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October 23, 2012

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

Hara-Kiri 1.jpg

Ichimei
Takashi Miike - 2012
Tribeca Film

Takashi Miike's version of Hara-kiri is so stately, that I found myself missing the nuttiness of the little Yakuza attack dog from Gozu, or the piling up of unexpected shocks as in Audition. If anything, Miike's film is lacks the bite of Masaki Kobayashi's 1962 version. The films are adapted from a novel by Yasuhiko Takiguchi, and the structure of both films are similar. There are also some differences as well.

Kobayashi's film is one of a handful during early Sixties that might be considered anti-samurai films, part of a generation of filmmakers that examined the abuse and absurdity of protocol during the Shogun era, and rules of samurai life. These filmmakers came of age during World War II, so they grew up with the notion of the invincibility of Japan and the Emperor, followed by the cultural upheaval caused by Japan's defeat. Classical ideas of samurai honor were questioned in films, part of a trend of some of Japan's "new wave", a covert way of questioning pre-war culture.

hara-kiri 2.jpg

The basic outline is that during 1634, out of work samurai would show up at houses of local lords, requesting use of the courtyard to commit ritual suicide. In some cases, these ronin would be offered jobs, or be given some money. In Harakiri, the chief retainer calls the presumed bluff of those who come to his door. The major difference between the two film versions is that Kobayashi spends more time showing how Hanshiro Tsugumo gets his revenge on behalf of his son-in-law, Motome, while Miike shows in greater detail the events that led to the destruction of the fief that employed Tsugumo, and the events leading up to the dissolution of his family. Both films have similar running times, yet Miike's, with the emphasis on family life, might be described as domesticated, lacking the verve and snap of Kobayashi's version.

This is Miike's second remake in a row, following his acclaimed redo of Eiichi Kudo's 13 Assassins. That he would remake a better known film from a better known director, a film considered a classic by some, might not have been the best idea. Miike also shot this in 3D, although the version I saw was flat. I'm not sure why anyone thought 3D would even be considered. Most of the shots are done from a stationary camera, in dark spaces. Except for getting a greater sense of depth of field, there was nothing visually distinguishing. Considering past Miike movies, you might think that he'd stage a sword fight with a cut off arm or at least an eyeball flying towards the audience. Nothing like that here. If the point was to show how one could subtly use 3D, I can only say that subtle filmmaking is not what audiences expect, or necessarily want, from Takashi Miike.

I can only hope that Miike will inspire more people to check out Kobayashi's film. Among the strengths of that version are performances by two of Japan's top stars, Tatsuya Nakadai and Tetsuro Tamba. Visually, this is beautiful and stark, black and white.

Posted by peter at October 23, 2012 08:12 AM