Takashi Miike has been accused of many things, but the pervading opinion that his name inspires is that he is one of the most creatively insane directors currently working in any cinematic market, and that “unrestrained” approach to filmmaking usually also means that his films are anything but typical (even in comparison with their fellows). So the opportunity to see another Samurai story, swiftly on the tails of the excellent 13 Assassins, and one remade from an absolute classic in the form of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 classic was one mixed with excitement and trepidation.
The film focuses on the story of Hanshiro (Ebizo Ichikawa), an out of work samurai who visits the House of Ii in order to request to be allowed to commit Seppuku in their courtyard (the higher the prestige of a House, the more honor the shamed warrior can regain). Convinced he is bluffing in order to take advantage of the House’s good will, Kageyu (Lord Ii’s second in command) relates the harrowing story of a fellow shamed Samurai – Motome (Eita) – who had attempted a suicide bluff to gain financially, and who was made to go through with his Seppuku as an example against bluffing. Undeterred, Hanshiro affirms his intention, and requests that the House’s top samurai assist him, though they are coincidentally absent, and it quickly becomes clear that Hanshiro has more of a connection to the young Samurai than he originally confessed…
It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine a pre-Kill Bill Tarantino eying up the subject matter here (or perhaps even remaking it as a Western), given the opportunity to pay homage to a great cinematic genre with the added advantage of some strong characters in the screenplay. But that can only exist now in the Alternate Reality where Will Smith was Neo, and John Travolta steered clear of Battlefield Earth.
This is a far more restrained Miike than usual – his normal athletic energy is reduced thanks to a gentler storyline that values engaging issues like the appropriateness of the Samurai’s code of honor in the context of human tragedies, and a simple but effective love story at its center. When the film changes pace for the middle 90 minutes, there were definitely those among the assembled critics who could be heard shifting uneasily in their seats. But the pacing, and the contemplative tone are intentional: it is no coincidence that Hara-Kiri was made so close to 13 Assassins, as the films are two different sides of the same coin. One shamelessly revels in the testosterone-heavy, staged set-pieces of samurai battle, while the other explores the other side of the warriors, what happens when they are not at war, and their warrior code is relegated to a secondary concern in times of personal adversity.
This is only the third 3D movie to play at Cannes to my knowledge, and the first in Competition, and on reflection it was a good choice to showcase the medium. Rather than using gimmicky moments where it is obvious the director has manipulated scenes in order to take advantage of the capacity to have things jump out of the screen, Miike’s team have instead gone with an approach that adds depth and seems to extend the image back into the screen. It is a far more subtle technique and some of the depth is minimal, but for once I find myself applauding the use of 3D as a creative tool, rather than as an obvious gimmick.
The cast is a veritable whose who of Japanese talent, with established faces like Koji Yakusho (Memoirs of a Geisha) and kabuki veteran Ebizo Ichikawa being joined by relative newcomers like Eita and Hikari Mitsushima (both of whom are excellent young prospects). The family scenes between Hanshiro, his daughter Miho (Mitsushima) and Motome are all acted particularly well, as we entirely believe their personal tragedies, even if the script and the lingering, determinedly slow scenes does almost threaten to rob them of some of their emotional impact. It is Ichikawa who stands at the top of the pile in terms of acting talent here though, thanks to a performance that moves from loving, diligent and dutiful father, to broken man bound by his anger and thirst for vengeance.
But really, this is not so much a vengeance film as one of encouraged contemplation. Rather than the huge one-man-army set-piece that you might expect from the way the story unfolds, we get something entirely different, as Hanshiro challenges the House of Ii to feel and admit accountability for their crime (or so he sees it), and then offers a symbolic, rather than explicit vengeance. That fight scene, in which Hanshiro refuses to kill anyone, is incredibly well choreographed: it may not feature the explosive caricatured violence of 13 Assassins or Sukiyaki Western Django, but to achieve something that is intended to look unpolished in such a precise manner is arguably even more impressive. While I applaud the restraint here, I can’t help but point out one particularly disturbing, and entirely unnecessary scene, in which we are shown a dead infant on screen: I realize the impact is necessary in order to prick the tragedy, but it feels no more than obligatory and it is murky territory indeed.
Sadly, the pacing is well off during the middle sequence, and while we are encouraged to engage with the characters on a human level, so that Motome and Miho’s tragedies land heavier punches as they are revealed, Miike takes it to too much of an extreme here, and it becomes a little difficult to hold your attention at the screen. The director could quite easily have cut out about thirty minutes and the film would not have suffered on any narrative level, which gives some indication of its problems.
In a gentler film like this the score is often one of the most important components, as a director can use music to punctuate scenes and convey burning underlying messages and themes, but Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score is as problematic as his Oscar-winning one for The Last Emperor was brilliant. There is a certain modernness to the music, which helps to explicate the universal appropriateness of the film’s underlying message (especially in a time of economic downturn), but somewhere along the lines the score disappears entirely, and its absence is far too noticeable and off-putting.
At the end of the day, the 1962 version is the superior one, but there are some admirable things attempted here, even if they are seemingly included to intentionally halt the progression and pace of the narrative. And, unlike most of my peers, I loved the final battle scene.
The Upside: It looks great, and the 3D adds depth in a thankfully none-gimmicky manner. The story is also compelling, and it is nice to see Miike taking a more reflective tone than usual.
The Downside: The film is criminally over-long and the middle section is plodding to the point of stagnancy. It would have also been nice for a little more subtlety in places.