Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

tn_harakiriWow, Takashi Miike’s got another great samurai remake under his belt, and this time as far as I’ve heard he didn’t even have to cut out a demon-rape scene to make it classy. Like 13 ASSASSINS it’s got a strong mood and great story built upon the great structure (I’m told) of the original (Masaki Kobayashi’s HARAKIRI [1962]). A word of warning, though: this one is not the action spectacular that 13 A’S is. It’s closer to the classical tradition where it’s a drama about castes, codes, corruption and conflict, and eventually you know they’re gonna pull out the swords, but that’s the cherry on top, not the actual ice cream.

I’d heard that, and it made me hesitant, but it turns out it wasn’t necessary. This is one of the best movies I’ve seen in the last year. I loved it. Not just a LIMITS OF CONTROL “this is trying my patience but is intellectually interesting in some ways” type of appreciation. Even watching it late one night after work I found it genuinely engrossing from beginning to end (although I had to have somebody decode the final scene for me because by that time it was past 3 am and I was losing consciousness).

It’s  a story about ritual suicide. Penniless samurai Hanshiro Tsugumo (Ebizo Ichikawa) comes to a palace to request use of their, you know, suicide suite or whatever, so he may end his life like a warrior.  That’s something that won’t just come to him in this time of peace (a.k.a. samurai recession). Before they’ll agree they want to tell him a story about this younger samurai Motome (Eita [Just one name, I guess, like Madonna or Vern]) who came by recently for the same reason.

mp_harakiriFor a while they had this policy, they didn’t want to encourage all these jobless samurai to fuckin kill themselves, plus it was probly a pain in the ass to clean up. And there’s a bunch of rigamarole too, you gotta get the retainers and the ceremonial robes and everything. It’s like just having to do free wedding ceremonies for anybody that shows up at your house. You can’t just expect them to do it all day every day. So they started giving these suicidal samurai a few coins and telling them to beat it. Cheer up, kid. Go buy yourself some ice cream.

But word got around and now they’re hearing that some of these incidents are actually “suicide bluffs” from samurai with no intention of really going through with it, just faking it to get the pay off. Sonofabitch. Not honorable. They figured out that’s what this Motome was up to – in fact, the sword he brought supposedly to do the deed wasn’t even real, it was made of bamboo. So they decided to call his bluff, make an example out of him to put an end to this fad. They made him go through with it.

It’s a horrendous story-within-a-story. There’s something darkly humorous about the awkwardness of the whole situation, but Miike is sure to make it more painful than funny. He’s known for his outrageous violence, and here he makes the poor bastard have to stab his belly open with the fake sword. It takes a while. The idea of it is so horrible it had a very desensitized horror fan (I’m talking about me here) wincing without showing much at all.

So they tell Tsugumo that story and they give him an out. See, pal, now you know why you don’t want to bluff us. It can’t end well. Why don’t you just hurry along? We don’t fuck around here. But he refuses. He would never bluff them, he says. He insists on going through with the suicide.

Oh shit, is this guy serious? I guess get the robes then. As the ritual begins and he starts making his requests about who he wants as his retainer and everything (is this guy turning into a hara-kiri bridezilla?) the court starts to notice some suspicious things – like three of their guys are missing – and they figure out that this samurai has some other motive besides the money or the warrior death.

So he tells them why. See, he was actually acquainted with Motome of the bamboo sword suicide. So we go back to see the sad fuckin story of Motome’s family life and the circumstances that led to him being so desperate for money that he would try this suicide bluff business. I mean, this is some seriously sad shit. There’s a scene, I’m not gonna say what it is but it’s pretty much one of the most devastating things that can happen to a person, and you gotta watch it. There’s alot of crying.

To the royal court this was some asshole trying to rip them off, and they thought they showed him a thing or two. Ha ha, we’re gonna teach this guy a lesson. We got ‘im. But Tsugumo shows them the context. This was a good man suffering in ways their class never experiences, and he would do anything for his family. They could’ve helped him, instead they killed him, and in the most painful way imaginable, and his death had more repercussions they didn’t bother to consider. What they did was so cruel that here is another man who wants to die in order to get revenge on them for it. (And yes, that’s when you get your cherry on top. Most of this movie is not sword fights, but when the shit does go down it’s of SWORD OF DOOM proportions.)

