Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai.
Takashi Miike’s “Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai” is a retelling of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 black-and-white classic “Harakiri” reviewed by JPFmovies on March 28th, 2011. On the heels of a successful remake of “13 Assassins,” Takashi Miike looks more to storytelling than drawing blood with “Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai,” a theatrically faithful retelling of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 black-and-white classic “Harakiri.” Anyone expecting the action packed samurai sword fighting of 13 Assassins is looking in the wrong place. This drawn-out tragedy is a variation on the old-fashioned samurai-movie themes of honor, sacrifice and retribution and his second salute to the Japanese films of yesteryear.
In 17th-century Japan, a long period of peace has thrown most of the samurai population out on the streets making our protagonist, Hanshiro, the latest penniless ronin seeking an end to a disgraceful life through ritual suicide.
Hanshiro, an older, battle tested samurai, approaches the rich House of Li wanting to use the mansion’s courtyard to commit seppuku. The clan’s leader, Kageyu begins telling Hanshiro the story of the unfortunate young man named Motome, who recently made the same request. Motome, however, expected that he would be turned away with a few coins but the Li samurai called his “suicide bluff,” forcing him to cut his stomach open with a dull bamboo “sword.” They called his bluff to so that word would get around the poor ronin circuit not to go to the House of Li for a handout.
As the story of Motome is told to Hanshiro, the viewer is faced with a downright gruesome visual of Motome’s seppuku, much longer and more detailed than in the original film, Motome’s seppuku is almost torture to watch. Because technology has advanced in the 50 years since the original movie was made, you feel the ghastly impact of every squirt and squish as the bamboo blade tears at the flesh. This is a hard scene even for a seasoned film veteran, but it is also the film’s sole moment of violence until the end.
As the movie progresses, Hanshiro begins to tell his story, slowly revealing that he knows all about Motome, who in fact was his son-in-law. He then tells the crowds of samurai watching this event the tale of how Motome, the proud son of a local official and samurai, came to be struck so low as to try and get three ryo from the House for his sick wife and infant child who ultimately died. Hanshiro also tells the clan that he has come for revenge, and throws three top-knots on the ground—the ultimate insult to a samurai. What’s more, is that Hanshiro has acquired these top-knots without killing their owners, subjecting them to unbelievable shame. Unlike in the original film, the viewer does not see the sword battles between Hanshiro and his prey. Instead, the fights make a mockery of his opponent’s skills with them lasting just a few seconds. While it fits perfectly in the remake, it may not appeal to modern audiences expecting every action sequence they see to be better than the last.
After playing with his opponents for a while, Hanshiro eventually succumbs to his wounds but not before knocking down a full suit of armor sacred to the clan, scattering its pieces all over the room. In both films, this samurai suit of armor looms large, signifying the warrior’s life to which the clan’s retainers’ aspire. The samurai are speechless when the armor falls and the film closes with scenes of the three samurai that have lost their topknots committing seppuku.
Like in the original film, Hara-kiri questions the “honor” of the samurai completely. It shows them playing their parts with pomp and circumstance, despite the fact that none of these samurai have seen real combat. When it comes to fighting Hanshiro, an older (but battle tested), dirt poor, tired ronin who makes umbrellas for a living, he exposes them up for the frauds they are. In both films, the samurai suit of armor looms large, heralding the warrior’s life to which the clan aspires. If anything, destroying the armor is far more powerful in the original film: that the retainers and samurai have learned nothing from this encounter and simply cover their tracks to avoid embarrassment.
I loved the original film and I am always weary of remakes. Having said that, Miike really does an excellent job—even casting actors that are almost identical looking to the characters in the 1962 film, right down to Hanshiro’s facial hair. Moreover, Miike makes good use of advancements in technology. The set for the movie is immaculate and detailed to the point of seeing the pattern on the columns. Masaki Kobayashi would probably be quite flattered if he saw this film—as he should be. Having seen the original took much of the greatly cultivated suspense out of the film for me. The first time viewer, however, will have the privilege of being drawn into this Shakespearean tragedy. Commercially, Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai will not reach the box office receipts that Miike’s previous remake of 13 Assassins did. But this movie is for a much different crowd. To enjoy Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai you have to be patient and unfortunately 99% of the movie watchers trained by Hollywood have the attention span of a gnat—which is too bad because it is a better film than his remake of 13 Assassins.