Title: Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai
Director(s): Takashi Miike
Release Year: 2012
Rotten Tomatoes: 80%
Takashi Miike is one of the biggest names in Japanese cinema today, having a massive following in Japan, and a major cult following here in North America. Known primarily for his contributions to the horror and samurai genre, he has made a name for himself as one of the most talented auteurs in Japanese film. His recent samurai outing, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, is perhaps one of his more restrained efforts, as Miike focuses more on the melodrama as opposed to the violence and gore that are typical of his works. With a great cast and chilling introduction to the world of the samurai, this remake of the 1962 film Harakiri, is a beautiful, well-acted, but very slowly paced drama that never feels wholly necessary.
A samurai comes to the House of Li, the home of a feudal lord, to perform ritual suicide (harakiri). The lord of this house tells the story of a younger samurai (or ronin) who also requested ritual suicide recently, only to be attempting a “suicide bluff”. As the name suggests, a “suicide bluff” entails a samurai requesting suicide with the intention of being persuaded out of it by being offered money. It’s a form of deception that shames the recipients of the request, but benefits the samurai. The catch here is that the young ronin was caught attempting to deceive the house, so as a means of punishment, the lord decides to force him to perform harakiri, even though he has no desire to actually do so. Cut back to the present and the elder ronin still desires to perform the ritual suicide, only he makes one last request that sets forth a long-winded story to show just how the younger samurai is connected to this individual. The problems with the narrative structure arise through the use of flashbacks.
Over half the film is comprised of two flashbacks, and it all feels like a really long set up that isn’t justified by its end. While we follow Chijiwa Motome (the younger samurai, played by Eita) as he leads up to his fateful suicide, we are treated to his perspective on why he would even bother with this ruse. Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai plays like any other melodrama, as Motome descends deeper into desperation to try and help his sick wife and dying child. If the flashback structure of the narrative serves any purpose, it is to show how important perspective is, and when both sides of a story are shown, the moral implications become the focus. Miike criticizes class divisions and traditions throughout the film, demonstrating how one side may utilize its power for mere shame, and how the other side can be filled with good intentions, but perceived as an evil.
While this is a noble message to have brought to the cinema, and has its modern reflections in society, the way that the film is crafted falls prey to many complaints. Though the film is incredibly well-acted and an absolutely gorgeous experience at times, it spends way too much time setting the mood that I found myself waiting for plot points to happen. It’s an entirely predictable film, which is its worst crime, because the allure of Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai is that as an audience, we do not know why this samurai is here. It’s a mysterious figure who walks in asking to perform harakiri, but turns out to be seeking revenge, and that’s why this movie doesn’t even come close to Miike’s previous samurai film, 13 Assassins. The flashbacks work to tell the story, but by being brought in and out of flashbacks at random intervals, we’re constantly reminded that these are only here to fill in plot points and not to give us anything new. The audience is already aware that everything is going to go downhill, based on the first flashback, so going even further back serves no real purpose.
That being said, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai is still a very gorgeous looking film, and its climactic fight sequence is but a taste of what audiences got in 13 Assassins, only in a much more confined space, and not as grisly. Miike is flexing his melodrama muscles, and he shows a story that gets more and more depressing as events transpire. It’s a story that isn’t insignificant, but at the same time, it feels like it’s going through the motions rather than crafting a tale of revenge. When both sides of the story are shown, your prior convictions about Motome are put into question, yet by the time you get there, will you care enough to re-evaluate those accusations? To say this film is mediocre would be a disservice because there really is only one thing that holds it back from being another great film for Miike’s collection. Unfortunately, it’s a flaw that could have been remedied by framing the narrative in a slightly different manner.