I guess it’s supposed to be a critique of the feudal system, but I think it applies to modern cultures too. It’s a very blunt reminder to have sympathy for other people and their individual circumstances. There are so many things people believe at a distance, assumptions they make about people they don’t know, cultures or lifestyles they have no experience with, opinions about who deserves health care or who should be allowed to do what… it’s easy to be an asshole at a distance. It’s better to know the whole story. And especially to know the whole story before a guy with a sword tells it to you.

HARA-KIRI was actually shot in 3D. Somebody told me it wasn’t great 3D, but I regret missing it. I don’t think there’s even a 3D blu-ray of it if I ever end up with the equipment to watch that. It seems to me that the way it’s shot, with lots of very precise camera movements, and with some beautiful snowing scenes, would be the kind of thing I like to see in 3D.


This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 30th, 2013 at 7:49 pm and is filed under Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

17 Responses to “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai”

  1. Excellent! Been looking forward to this one.

  2. SPOILER

    SKIP THIS COMMENT

    Likewise, I watched this late at night after work and was very tire, so I had to watch the ending a couple times but…it was a joke, right? I mean, their Master seriously shamed them by proclaiming the statue to be his pride but, on the whole, the scene was like something out of an 80s comedy. Their Master was the out-of-town parents, and his retainers were the irresponsible teenagers having a party. They got their mess cleaned up, but he’s no fool; he knew something went down and that’s why the statue is his pride, instead of his personal army of samurai. Or that was the conclusion I came to, at least.

  3. SPOILER in response to SPOILERS above.

    What I took from the ending was that if the Samurai of the house really lived up to the bullshit honor stuff they talk about then they would all have to admit the armor got touched and suicide themselves for their failure. Instead they cover it up and live with the knowledge that they are all cowards and the whole sad story was in service of a code they don’t really follow.

  4. I’ve only seen the original, and before I comment on the the ending, does anyone know if this is faithful to the ’62 version?

  5. Vern, have you ever seen Takashi Miike’s episode of Masters of Horror? it’s one of the most fucked things I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen some shit (including Takashi Miike’s own Audition)

  6. Words create lies, Griff. Pain can be trusted. Kiri kiri kiri kiri kiri kiri!

    Now get back in your sack.

  7. Not sure if I want to read this review or not, because I’ve been dying to see this. I’ve seen the original HARAKARI (a great movie), and I’m not really sure how closely this follows it, so I don’t know if this would spoil anything.

  8. I had planned to just skip this, but the power of Vern has changed my mind.

    Saw the original only last week (my second viewing of it, this time on Master of Cinema’s gorgeous blu-ray) and it’s definitively a goddamned masterpiece. The wooden sword bit is in the original too. It made me wince, and I was thinking how fucked up a scene like this must be in a Miike film. I guess one day soon I’ll know.

  9. Dan, from what I understand it stays very close to the original, but don’t read the review yet anyway. I gave more plot than usual in the belief that I was trying to sell it to people that might not get around to seeing it. I think I would’ve put it off if a buddy hadn’t insisted I see it.

  10. Thanks Vern! Any chance you’ll try to catch up with the original and write up a companion article?

  11. Dan – yeah, I don’t think I’ll get to it right away, but I definitely gotta see that original at some point.

  12. I was hoping a “Hara-Kiri” review would pop up here. I would also say it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen recently, and I hope it finds more viewers now that’s it out on DVD. I’m still a bit baffled over the fact that it received such a tepid response at the Cannes Film Festival a couple years back; I swear, at least 90% of the reviews I read criticized the movie for being really boring and lacking the wild and graphic Takashi Miike imagery that people were used to. The flashback to the domestic scenes in particular received a beating, with more than a few critics joking that they were almost put to sleep. Every review seemed to compare it unfavorably with “13 Assassins,” although I do remember one critic asking if these other reviewers were even aware of the fact that the original “Hara-Kiri” was not really an action movie either (and the original source is a short story I believe).

    To me, this is a movie that displays great skill and precision from top to bottom. It looks stunning and every shot appears to be carefully-crafted. The original film is definitely a classic, probably one of the best movies I’ve ever seen actually, but I think Miike’s version is a more-than-worthy retelling of the story. I had never seen or heard of the lead actor Ebizo Ichikawa before, but his performance is incredible. Anyone who can successfully follow in the footsteps of Tatsuya Nakadai is a hell of an actor. From what I read, this role was his professional comeback following an embarrassing bar brawl that left him badly injured.

