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Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai – review

Takashi Miike's Hara-Kiri

REVIEW BY: Jon Max Spatz

RELEASED: May 4

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai is the 83rd film directed by Takashi Miike, and the third in 2011 alone. Many of Miikes’ movies will not be picked for international release but this re-imagining of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 original has been, and for good reason.

Seeking a noble end, poverty-stricken Hanshiro (played brilliantly by Ebizo Ichikawa) requests to commit ritual suicide at the House of li, run by authoritarian Kageyu. In an attempt to dissuade Hanshiro, Kageyu recounts the tragic story of a similar recent plea from young ronin Motome. But Hanshiro already knows Motome’s story, and is here to avenge that Samurai’s agonising end.

Miike’s fascination with human suffering is channelled perfectly through the significant act of the title. From Motome’s demise, the film tells Hanshiro’s story, and that of his daughter Miho and the young Motome (under Hanshiro’s care since the death of his father), elegantly moving through time to illustrate the tight bond between the three of them, before returning to the present for Hanshiro’s reprisal.

From the first shot, Hara-Kiri mirrors the formality of 17th century Japanese society, effortlessly transporting us amongst the action as a silent observer; the camera tracks in perpendicular lines, tilts and pans in bowing movements, keeps steady during dialogue, almost always remains at eye-line and remains low to the ground when inside temples and dojos. Yasujiro Ozu would be proud of this.

This expert positioning of the audience makes us accomplice to the manipulation and horror that unfold, especially upon Motome (faultlessly played by Eita), whose panicked performance earlier in the film contrasts starkly with our rigid perspective, it being so unnatural in this world. Although we look upon Motome with pity, we know his is a fate we cannot change; that this is the order of things.

From this position, one wonders whether in life we are as passive – do we accept what is unjust because it is the supposed order of things; because we do not think we can help; because we look down upon those less fortunate from a safe distance? This is no normal Samurai film.

If the middle section lacks the impact and propulsion of the opening, it still brims with design flourishes that are constantly suggestive of the emotions simmering below the regimented surface of this world. The central trio’s intimacy is echoed in the bucolic setting of the flash-back sequences; enveloped in old stone walls covered in vines,  the parasols Hanshiro leaves dotted around their dojo evoking a time and place of romance and protection.

Indeed, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s threnodial score and Miikes contemplative use of Asian foliage – reminiscent of Kim-duk Kim’s Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring – constantly connect our trio to the whims of nature: as the seasons ceaselessly change, so does their fortunes, and so does the film.

And so, just when you thought all was well, the leaves fall from the trees, the family cat is found dead, Miho develops a bloody cough and Motome breaks some eggs. If these signifiers of certain doom are a little too convenient, the idyllic homestead a little too suddenly and symbolically decayed, then the depiction of Miho and Motome’s plight as poor young people desperate to find a way to live happily remains forcibly true. Miike continues to involve us, all the way to the bloody, compelling dénouement, when those big questions come back to haunt you.

From a man who created a credit sequence out of ejaculate, this is a thoughtful and humane piece of work; a unique Japanese voice telling a classical story that we can all, somehow, relate to.

4 stars

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