiro speak, the two men reveal the past events that lead to this meeting.
The film explores the hypocrisy of ritual suicide, weaving a slow-boil tale that deconstructs the act and the false sense of honor behind it. Along the way we see a family unit destroyed by poverty, sickness, and desperation. It's a tragedy in the truest sense, and the film barely lets up for a second.
Because of that, I hesitate to recommend Hara-Kiri to everyone. Especially compared to summer blockbusters like The Dark Knight Rises, it's something you'll want to be in the mood for. That said, it's a rewarding, fascinatingly rich story that remains gripping despite the deliberate pace.
In remaking the 1962 film, Miike manages to capture the sensibilities of old school film in a modern, high-definition version that can even be seen in 3D in some theaters. If you're a fan of classic samurai films, you owe it to yourself to see Hara-Kiri.
It's also worth noting that despite the limited release in theaters, Hara-Kiri can easily be enjoyed through on-demand services. I managed to grab a copy of the film through Amazon and watched it on my 360. So have at it, if you can.
Hara-Kiri hangs on to every scene with the kind of long shots that are rare in modern films. I harp on the deliberate pace, but the slow-burn was never an issue. In fact, like the classic Samurai Rebellion, the story is so rich that when swords are drawn and the battles finally begin, it almost seems unnecessary. The true conflicts have already played out, and its amazing how much mileage Hara-Kiri gets out of samurai sitting around and talking.
In fact, while the sword battle is impressive, my only real complaint is how it defuses some of the dark mood the film had built up to that point. It's still a necessary component, and to get into details would be drifting into spoiler territory, but I couldn't help feeling that the sick feeling in my gut was lost before the end. Perhaps that was the film's goal—I could have left Hari-Kiri feeling haunted by the tragedy, but instead I was left to think about the loss of honor in such an honorable period of Japanese history.