    Miike’s “Hara-Kiri” does differ in interesting ways from the original movie, especially at the end. I would say that the original felt angrier and colder, while Miike’s film generates a more melancholy tone in comparison.

  13. “Nature-god-sex scene,” not “demon-rape scene,” in the Japanese cut of 13 ASSASSINS, despite what some English-language sites have said. At worst it’s a little ambiguous.

    I can understand the complaints about Miike’s DEATH OF A SAMURAI, especially in comparison to SEPPUKU. The new one’s not trying to be a tear-jerker exactly, but it does come off a little sentimental next to the original, especially since Kobayashi’s extreme formalism works to put some emotional distance between the victims on screen and the audience. SEPPUKU is stylised, angry, and stripped to the bone, kind of a samurai transplant of PATHS OF GLORY. (And it’s absolutely brilliant. One of the best films of the ’60s.) I was also surprised by how little Miike played with the 3D, though there are some good-looking snow scenes. But it’s still worth watching. Miike says his next historical film won’t be a remake; I’m looking forward to that.

  14. Nice to see Miike getting some love. I just watched the extended cut of 13 Assassins and it is amazing. I was kinda underwhelmed by the international cut and criticised it for lacking a solid build-up to the climax. The international cut is not that different than the international cut, but the extra 20 minutes you get with build-up and character-moments makes for a much better experience. It is one of Miikes best film imo, which also includes Audition (my all-time favourite movie), Ley Lines, Gozu, Ichi the Killer, Bird People of China, Dead or Alive, Fudoh and Visitor Q.

    Vern, you should check out japanese cinema from the early seventies. I know you like Lone Wolf and Cup, but there is other gems from this period, like Female Prisoner Scorpion 701 1-3, Battles without Honour or Humanity 1-5, Hanzo The Razor 1-3 and the Delinquent Girl Boss series. And Lady Snowblood, off course.

  15. I saw both yesterday. Both are great movies, very similar, but with enough small changes to justify a remake. The original is more tense and angry, very cold and bleak in it`s approach. The script is amazing and keeps you guessing. The characters are less black and white than in the remake. You kinda sympathise with the “bad” guys in the beginning and understand there predicament. There has been a lot of ronins who has blackmailed them with threatening suicide and they have to stop them without loosing face. They give the young ronin several chances to get away, but he refuses. And suddenly they have to go through with the hare-kiri.

    In Miikes version, the bad guys are bastards right from the first scene. The way they handle the situation is unnessecary cruel and sadistic. I was kinda disappointed how simplistic he made the script, turning it into a simple revenge story instead of a timeless tale of how we perceive and treat the less fortunate in our society. But then Miike changes a small detail in the last arc, that turns the entire revenge-element on it`s head. And makes the remake an awesome movie in it`s own way.

    The original is very distanced and cold, with a more intellectual approach, and as relevant today as in ´62. Miikes is more emotional, more straightforward and simple, but not in order to dump the story down. It`s a movie about humanity, not society, and it seems almost as a more timeless movie than the original.

    I guess I love them both, but I actually found the original more relevant than the remake. I just lost my job and is experiencing my country´s social service system at first hand. My country is cutting down on welfare. The media and politicians are accusing unemployed people of abusing the system in order to justify more reforms. The population is mostly of the opinion that unemployed people are responsible for their own situation, despite my country having the biggest unemployment issue since the eighties. And the original is exactly the sort of movie they ought to see right now.

    I love both movies, but would recommend watching the original first. The remake has enough changes to make it its own movie.

    Miike used to be my favourite filmmaker after releasing Ley Lines, Dead or Alive, Audition, DOA 2, Ichi the Killer, Visitor Q and Gozu in a span of 4 years, and then he sorta got too silly for me, but with this and 13 Assassins (extended cut) he`s back to form.

  16. Anyone else watch the ACE ATTORNEY movie? I saw it last night and I don’t know if it quite works as a movie but it’s certainly an interesting experiment as an absurdly literal videogame translation. I was worried it would be full of obtrusive SCOTT PILGRIM graphics or stupid anime tropes where some guy trips over and his face lands in some boobs and it’s allegedly funny, but it’s actually pretty restrained. The serious bits are treated relatively seriously, even though everyone has ridiculous hair and costumes.

    It’s too long and definitely feels like a bunch of game levels stitched together, but I liked it. I have no idea how it would play to someone who hasn’t touched the games though.

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