To Western eyes, director Miike Takeshi will probably forever be associated with the blood-soaked insanity of Audition, Ichi The Killer or Dead Or Alive. In Japan, though, he is quite the journeyman, often releasing as many as five movies in a single year and covering very different subject matters. His last two movies, for example, have been the family comedy Ninja Kids!!! (and yes, those exclamation points are as mandatory as for Mario Kart: Double Dash!!) and Zebraman 2, whose plot summary on Wikipedia is something you really need to read.
Prior to that, he directed Thirteen Assassins, a fairly decent samurai movie which I reviewed as part of my London Film Festival coverage last year. Miike is back this year with a remake of Masake Kobayashi’s Harakiri, which won the Cannes Special Jury Award in 1962. Anyone planning on seeing this on the back of Thirteen Assassins should be warned that Hara-Kiri: Death Of A Samurai has Miike showing off the extent of his versatility yet again, reneging on almost everything that Western audiences have come to expect from him.
Thirteen Assassins struggled in its slow first hour, which mostly comprised set-up and character work. Hara-Kiri is a slow, character-based drama all the way through, virtually bloodless compared to the director’s best-known work, with only very brief bursts of violence. That isn’t a problem, though: Thirteen Assassins couldn’t make its scene-setting work because its premise was so generic and everyone was waiting to get to the action. As a story-driven film, Hara-Kiri is able to pull more surprises and put more focus on its smaller cast of characters.
The film utilises flashback to tell a great deal of its story, which might have been problematic had it not thrown itself so wholeheartedly into the idea. It starts off with a samurai arriving at the house of a powerful and respected lord, asking for the honour of committing seppuku in his courtyard. From there, the narrative takes three jumps back in time, each going further back and revealing the whys and hows behind the samurai’s decision.
Its twists are never surprising, but watching the consequences unfold before the inciting actions lends a tragic weight to the latter half of the film, as we see happy families walking towards their collapse and well-intentioned plans leading to the worst possible outcomes. It also allows the characters to be so much more than the stock figures they initially seem: a dishonest young boy vindicated by circumstances; a plot for revenge fuelled by something much deeper than dishonour.
If there is one thing apart from the period setting which carries over from Thirteen Assassins, it is the disdain with which Miike views the hierarchies and traditions of Japanese society. Far from the romanticised Western view which has produced such garbage as Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, Miike sees the life of a samurai as one strangled by social immobility and heartless obedience to meaningless social rules that punish anyone who dares have a soul.
The cast are uniformly outstanding: Kōji Yakusho successfully reconciles the man we meet at the beginning of the film with the very different one we see at the end, fully rounding up how one turned into the other, all the while being someone else entirely. Hikari Mitsushima and Eito (just Eito) invest great emotional power as a young couple struggling to get by with little money, a young child to support, a crumbling house and a spreading illness. Though the stories are simple and the characters set on their path from the first shot, each actor makes the most of their every cue.
Miike directs the hell out of the movie, albeit in the most unassuming way possible. The brief fight near the end shows that his talent for staging action is as strong as ever – hopefully he’ll go back into that genre soon – but it is the way he frames the still, quiet shots that reveal the depth of his mastery. Everything in Lord Iie’s house is captured in either tight quarters or with characters under constant scrutiny (the seppuku ritual is made particularly oppressive, with swordsmen watching on all sides, never out of shot), echoing the constrictive nature of the rules by which the upper echelons of Japanese samurai society lived. The overwhelming colours are white, grey and red, much as how the samurai code incisively divides life into what is right and wrong, with blood the only thing moving inbetween.
By contrast, the family home from society’s lower rung is wrapped in greens, yellows and blues, with walls of transparent cloth and disintegrating paper reflecting the emotional openness so lacking in the immaculate walls of Lord Iie’s house. Yet when winter arrives and disease and poverty start to take their toll, those transparent walls are suddenly letting in cold, the yellows turning as white as the snow outside and the blues and greens darkening into a deathly veil over the once-warm household. What makes the little family special is also what ends up betraying them.
The film has one big problem, though. It’s in 3D. Perhaps a few of you reading this will roll your eyes, thinking this just another (re)statement of my dislike of the technology, but it’s more than that. The added darkness dulls the effect of the understated cinematography. Take the glasses off and the film is gorgeous. Put them back on, suddenly everything is that little bit more dreary. It emphasizes how pointless the whole endeavour is: when the 3D is understated, it is at least relatively unintrusive (apart from those bloody glasses), but raises the question of what the point of it is when at its best when least noticed. When it does become obvious, it injects a veneer of artifice that is vulgar and distracting. It is the first time I have seen 3D applied to a film that aims for serious artistic merit rather than blockbuster spectacle, and the result is every bit as reductive as feared. The only thing in its favour are the ‘raised’ subtitles, which look better than having them printed onto a flat image. Considering how much the rest of the film suffers, though, sacrificing that effect for full-strength cinematography and no uncomfortable glasses or added expense would be my choice every time.
But for that misstep, Hara-Kiri: Death Of A Samurai is a beautifully made and evocative tale from the last man that Western audiences would expect to have telling it. Its storytelling and characterisation are a little too straightforward to hit the same heights as the 1962 classic, but if you can find a screening unblighted by 3D, it is worth strong consideration. Should 3D viewing be your only option, however, take it as a worrying sign of the technology starting to take its toll on proper art, rather than sticking with to likes of Transformers 3 where it belongs.