Hot off his terrific actioner “13 Assassins,” Takashi Miike draws less blood from a different vein with “Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai.” A formally elegant, dramatically faithful retelling of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 black-and-white classic “Harakiri,” this slow-burning tragedy will disappoint auds expecting a nonstop slash-’em-up from Asian cinema’s most prolific purveyor of extreme violence. But Miike’s mournful variation on traditional samurai-movie themes of honor, sacrifice and retribution offers its own rewards, and his latest tip of the hat to Japanese pics of yesteryear should find an appreciative arthouse niche even as it bores his bloodthirsty base.
Offshore auds may struggle initially with the period details in Kikumi Yamagishi’s screenplay, though knowledge of the oft-referenced Battle of Sekigahara isn’t crucial to grasping the ways of the ancient samurai code whose honor is called into question here. In 17th-century Edo, a long period of peace has put most of the samurai population out of work, making Hanshiro (kabuki star Ebizo Ichikawa, outstanding) the latest impoverished ronin seeking to quell his shame through ritual suicide.
Hanshiro approaches the esteemed House of Ii, seeking use of the warriors’ courtyard to commit his bloody act of seppuku. Their leader, Kageyu (Koji Yakusho), responds by recounting the story of the unfortunate young Motome (Eita), who made the same request a few months earlier. Like many desperate ronin, Motome expected he would be turned away with a charitable handout; instead, the warriors called his “suicide bluff,” forcing the reluctant samurai to cut his stomach open with the dull bamboo sword he brought with him.
Considerably longer (and redder) than in the original, Motome’s death scene is agony to watch, thanks to sound design that amplifies the gruesome impact of every squirt and squish as blade tears flesh. Yet it’s also the film’s sole moment of overt violence until the big finale, and it’s followed by another, even lengthier flashback as Hanshiro, far from being dissuaded from his own death wish, proceeds to tell Kageyu and his assembled warriors a tale of his own.
To reveal more would dilute the impact of a drama that packs scant enough surprises to begin with. Suffice to say it’s a story of desperate deeds in which joy is fleeting, poverty is perpetual and the way of the samurai offers few helping hands to those who, in the poignant words of Hanshiro, are merely living their lives, waiting for spring. The sense that not just the actors but the characters themselves are enacting a ritualistic tragedy precludes the sort of devastating emotional punch that’s called for here.
Yet that hushed, heightened formality just as often works for the film’s intricately nestled stories-within-stories, creating a stagelike space in which viewers willing to contemplate the film’s political and moral underpinnings can do so. There’s something chastening about being immersed in a feudal existence where family honor means everything and a few coins can make the difference between life and death.
If “Hara-kiri” is inevitably less satisfying than “13 Assassins” (also a remake), it’s because it not only lacks that film’s sustained virtuosity but also takes a more reverent approach to its source; it’s possible to admire Miike’s newfound classical restraint while also wishing he’d put a more singular stamp on the material. Even principal actors Ichikawa and Eita seem to have been cast for their resemblance to their 1962 counterparts; still, both turn in passionately charged perfs, particularly the handsome Ichikawa, whose preternatural gravity morphs into a fearsome display of butt-kicking prowess in the final moments.
Nearly 50 years after Kobayashi’s film won the jury prize at Cannes, Miike’s update has the honor of being the first 3D film presented in competition at the festival. As is often the case with stereoscopic fare, the murkiness of the image remains a not-insignificant problem, making it harder to appreciate Miike’s often-exquisite visuals, such as the stunningly beautiful interstitial shots of autumn leaves.
At the same time, the manner in which the technology is used to subtly enhance the film’s pictorial qualities signifies the helmer’s uncharacteristic seriousness, often working in concert with the interior pillars, doorways and veiled curtains of Yuji Hayashida’s production design to lend d.p. Nobuyasu Kita’s widescreen compositions a greater depth of field. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score makes a crucial contribution to the film’s somber tone.