I’m gonna just come out and say it. I’ve never Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 samurai classic, Harakiri. That being said, I can’t really compare these two movies. Today, I’m going to be talking about Takashi Miike’s 2011 retelling, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai. I knew that Miike was capable of successfully crafting a samurai movie after his expertly made remake of 13 Assassins. The difference between these films is how he goes about telling the story. 13 Assassins is a quick paced action film that delivers on the goods when it comes to swordplay. Hara-Kiri, on the other hand, is most certainly not an action film. This is a slow paced family drama that tells of how the caste system in this time period spelled doom for the unworthy.
On a day like any other the House of Li gets a visitor by the name of Tsugumo Hanshiro (Ichikawa Ebizō Xl), a poverty stricken ronin who asks if he may use the house’s courtyard to perform a ritual suicide. Before a decision is made, Hanshiro is told a story about another ronin, Motome (Eita), who came to the house a few months earlier for the same reason. It turns out that he was bluffing in order for pity to be shown on him, and maybe some money given to him. He is brutally killed for this. Hanshiro then tells a story of his own; a story where he reveals his relation to Motome and the reason behind his bluff. Tensions rise as he tells his story of family, death, and his goal of revenge.
This is a strange movie for a director like Takashi Miike to take on considering his filmography, which is out of this world I might add, consisting of over 90 movies. Look at films like Audition, Guzo, and his controversial Masters of Horror film Imprint. These are brutally violent horror films, and while he does work in other genres, he’s known as being one of the leading horror icons in Japanese cinema. Therefore, to even think that he could tackle a dramatic samurai film such as this is surprising. He handles Hara-Kiri like he’s been making movies like this his whole life. This is a legitimately excellent samurai drama that may leave some in the cold who were expecting an action packed movie with memorable sequences of swordplay.
Ichikawa Ebizō Xl in his role as Hanshiro may actually be the best part of this movie. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this actor before, but he reminded me a lot of Toshiro Mifune, the go to actor of Japanese film legend Akira Kurosawa. He brings a feeling of gravity to all of his scenes, whether it’s joyful, angry, or downright somber. Another person who deserves a great deal of credit is Miike’s cinematographer Nobuyasu Kita, who again feels like he could’ve been doing this 50 or 60 years ago when samurai movies were at their height. He makes the scenery really pop in this movie, but also makes the climax of this movie look absolutely beautiful. It was all together a big team effort that really pays off big time in the end.
This is also an interesting samurai movie because it deals with a theme that feels fresh to me. In most of the films involving samurai and their code, their way of life makes them strong and excellent warriors capable of bringing the most powerful of armies to their knees. This is not the case in Hara-Kiri. This film explores the negative side of the samurai code and dares us to think of how honorable they could have actually been. Sure they fought bravely in battle and offered their services, but only to those who were able to pay. The very last line of dialogue sums up the entire movie in a very ironic way, and is an excellent coda to such a thematically powerful film.
Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai is an excellent addition to Takashi Miike’s stunning filmography. The fact that he has made so many quality movies is a pretty remarkable feat. This is not a movie that will leave you on the edge of your seat or one that will it give you a surge of adrenaline. This is a thinking man’s samurai film with themes that question what honor the samurais actually had. If you’re a fan of samurai films or even of Takashi Miike’s work, you have to check out this movie. It sums up his talent pretty damn well.