Hara Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011, Miike Takashi)

“Just waiting for Spring”

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai will no doubt disappoint those expecting another action-packed epic like 13 Assassins (2010), director Takashi Miike’s previous entry in this genre This is no crowdpleaser, but a slow-moving tragedy in which martial notions of honour are found wanting. A remake of Masaki Kobayashi’s haunting 1962 film Hara-Kiri it is remarkably faithful to the original but stands on its own as a work of art.

Miike is best known for the outrageous acts of violence he puts onscreen, much to the chagrin of longtime admirers who know from films like Rainy Dog (1997), Blues Harp (1998), and the wonderful Dead or Alive 2: Birds (2000), Miike can be a subtle and moving filmmaker when he wants to be. Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai critiques the notions of honour the samurai hold so dear and has more in common with Yoji Yamada’s elegiac The Twilight Samurai (2002) than anything Miike has done before.

In 17th century Edopeaceful times have rendered many samurai impoverished and masterless. One such Ronin, Hanshiro (Ebizo Ichikawa), arrives at the respected House of Il and asks for permission to commit Hara-Kiri in their courtyard. Their leader Kugeyu, played by 13 Assassins leading man Koji Yakusho, tells a story about a young Samurai who made a similar request some months ago.

Motome (Eita) was trying to pull off a “suicide bluff,” an increasingly common practice at the time in which samurai would approach a house of some repute and threaten suicide only to accept charity instead. The House of Li decides enough is enough and demands Motome carry out Hara-Kiri using the makeshift bamboo sword he carries instead of a real blade. It is a gruesome sequence, yet one completely lacking in gore. Miike uses sound design in the most disturbing way so we hear every twist of wood in Motome’s stomach. Kugeyu is not put off by this horrible tale. He has his own story of woe and reveals just why he chose to come to the House of Li to end his life.

Produced by Jeremy Thomas (The Last Emperor) with an eye towards the arthouse market, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai sees Miike on his best behaviour and expertly using a classical style of filmmaking. The performances of the two leads are both excellent with Ichikawa combining sensitivity with an impressive physical grace. Yahusho’s casting recalls his work as the noble warrior in 13 Assassins and lets Miike play with audience expectations about how the enigmatic Kugeyu will behave.

The use of 3D is impressive and might even win over some of the technology’s naysayers. Miike frames most of the action in and around the homes of the Samurai, just living their lives as Hanshiro points out at a key moment. Something Miike values more than any notions of honour, especially those that can be subverted to suit the needs of those in authority.

Harakiri (1962, Masaki Koboyashi)

“Motome Chijiwa was a man of some acquaintance to me.”

Set in 1630 during the uneasy peacetime after a civil war rendered many samurai destitute and masterless, Masaki Koboyashi’s haunting drama functions as an allegory condemning militaristic notions of honour. A bedraggled Ronin Hanshiro (Tatsuya Nakadai) appears at the gates of a noted samurai house and asks for the right to commit hara-kiri in their courtyard. The clan chief tries to warn him off by recounting the tale of a young man named Motome Chijiwa (Akira Ishihama) who arrived at their house and attempted what had become a common practice. Ronin had taken to appearing at the gates of house of repute and asking to commit suicide. Instead they would be given money and food and sent on their way. Motome is made an example of and forced into carrying out hara-kiri with the bamboo blade he carries instead of a real weapon. This sorry tale does not dissuade Hanshiro who seems resolute and determined to die. Yet he has his own story to tell and a very good reason for visiting this particular house. Koboyashi is best known for the ghostly portmanteau film Kwaidan (1964) and he brings a similar eeriness to HaraKiri. Characters are framed against the background in such a way that they seem impermanent, fragile, just passing through. Miike Takashi’s faithful remake HaraKiri: Death of a Samurai (2011) is out next Friday and though it is almost redundant if you have seen the Koboyashi film it does have a remarkably choreographed final confrontation and is well worth a look. 

I borrowed an old pictorial book on Silent movies and found this gem of a poster from 1910. It’s the back in the day equivalent of those adverts warning people to switch off their mobile phones. Ladies in outlandish hats were apparently the biggest menace facing audiences in the early days of cinema.

Flyers for Future Screenings

A film by Mike Nichols
Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) has just graduated from college. What now? Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft) thinks she knows what’s best for this aimless young man. A 60’s classic with a haunting soundtrack by Simon & Garfunkel, The Graduate is one of the defining American movies of its generation. 
Thursday May 10th

   THE RED SHOES (1948)
A Film by Michael Powell

“Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by, but the red shoes dance on.”
Loosely based on a fairytale by Hans Christian Anderson, The Red Shoes is a lavish drama about a ballerina (Moira Shearer) torn between her devotion to dancing and her love for a young composer (Marcus Goring).

The Italian Job – Screening Notes

Never much cared for The Italian Job. Love the opening sequence but its matey banter and its Euro-phobic stance leave me cold. I prefer Michael Caine in the Harry Palmer movies, or his pair of Mike Hodges films, Get Carter (1971) and the underrated Pulp (1973), or James Clavell’s weird anti-religious period movie The Last Valley (1971). Anyway, here’s my programme notes. 
The Italian Job (1969, Peter Collinson)
The Italian Job misdirects the audience with an opening sequence which introduces us to a suave middle-aged man (Italian actor Rossano Brazzi) as he drives a Lamborghini through the Alps as Matt Monro sings the haunting ‘On Days Like These.’ This is not Brazzi’s movie though, nor is it the Lamborghini’s. The Italian Job belongs to a couple of British institutions – Michael Caine and the Mini Cooper. A moderate box office hit on its initial release in 1969, the film has gradually developed a strong following over the years thanks to regular television screenings and the critical reappraisal of star Michael Caine which began when he became a cult figure with the ‘New Lad’ culture of the mid-90’s and Mike Myers credited him with being one of the inspirations for Austin Powers.
A nuanced and charismatic actor Caine has had a more varied career than people realise but he is best known for his mischievous onscreen persona. Caine first found fame as an upper class army officer in Cy Endfield’s classic war film Zulu (1964). However he soon became known for playing cocky working-class types. As the cynical spy Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File (1965, Sidney J. Furie) he trades barbs with his condescending superiors but gets the job done. As smooth-talking lothario Alfie (1966, Lewis Gilbert) he thinks he’s got all the answers and delivers lengthy monologues to the camera about the meaning of life.
The Italian Job is a cheeky caper movie in which British ingenuity triumphs over continental style and sophistication. No wonder fans of the English national football team have adopted its catchy anthem ‘Getta Bloody Move On’ aka ‘The Self Preservation Society’ into their repertoire. Caine is in his element as the roguish Charlie Croker who walks free from prison and immediately starts work on a plan to steal gold bullion from a delivery in Turin using a football match as cover. Noel Coward makes a surprisingly effective heavy, his character representing the Old Guard of the Establishment, disgusted at having to tolerate a lower-class upstart like Charlie until of course he realises how much money he can make from him.
Credit must also go to French driver Rèmy Julienne and his team who perform the film’s inventive driving stunts and would later work on every James Bond film from For Your Eyes Only (1981, John Glen) to 1995’s Goldeneye (Martin Campbell).