Regrettably, Takashi Miike is one of the many great auteurs whose work I'm almost completely unfamiliar with. Though Miike has directed almost 90 films in the past twenty years (!), I know him primarily through the reputation of 13 Assassins. It pained me to miss out on that film, so I was of course eager to see the next Miike film that came my way. He churns them out so quickly, after all, it's not like I'd have to wait very long. So here's Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, a period film courtesy of Miike-san. Based on what I had heard of 13 Assassins, I was expecting an action film of epic scale. And when I heard that this one was in 3D, I got hyped as hell. Sure, this makes it notable as the first 3D film to be screened at Cannes, but who cares? I was totally excited to see Takashi Miike present a 3D action movie with swords and blood flying everywhere!
That was a mistake. That was a really big fucking mistake.
As the title would imply, Hara-Kiri is about ritual suicide. The practice was common among samurai of old, when they had sunk so low that the only way to regain honor was in death. The movie explains that this was particularly common in times of peace, when warriors were in scarce need. Penniless and unable to find work, a great many ronin were eager to move on to the afterlife.
Though not all of them.
Some warriors went to their local lords, hoping that ritual sacrifice in a wealthier house would bring greater honor in death. Others had no intention of committing suicide at all, hoping that the lord might pity them and grant work or charity instead. This brought shame onto the warrior, for breaking his vow of carrying out hara-kiri. Additionally, it put the lord in a very tough spot: If he insists that the ritual be carried out, he looks like a stingy asshole with no heart. If he caves and grants alms, then he's a laughingstock among his peers and a piggy bank for every beggar out there. This is the situation in which Kageyu (Koji Yakusho) finds himself in.
Kageyu is the senior retainer for the wealthy House of Ii. One day in the mid-17th century, Kageyu is greeted by Motome (an actor credited only as Eita). A young ronin who can't find work, Motome comes to the House of Ii, asking to commit ritual sacrifice in their courtyard. I'm loathe to spoil what happens next. Suffice to say Motome does commit suicide, but things go very badly awry in the process.
A short time after the blood has been cleaned up, the House is visited by Tsugumo (Ebizo Ichikawa), an older samurai. He also asks commit ritual sacrifice in that same courtyard. As you might expect, these two events are not unconnected. Through flashback, we proceed to learn about Motome, Tsugumo, and what brought the two of them to commit hara-kiri at this particular place.
The reason is simple, really. They seek to commit ritual suicide for the same reason anyone else would attempt suicide: Desperation. Just like anyone who would check out early, these two men were at the absolute end of their rope, stranded at rock bottom with nowhere to go. These are honest men struggling to make ends meet, yet they continue to suffer until forced to take drastic measures.
In short, this is the stuff that great dramas and tragedies are made of. After all, it's inherently easy to root for good people when bad things happen to them.
Yes, the proceedings got very cliched at times. Yes, the movie got very depressing very quickly. All the same, these characters were presented in such a sympathetic manner that I couldn't wait to see what happened to them. Hell, we're basically told up front what's going to happen to them and I still wanted to see how it played out, the characters were that compelling.
Moreover, the story explains Tsugumo's motivation. It's an old established rule that if a character has a strong motivation, it's easier for an audience to emotionally invest in that character. By the end of this film, Tsugumo's motivation is so powerful and spelled out in such clear detail that anyone with a beating heart would be cheering him on.
In addition to such themes as desperation and hope, the film also lambasts the samurai code of honor. I know it's a bit late to lash out at something so obsolete, but that's only the literal meaning. Going a bit deeper, this story is about a war hero who fought for his country, only to be abandoned in time of peace when he needs help the most. That's a very timely subject, and I expect it will hit especially hard with American audiences. The movie also argues that honor without a sense of compassion or charity is no honor at all, and that's a timeless message.
On a separate note, it bears mentioning that the visuals are beautiful. Miike has such a gift for composition and color that every frame is a work of art. The only downside is that the 3D was very poorly used. Oftentimes, I had to take off the glasses to remind myself that the film was in 3D. And when I did, the movie didn't look that much different. There are a few moments when the 3D makes for a more immersive effect, but not enough that I can recommend springing for a 3D premium. There's not a doubt in my mind the movie would be just as beautiful in 2D.
"But what about the action scenes?" you might be wondering. "Don't they look amazing in 3D?" It's honestly hard to tell, considering that the action in this film is borderline non-existent. The movie has no fights of any kind until the climax, at which point it's too little and far too late. Yes, the hara-kiri scene at the end of the first act is very squicky (especially considering which sword was used), but I'm not counting that. In my opinion, one man stabbing himself to death doesn't count as a swordfight.
The lack of action brings me to this movie's most crippling weakness: Its pacing. Without exaggeration, this has to be the most poorly paced movie I've seen since Meek's Cutoff. This is a two-hour movie that feels four hours long. As beautiful as the shots are, too many of them drag on and on. Additionally, because the people of Edo-period Japan persistently stand on ceremony, they tend to talk very slowly with a lot of drawn-out conversations. Worst of all, the film shows a crippling inability to juggle its plotlines properly.
Honest to God, there was a point when Tsugumo finally came back onscreen after such a long absence I'd forgotten he was in the movie at all. Even worse, the film flashed back to the past for such an extended period of time that I quickly became frustrated, waiting to see what happened back in the present. Don't get me wrong, I loved these characters and I wanted to see how their story unfolded. But when we already know how the story is going to end, the film could at least do us the courtesy of getting on with it.
It's a damn shame the pacing is so godawful, because there's otherwise a lot to like in Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai. I came in expecting an action spectacular and ended up with a very moving tragedy. The characters are all wonderfully sympathetic, written and performed with exceptional skill. This makes the drama beautifully effective, regardless of the many cliches and our advance knowledge of how it ends. The visuals are also superb, even if the 3D is wholly unnecessary.
The only problem with this film is that it takes a supreme amount of patience to last five minutes through it, much less to finish it or to properly appreciate it. As such, I can only recommend this for the most hardcore of film buffs.