Review of Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

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An tale of revenge, honor and disgrace, centering on a poverty-stricken samurai who discovers the fate of his ronin son-in-law, setting in motion a tense showdown of vengeance against the house of a feudal lord.
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Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai is a new 3D samurai movie by Japanese director Takashi Miike. The phrase “3D samurai movie” conjures in image of a costumed thrill-a-minute action spectacle, but it turns out that this image is entirely inaccurate. Hara-Kiri is more Kurosawa than Kill Bill. Miike is a prolific director, having worked on everything from family friendly romps to depraved horror blood orgies. With Hara-Kiri, he adds to the High Concept Period Drama With Squirm Inducing Death Scenes section of his resume.
In the film, it is a time of relative peace in feudal Japan, which has had the unfortunate side effect of casting many Samurai into the wind, penniless and without hope. The film opens when one such ronin by the name of Hanshiro (Ebizo Ichikawa) calls on a local lord (Koji Yakusho), requesting that he be allowed to use the house's courtyard for a ritual suicide, so that he may, in a noble death, regain the honor he's lost in life.

The lord suspects foul play. It seems that ronin have been scamming noble houses across the land with “suicide bluffs.” They claim to be looking for an honorable place to commit seppuku, but are actually trying to use their tale of woe to shame the local lord into either taking them on for some work or giving them a few gold pieces and sending them on their way. The lord tells Hanshiro the story of Motome (Eita), a younger ronin who tried this tactic, only to meet a grisly end when his bluff was called. Hanshiro is unfazed and asks to proceed. It turns out he is somewhat more than what he seems, and has his own grisly tale to tell.

The film's narrative unfolds slowly and deliberately, with most of the plot revealed during flashbacks from various viewpoints and dialogue between Hanshiro and the lord. This could have wound up a disjointed mess, but instead weaves together well. The viewer is lead from the present, to the past, to the distant past, to the recent past, and back into the present with grace. Everything fits together, and plot points are revealed in an order that is more effective than a strictly linear retelling would have been.

Ichikawa's Hanshiro is a smoldering presence that grows more and more powerful as the film goes on. Yakusho has his own power as well. Watching the two masters of Japanese cinema play off each other is worth the price of admission alone. Eita and Mitsushima's performances, while not quite at the level of their elder costars, also serve the story well.

Hara-Kiri is something of a pioneer in 3D filmmaking. It is perhaps the first purely dramatic modern 3D film. Thus far, 3D has been mostly dedicated exploding robots and fuzzy animals. Even more highbrow 3D films, such as Hugo, have always been effects pictures. However, there's little in the way of effects shots in Hara-Kiri. What few there are are the well behaved sort that don't draw attention to themselves.

3D can be effectively used to ratchet up a spectacle, so if you're making a spectacle, I say, go for it. If a robot is going to explode, it may as well do so in 3D. But Hara-Kiri is not a spectacle. There isn't a single exploding robot, and very little action overall. Despite what the trailer would have you believe, there is little swordplay. What swordplay there is proceeds more along the dictates of dramatic tradition than bombast.

So the question becomes, how does filming in 3D affect a movie that lives and breaths on drama? Does it hurt it? Does it help? It absolutely doesn't hurt. The 3D doesn't get in the way, and it doesn't distract. It stays nicely in the background. But does it help? Not especially. Some proponents of 3D profess that it “pulls you in” and enhances immersion, but I just don't see it. Am I really any more invested in the story or engrossed by the performances in Hara-Kiri because I'm slightly more aware that Ebizo Ichikawa's forehead is on a different physical plane than the wall behind him? Well, no, not really. When it comes to 3D's ability to enhance a dramatic presentation, I remain interested, but unconvinced. If it helped, it flew well under my radar while doing so. I can say though that it is in no way a detriment or a distraction.

One thing that is a little distracting in Hara-Kiri is some of the sound design. The plot revolves around seppuku, and the film isn't shy about playing the act out on screen. During these scenes, Miike's camera focuses on the face rather than the gore, as is appropriate for this kind of film, but the sound mix is a little overly explicit. I don't know what seppuku would actually sound like, and I'm quite sure I don't want to partake in whatever research would be required to find out, but somehow, I never would've thought that ritual suicide would be so... squishy. While it's true that movies often romanticize and anesthetize death to a fault, there's also such a thing as dramatic focus. This is a story about ancient tradition, tragic circumstances, honor, loss, sacrifice, etc. It's a little hard to stay in the emotional moment while being distracted by gurgling sounds coming from out-of-frame intestines. Maybe he could have toned it down a notch?

Squishy intestines and stereoscopic foreheads aside, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai is an effective and disquieting film. Seeing an entire family brought to ruin by circumstances beyond their control is wrenching. Watching Ebizo Ichikawa and Koji Yakusho locking horns from across the room while barely moving a muscle is enthralling. However, as the credits role, something seems incomplete. What this very Eastern film is missing are things perhaps only a Western audience will sorely miss. Too little seems to be resolved, or maybe things are resolved too neatly. Events come to a tranquil close for the lord and his house. You want someone to pay a penance for all that's happened. You want someone in power to see the error of their ways. You want lines that are barely hinted at to be fully drawn. You want to know that, yes, terrible things happen in this world, but when they do, we learn enough to prevent them in the future. No such comfort is given. Whether this is a weakness or a strength depends on what kind of film you were looking to see.