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Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai Review: Sometimes Less Is More

Posted by on July 28, 2012 at 11:34 am

I think director Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri (1962) is the finest Samurai film ever made. Even better than the Lone Wolf and Cub films or Akira Kurosawa’s work in the genre. I’m sure any real film critics out there who may have accidentally stumbled upon this corner of the internet will be screaming for my head at this point, but I could care less. Harakiri (1962) comes as close as any movie can possibly get to being flawless, and I recommend it to anyone—even people who don’t care about Samurai flicks. So it almost goes without saying that maverick director Takashi Miike was left with some gigantic shoes to fill when he took it upon himself to direct the remake. Miike doesn’t improve on the original film, but to his credit, he doesn’t do the material an injustice either.

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011), set in the feudal Japan of the 17th century, opens with an impoverished ronin (Ebizo Ichikawa) arriving at the domain of a powerful clan. Claiming to be master-less and unable to find work befitting his station in life, he asks the man in charge for permission to commit hara-kiri—or ritual suicide—in the estate’s courtyard.

We soon learn, however, that beggars throughout the region have been engaging in suicide bluffs in order to gain work or money. The idea is that no compassionate lord would allow a downfallen Samurai to commit suicide on his property and would therefore pay the warrior not to kill himself. The result is that peasants have been incentivized to pretend to be suicidal Samurai so that they can, in turn, be paid off.

The lordling left in control of his master’s estate informs the newly arrived warrior that a young man named Motome (Eita) arrived the preceding week, equipped with nothing more than a bamboo sword and pretending to be a Samurai. In a lengthy flashback sequence told from the lordling’s perspective, we see the warriors of the domain decide to make an example of the young beggar by granting his stated wish. When the beggar balks and tries to retract his pledge to commit suicide, the clan warriors restrain him. In a gruesome sequence, they dress the beggar in funeral garb, drag him to the courtyard, and force him to disembowel himself with his own dull, bamboo blade. Having told his tale, the lordling offers the older ronin the opportunity to leave. The ronin declines and asks to proceed with his suicide, but not before telling his own tale first.

Is Ichikawa’s dejected warrior a Samurai? Are his story and the story of the young beggar connected in some way? Of course! But I’m not going into any more detail in this review, because I think everyone should be allowed to see either incarnation of this story with fresh eyes.

Pulled from Yasuhiko Takiguchi’s novel of the same name, both the 1962 and 2011 adaptation share the same plot. The two films, however, are still distinct due to the sensibilities of their directors. Harakiri (1962) was a very restrained and elegant film. Shot in stark black and white and starring the great Tatsuya Nakadai, the original film relied mostly on perfectly framed static shots; when the action required the camera to follow the actors, the camera movements were simple. Tatsuya Nakadai’s played the poverty-stricken ronin as an enraged demon, barely hiding his contempt beyond an eerily expressionless face.

The screenplay Miike works with is lighter on nuance and a little more ham-fisted. Miike paints with gorgeous colors and bold camera movements however, and this iteration is almost worth seeing just to see how much mileage the director can get out of modern technology. Ichikawa as the titular samurai also decides to do something interesting: He seems to know that he can’t top Nakadai’s rage-fueled performance, so he strikes a different balance in his portrayal of the character. Every act Ichikawa’s hero performs comes from a place of deep sorrow as opposed to anger. I prefer Nakadai’s performance, but Ichikawa’s take has validity and is fantastic in its own right.

At the end of the day, both versions of this story are visually gorgeous, well acted, and well written. Both versions tackle the concepts of honor, charity, and class warfare without pulling any punches. And both versions are worth seeing next to each other if just to compare how two fantastic directors, separated by the passage of five decades, interpret the same source material. I encourage anyone who hasn’t seen Harakiri (1962) to see that film first – Criterion released a gorgeous Blu-ray edition of the film just last year—but then to give Miike’s film a chance as well.

8/10 FleshEatingZipper

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