Directed by Takashi Miike
Screenplay by Kikumi Yamagishi
In a review of Japanese director Takashi Miike’s 2002 film Dead or Alive, The AV Club described his style as “splatterpunk,” and frankly they were not exaggerating. However, in recent years Miike’s films have grown and matured in their dramatic power, combining a punk-influenced desire to undercut traditional film tropes with a smaller (but not insignificant) amount of splatter. The culmination of this trend is Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, a film which attacks the samurai genre not with gore but with crushing, gut-wrenching human drama.
Koji Yakusho (who worked with Miike in 13 Assassins) plays the head of a famed house of samurai warriors in Tokyo in 1630. A samurai named Hanshiro Tsugumo (Ichikawa Ebizo XI, whom the London Telegraph once described as “Japan’s Brad Pitt”) shows up at his door, claiming that he is penniless and pitiful, with ritual suicide being the only way that he can get out of his miserable life with honor. He requires a sacred space to do the deed, and he is asking for the use of their courtyard. However, without spoiling too much, it soon becomes clear that all is not what it seems.
It’s not that this story benefits much from a no-spoiler policy, because the title says it all. The plot is unimportant because Miike is telling a fable, a sort of fairy tale that a Zen scholar might tell with the intent of teaching a life lesson. The middle of this film is a lengthy description of Tsugumo’s brutal life, piling misery upon misery in a way that might seem excessive in a different sort of picture. But the misery has to be extreme, so that the hypocrisy of the samurai can be thrown into sharp relief. The particulars of the plot are unimportant compared to the moral he is trying to deliver.
Miike could provide a rousing action film if he wanted to; that’s what 13 Assassins is, for instance. But in the same way that most anti-war films are still war films, if too many warriors get sliced up during your movie about samurai hypocrisy then the “hypocrisy” part of that message can be easily lost. This is a great film because Miike has no problem with discarding the slashing-swords action until the right moment, where an awesome reveal shows the lengths to which Tsugumo is willing to go to make his death meaningful.
It’s certainly not a new thing for a samurai movie to be skeptical of the concept of an honorable death. Just to pick two recent examples, Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi had elements of that theme and 13 Assassins did as well. But Hara-Kiri actively avoids most of the typical action beats that those movies had: it does not need them, and in fact it is standing in judgment of those people in its audience who might demand them. All of those awesome samurai battles in other movies are in service of ideals that this film believes to be empty.
If there is one complaint to be had about Hara-Kiri, it’s that the much-ballyhooed 3-D in the film – this was the first 3-D picture ever to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival – is basically a waste. Miike has some great compositions, but none of them have enough interaction between the foreground and background to demand enhanced visual technology. One does not need special glasses to see that this film contains the effort of a special filmmaker.