January 22, 2013

DVD OF THE WEEK: Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

by Vadim Rizov

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

Internationally known for his disdain for quality control, propensity for making three to five features every year in all conceivable genres and bizarre, YouTube ready non-sequitur sequences, Japanese auteur Takashi Miike made his first Cannes competition appearance with Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, in turn the fest's first premiere of a 3D film. Flattened to two dimensions for DVD and Blu-ray, Hara-Kiri looks just fine; depending on who you believe (I haven't seen it in 3D), it may even benefit from regaining the light normally lost with 3D. A stately samurai drama closely following the plot of Masaki Kobayashi's essential 1962 original, Hara-Kiri totally suppresses Miike's usual ADD doodles and digressions at the narrative margins. This straight face suits him well.

In December 1632, Hanshiro (Ebizo Ichikawa) arrives at the House of Ii, whose courtyard is available to impoverished samurai who wish to commit hara-kiri (formalized suicide via self-disemboweling) rather than suffer in undignified poverty. Of late, the country's been swamped with supplicants who have no intention of killing themselves. Instead, they arrive at a clan's stronghold proclaiming their urge to die honorably but leave when they're offered work or a small sum of money. When Motome (Eita) arrives, Ii strongman Hikokuro (Munetaka Aoki) says he must be made an example of to warn off further fake applicants. Surrounded by swords-drawn samurai and forced to go through with a death he had no idea of completing, civilian Motome repeatedly punctures his stomach with a bamboo sword. "Twist it!" Hikokuro yells, demanding that the standardized movements of self-annihilation be completed before Motome's head can be chopped off, increasing up the already-gory original scene's length.

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

Hanshiro has told this story when he arrives two months later to warn him off, but avers he's not bluffing. "I am going to commit a most worthy suicide," he solemnly intones. "Fine," the exasperated clan squire snaps. An 11th-generation kabuki actor, Ichikawa's every movement conveys heightened awareness of physical motion's social and etiquette implications in a highly structured society. An hour-long flashback fleshes out the exact relationship between adoptive father Hanshiro and dead best friend's son Motome.

This middle sequence is devoted to sentimental pleasures, offered with seeming sincerity. Hanshiro and his soon-to-die friend look at their respective children. "I think we two widowers have done a pretty good job of raising our kids alone," one says in a sentence that almost certainly never came out of the mouth of a 1632 samurai. The two fathers gaze directly at their children, and hence directly at the audience; later, the shot's reversed, with the kids staring at Hanshiro making umbrellas. The third-wall disrupting gaze is narratively justifiable but is serviceably disorienting as well, charging the many scenes of warm father-children interaction with the mute stares of innocents unaware of the fatal misery in store.

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

The middle hour—about Hanshiro and Motome—offers a visceral sidetrack in which a father can't help his daughter or adopted son economically as much as he'd like, with a recurring emphasis on starvation. In a devastating example of spoilage, Motome buys three eggs after selling some of his last books, but passing kids waving sticks knock two into oblivion. He bends down and sucks the fluid off the sidewalk stones. Motome's white cat has matted patches of fur and looks visibly underfed, while the monastery's Blofeld-friendly feline is silkily sated. A grotesque image of Miike's own underlines the food gap between classes when one of the samurai sucks a roasted sea snail straight out of the shell.

Hara-Kiri's emphasis on hunger has national resonance for Japanese audiences. In 2012, it was reported over 700 deaths spread out over the past decade were attributed to a lack of food. One particularly headline-making 2007 case was that of a 52-year-old twice rejected for welfare benefits. Found two months after his death, his diary recorded cravings for cheap rice balls that couldn't be fulfilled. One former case worker recalled being told by his supervisor about welfare applicants, "Don't you think someone like that is better off dead?" American viewers will find their own resonance in the emphasis on unaffordable medical care. All Motome seeks is money for a doctor demanding payment up front to treat his sick wife and child. Japan has had universal health care since 1961, leading to the longest life expectancy from birth of any country. American health care, as is widely known, is a far more venal and inefficient beast.

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

After 13 Assassins, this is Miike's second remake of a Shochiku studios samurai classic. When promoting the first film, he claimed a primary interest in recapturing "the sheer energy the Japanese film industry possessed in its heyday," a perverse way to sum up a movie which spends two-thirds of its running time staging clan meetings. Hara-Kiri's even more etiquette-conscious, forming a kind of double-feature in which the melodramatic second film, free of mannered movements, interrupts the first.

Writer Jeremy Heilman's cleverly posited that this remake's plotline fidelity to the original is, in many respects, purposeful: "the notion that the nation's deeply rooted formality and obsessive rituals are empty is intensified by the very fact that this is a remake [...] Miike suggests that the forty years since this tale was last filmed have not shaken the nation's core values." Hara-Kiri still derives pleasure from going through the standardized motions of its genre but changes the emphasis from adherence to obsolescent notions of saving face to an angry tract on social inequality. Last year, describing his plans for further 3D, Miike hoped he could secure financing "to have things that shouldn't come out of our bodies be hurled at the audience." In the meantime, this particular Miike one-off solemnly builds to a satisfyingly bloody climax, busting through the mannerisms to turn, recognizably, into a Takashi Miike film.

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Posted by ahillis at January 22, 2013 1:42 PM