True to current cinematic trends, Takashi Miike’s Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai has been released in 3D. There’s no real reason this process had to be applied to this particular film, given the fact that it isn’t a fantasy, an animated family film, an action extravaganza (contrary to what the title suggests), or part of any genre in which 3D would be accepted – or, at the very least, tolerated. The film is, by and large, a character study and a tragedy, and as such, the visuals rarely lend themselves to gimmicky shots of objects flying at the screen or even creating an immersive experience. Making matters worse is the issue of brightness. Much of the film is spent within a cramped, dingy home in which sunlight almost never creeps in; this means that we in the audience must endure a dim, muddy picture of characters already immersed in shadow.
My complaints about 3D notwithstanding, I admittedly did appreciate this film more than Miike’s previous import, the overrated 13 Assassins, which isn’t directly related to this film but certainly acts as a sort of parallel story. I think what bothered me the most about 13 Assassins was that it was attempting to glamorize a life that, on the basis of what’s depicted in the film, was anything but glamorous; here were a group of men living by a barbaric code of conduct, one that viewed ceaseless servitude and glorified suicide missions as honorable. Now we have a film that not only calls into question this lifestyle but also holds back on the gore and violence. There are two exceptions to the latter. One is a grotesque and needlessly protracted sequence in which a ronin attempts to commit seppuku with a wooden sword. The other is a final battle scene, less bloody but again needlessly protracted.
Taking place in 1600s Japan, the film opens when a middle aged ronin named Hanshiro Tsugumo (Ebizo Ichikawa) enters the gates of samurai clan. Begging the audience with the lead retainer, Kageyu (Koji Yakusho), he claims that he is a samurai without a master to serve, and therefore wants die nobly by committing seppuku in his courtyard in full view of the other samurais. Kageyu isn’t immediately willing to grant his request, seeing as it’s now common for men to enter clan compounds, lie about their status as failed warriors, and claim they want to commit suicide when what they really want is charity. He tells Hanshiro the story of a young man who did exactly that not too long ago; his request was granted, but he only ended up asking for an extra day and, ultimately, for money. An example was made of him, of course, and as painfully as possible, he went through with the hara-kiri.
In due time, Hanshiro is kneeling on a mat in the clan’s courtyard, surrounded by well-clad, well-armed samurais. But before the suicide ritual can be completed, Hanshiro reveals that what he really wants is vengeance for the young man’s death. And with that, he tells his own story, which plays as an extended flashback sequence. We learn that the young man was named Motome (Eita), and that Hanshiro took him in as a boy and raised him as his own after his father grew ill and died. We watch as Motome and Hanshiro’s daughter, Miho (Hikari Mitsushima), grow up together, fall in love, and ultimately have a baby boy. We watch the entire family enduring more downs than ups, as they are poverty stricken. Motome, who took to reading and writing at an early age, is forced to pawn off his beloved books just for two eggs – one of which inevitably falls and cracks.
The film veers into melodramatic territory the instant Miho lets out a small cough, and it only gets worse when her baby boy develops a fever. There are specific visuals related to both characters that could have easily been exploited for their ability to horrify an audience, but mercifully, Miike restrains himself; he shows that which is absolutely necessary to get the point across, and no more. Unlike 13 Assassins, which had its serious moments but was much more action driven, this movie is deliberately centered on its characters and the quieter moments they share. Although their desperate situation would fit right in with any present-day soap opera, we at least are given the opportunity to know who they are. We’re also made to feel what they feel, unpleasant though it may be.
The film, like 13 Assassins, is a remake of a 1960s Japanese samurai epic, and as the tenor of my review makes abundantly clear, I haven’t seen the original version. No matter; I suspect present-day audiences are much more likely to compare this film to 13 Assassins than to its cinematic source. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’m strongly advising you to steer clear of a 3D presentation of Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai. Short of a digital presentation or the celluloid being run through an IMAX 3D projector, you will see only dark images that barely register as having any depth – save for a few brief scenes featuring falling snow, which is far more noticeable than all the people and swords put together. It’s disappointing that Miike felt the need to do as many directors do nowadays and sacrifice imagery for technology.
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