The original Harakiri (1962) is an uncompromisingly uncomfortable film, a scathing criticism of the fetishization of bushido in general and the practice of seppuku in particular. Anti-establishment director Masaki Kobayashi transforms the “honorable” ritual of suicide-by-disembowelment into just another weapon in the arsenal of a cruel system of oppression. Framing the material in this way, it seems only natural that Takashi Miike, an unapologetic hellion known for his cinematic excesses–look no further than his blood-soaked, masterful remake of 13 Assassins for evidence–would tackle what is, on the surface, a patient, meditative, understated (but no less taut and suspenseful) period drama: like much of his work, it makes the audience squirm.
The greatest shock Miike offers in Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011) is remaining loyal to the source material, almost to the point of reverence. Like Kobayashi before him, Miike creates a more palpable sense of tension and horror by suggesting violence, rather than explicitly showing it. Once again, the infamous inciting incident–a forced suicide at the end of a blunt bamboo sword–is doubly gut-wrenching because any actual penetration is carefully obscured by staging, camera placement, and editing; Miike simply lingers on the subject’s agony a bit longer.
The other element Miike adds to the material is, surprisingly, a whole lot of warmth and heart. Kobayashi’s film is an immaculately-crafted entry in the jidai-geki genre, easily one of the top five works of samurai fiction of all time, but he executes the story with cold, calculated precision, emphasizing social issues where somebody like Kurosawa might have shed light on the human condition. Miike continually discovers succinct, powerful images that elegantly convey the severity of the characters’ poverty and the strength of the love that unites them through their struggles. In one memorable scene, Motome, the victim of the aforementioned coerced seppuku, is so desperate to utilize every available morsel of food that slurps the yolk of a shattered egg straight off of the dusty ground. Later, in the home of his future killers, he pockets a tiny sponge cake, intending to share what little he can with his ailing wife and child; sadly, it is his corpse that delivers the modest meal. These quiet, compassionate moments make the film’s final tragedy even more bitter. As in the ‘62 version, opposing the abuse of power is ultimately futile; protagonist Hanshiro’s sacrifice is in vain, his crusade to avenge Motome’s murder stricken from the historical record. In the end, the corrupt Ii clan’s demolished suit of armor–a fitting symbol for the emptiness of the “samurai code”–is reassembled, polished off, and propped back up on its pedestal.
Conclusion: Miike’s Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai is not necessarily superior to the classic that inspired it, but it is still a worthy contribution to a proud tradition of samurai cinema on its own merits.
[Originally written August 16, 2013.]