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.