At one crucial moment during the climax of Takashi Miike's Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, the character Hanshiro Tsugamo (masterfully played by Ebizô Ichikowa), sits before the entire House of Li after requesting to commit ritual suicide in their courtyard, and offers the following commentary on the tragic fate of his surrogate son, Motome (Eita):
"The life of a samurai depends entirely on twists of fate, leading to glory or tragedy."
Of course anyone who happens to have seen the 1962 Masaki Kobayashi film that Miike's remake is based on (or just about any Miike movie, for that matter), can guess with a certain sense of confidence where the twists of fate lead the main characters in this undertaking. The real surprise -- and the reason why the drama in this particular samurai picture is so profoundly affecting -- is the deeply humanistic portrayal of characters generally seen as stoic and rigidly honor-bound.
The setting is 17th century Japan. With peace widespread and no wars to fight, many noble samurai have fallen into poverty and grown deeply despondent. In desperation, some have resorted to a form of emotional blackmail known as a suicide bluff. The process involves an impoverished samurai showing up at the house of a well-known lord, and requesting to commit hara-kiri on their grounds in hopes that the lord will take pity on them, offer up a place in the house or a few mon (the currency of the time), and disregard the request. As the practice becomes more widespread, the senior retainer at the House of Li, Kageyu (Koji Yakusho) decrees that any samurai who makes such a request be bound to their word. When Hanshiro shows up making just such an appeal, Kageyu relays the painful story of Motome -- the last samurai to do so. Forced to commit hara-kiri with a dull bamboo sword, Motome suffered a slow and agonizing death. When the story is finished and the time comes for Hanshiro to end his own life, he shares a tragic tale of his own, in the process revealing his true intentions for requesting to commit ritual suicide in the House of Li.
With his 2010 remake 13 Assassins, eclectic director Miike revealed himself to be something genuinely unique in the realm of cinema -- a renegade filmmaker with a firm grasp on classical sensibilities. There's no denying that 13 Assassins had its fair share of bloodshed, but it also managed to catch many longtime Miike critics off guard by showing that a director commonly associated with extreme violence could successfully tell a traditional story with a certain amount of style and restraint. He continues to develop those traits -- and quite effectively -- in Hara-Kiri, a deeply affecting meditation on humanity in which more tears are shed than blood. Miike fans hoping for something resembling the rousing final 50 minutes of 13 Assassins may walk away somewhat disappointed by the marked lack of swordplay in Hara-Kiri, but anyone seeking proof that the director is genuinely as versatile as his eclectic filmography suggests will have a newfound respect for him as a dramatist capable of true cinematic poetry.
Reteaming with 13 Assassins cinematographer Nobuyasu Kita, Miike gives Hara-Kiri an elegant look that makes the tragedy of the story all the more impactful. Subtle camera movements, mesmerizing compositions, and confident, uninterrupted shots allow us to lose ourselves in a story that shows how even in times of peace, suffering doesn't cease, while Kikumi Yamagishi's carefully structured screenplay highlights with exemplary artistry the moments of joy and sorrow woven throughout the film. None of this would amount to much without an actor capable of carrying the movie, and as a character who has endured unimaginable suffering, Ichikowa is a revelation. His skills are nearly matched by that of his strikingly gaunt co-star Eita. Meanwhile, possessed of a classical sensibility befitting of a contemporary work set centuries on the past, the score by composer Ryûichi Sakamoto (The Last Emperor, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence) is both exquisite and timeless, making Miike's latest foray into more traditional storytelling one of his absolute strongest achievements in a long and varied career.
Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai on AllMovie
Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011)