Hara-Kiri – The Death of a Samurai DVD ReviewA movie review article by: Zack Davisson
When I heard that Miike Takeshi was doing a remake of Kobayashi Masaki’s 1962 Harakiri (Japanese title: Seppuku), I had some trepidation to say the least. I love Miike. I love his over-the-top sensibilities, his ultra-violence Grand Guignols, not to mention his complete mind fucks. But Kobayashi’s Harakiri is the opposite of everything Miike.
A slow, careful essay on the pointlessness of honor, Kobayashi’s Harakiri is up there with Seven Samurai as one of the best samurai films ever made, one of the best Japanese films ever made—maybe one of the best films ever made, period. Kobayashi shows the hollowness of the word “honor,” and how elite classes and bureaucrats use “honor” and “duty” to manipulate and control, while showing none of those traits themselves. The film is a metaphor for Japan during WWII, or America during the Iraq war, or any time soldiers have died pointless, anonymous deaths for a cause their leaders assured them was “honorable.” On top of that, the film is about 85% some guy kneeling and talking, and maybe 15% action at best.
And Miike Takeshi was going to remake that? In 3-D?
I was shocked to see what a phenomenal film Miike created. He took Kobayashi’s film and updated it in cinematography and visual splendor, while staying respectful to the original, true to its themes, and restrained in both tone and execution.
If you have never seen Kobayashi’s film (And if you haven’t, what is wrong with you? I can only assume that you hate great movies.), the story begins with the ronin Hanshiro Tsugumo appearing on the steps of the manor house of a rich and powerful lord. Like many of his class, Hanshiro has fallen into dismal poverty following the dissolution of his clan. He requests the use of the courtyard to commit honorable, ritual suicide and end his suffering like a warrior. From there, a complex story unfolds as the lord tells the story of another young samurai who recently made the same request, to which Hanshiro has his own story ready in reply. It is soon made aware that this is not a chance meeting, and that Hanshiro did not choose this particular lord’s house blindly to make his final statement about life.
Miike’s version, titled Hara-Kiri- The Death of a Samurai (Japanese title: Ichimei or A Life), plays out an almost identical story. If fact, the only noticeable difference was that he pumped up the violence in the suicide scenes in somewhat typical Miike fashion. The effects are never too gory to distract, but he makes you feel the pain and appreciate the willpower necessary to slowly drive a bamboo stake into your own body. He added a few action scenes—some of the things that appear off-camera in Kobayashi’s film are shown in-your-face in Miike’s. And while Kobayashi’s film is in black-and-white, contributing to its stark, bleak nature, Miike made full use of color and pageantry. This pushes the distance even further between the well-fed, wealthy lord and the desolate ronin Hanshiro.
The cast are all top-notch pros of the Japanese film industry. Kabuki actor Ichizawa Ebizo carries the film in the lead role of Hanshiro. Ichizawa does a fantastic job, with the only mark against him being his age. Really, he is too young. It isn’t fair to compare him to Nakadai Tatsuya who originated the role—seeing as how Nakadai is one of Japan’s greatest actors—but Ichizawa lacks some of the dead-eyed weariness necessary that comes with having lived and suffered too long. Even with that strike against him, however, Ichizawa masters the subtle complexities required of Hanshiro.
Yakusho Koji (Babel) plays the Lord Kageyu, and is perfectly suited for the role. Yakusho is a familiar face in Japanese film, a Miike regular, and a consummate professional. More of a surprise was Takenaka Naoto (Shall We Dance?), the ubiquitous clown that seems to appear in nine-tenths of Japanese films, bugging his eyes and cracking wise. Takenaka was all but indistinguishable in his costume playing Kageyu’s advisor. He played the role straight with none of his usual antics.
The only real disappointment to Hara Kiri-Death of a Samurai was the “in 3-D!!!” tagline. This is just a gimmick, no more no less, and does not at all serve the story. This is not an action flick. This is not a large-scale picture. Remaking Harakiri in 3-D is like remaking 12 Angry Men in 3-D. It serves no purpose whatsoever. In his favor, Miike kept the 3-D subtle and unobtrusive, using it to add depth-of-field and little else. The film works 100% as well in regular 2-D, and possibly even better because you aren’t encumbered by the glasses.
But I can see why he did it. The gimmick draws viewers, who would normally pass on the film. It worked to get my wife to go see it, who can’t stand samurai films. But she was lured in by the 3-D, then won by the story.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the '90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.