For a majority of western audiences, the samurai genre means ninjas, big swords and extensive wire work, with actors in flowing robes bouncing through the air, defying gravity. However, the true characteristics of this fascinating and haunting genre are tremendously complex characters and deep psychology, and many of the greatest Japanese filmmakers have made their careers delving into the medieval past of Feudal Japan. It is in this tradition that Takashi Miike has crafted his latest film and latest entry in the genre, ‘Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai’, itself a remake of the 1962 Japanese classic.
When Hanshiro Tsugumo (Ebizo Ichikawa), a poor and broken ronin, knocks at the door of the prestigious House of Ii, he makes an unusual request - that he may commit ritual suicide in their courtyard, the most honorable place for such an act. There have recently been a number of ‘suicide bluffs’, however, where young ronin have manipulated other great houses with stories of suicide in order to receive charity or a position within the house. Unsure of this man’s intentions, Kageyu Saitou (Koji Yajusho), the head of the house, tells him the story of Motome Chiziiwa (Eita) a young ronin who had made a similar request of the House of Ii, but on being found out, suffered a gruesome punishment. By telling the story, he intends to test the intentions of Hanshiro. What he discovers, however, is something much more unexpected, tragic and violent.
Takashi Miike has long been one of the most intriguing filmmakers in Japan, beginning his career with the iconic horror film ‘Audition’ (1999). I have to admit a total lack of familiarity with his previous work, but I can’t imagine that anyone holding out for this film could possibly be disappointed. ‘Hara-Kiri’ is an absolutely stunning piece of work, film craftsmanship at its best. Rather than offering a hard-and-fast action epic, it presents something far more meditative and emotionally resonant. Kikumi Yamagishi’s sparse and beautiful screenplay places the characters first and foremost as its focus, allowing us the time to connect with Hanshiro and Motome once the truth about their connection is revealed. In terms of structure, ‘Hara-Kiri’ recalls the narrative strength of Kurosawa’s masterpiece ‘Rashomon’ (1950), with multiple tellings of a single incident offering a much more detailed view of events, revealed with the tension of a thriller. Even when the tragic conclusion of Hanshiro’s tale becomes apparent, the build towards it only becomes more harrowing. This form of storytelling is very refreshing against the linear structure of the majority of western films. Miike meets the poetic challenge of the screenplay by creating a deeply psychological visual landscape that places the House of Ii and the impoverished surrounding villages within a brimming natural landscape. Eastern directors have always had a better understanding of the inherent rhythms of the natural world, and ‘Hara-Kiri’ utilises them wherever possible. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s beautiful score weaves itself within a symphony of wind and rain and snow, and Miike and cinematographer Nobuyasu Kita use the natural world to inform the visual language of the film, with moments of such poetic beauty that simply take your breath away. Their decision to film in 3D only adds to the depth and detail of the film, offering some of the most stunning 3D photography we’ve seen yet. Everything about the craft in this film is considered and deliberate, moving with a sadness and elegance you would associate with the most perfect of funeral marches. There is nothing about this film that isn’t breathtaking and distinct.
SWITCH: HARA-KIRI: DEATH OF A SAMURAI - TRAILER
The performances are also works of art within themselves. Miike sets Ebizo Ichikawa and Eita against each other as two sides of the same coin. The young man is full of passion and energy, with Motome trying to assert himself as a husband, a father and a ronin of honour within such an extended time of peace that warriors live in a state of apathy. Eita navigates the difficulties of Motome beautifully, all the more important when we receive his story out of chronological order. Ebizo Ichikawa is an absolute revelation as Hanshiro, a deeply physical performance full of fury and power, thanks to Ebizo’s extensive training in Kabuki. He commands every moment he is on-screen, and the weight of years and experience work in beautiful counterpoint to the optimism of Motome. When the turn finally occurs, and we discover the truth behind Hanshiro’s intentions, the depth of his work erupts onto the screen with immense muscularity. The supporting cast is just as impressive, especially Koji Yajusho as the honour-driven head of the house, and Hikari Mitsushima as Hanshiro’s delicate daughter Miho.
There is nothing about this film that isn’t breathtaking and distinct.
For most of the film, ‘Hara-Kiri’ moves with a deliberate, meditative pace, a tragic poem of loss and regret. Every image is composed perfectly, the craft of the filmmaker clear in every flame. When the moment of judgement comes, however, the film explodes with rough and immediate violence, all the more potent thanks to the work done to imbue the characters with such rich psychology. There are no choreographed, beautiful bodies in space, but muscle and bone in collision, the sting of metal against metal, and a destruction of the perfect harmony of the world around them. It is a rousing and devastating climax, and one earned in every frame that came before it.
The samurai genre is one I’ve only recently begun to explore, making me relatively inexperienced to properly appreciate ‘Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai’ and the legacy of films that came before it. Yet perhaps this uneducated perspective only strengthens my praise for this stunning piece of cinema, that even without an understanding of the genre, the power and artistry is impossible to ignore. This post-Oscar season has had so many unexpected surprises turn up, films that take advantage of the many possibilities the cinematic form has to offer. ‘Hara-Kiri’ is just such a film. See it in 3D and see it as soon as you can. This is cinema as poetry, and Takashi Miike is one hell of a poet.