Monday, December 10, 2012

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

Last summer (I know it's a long time ago), I saw Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai at the 4 Star

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai starring Eita; directed by Takashi Miike; Japanese with subtitles; (2011) - Official Facebook

Hara-Kiri is a remake of a Harakiri (1962), which I saw at the Balboa many Decembers ago when it was a rep house and they held a Samurai film series.  The 1962 film starred Tatsuya Nakadai and was directed by Masaki Kobayashi (The Human Condition trilogy).

Directed by the prolific Takashi Miike, Hara-Kiri is faithful to Harakiri as I recall.  The plot involves a ronin (or masterless samurai) in the 17th century.  The crucial element of the plot which may be lost on Western audiences is the samurai code of honor or bushido.  These ronin had lost their way of life and many fell into poverty.  According to the film, one "scam" involved a ronin going to the house of a Lord or head of a clan and asking to commit ritual suicide on the premises since they have fallen on such hard times and lost their honor.  Typically, the ronin would be given a small amount of money to go away.  No one wanted to be bothered with the grisly details of death and cleanup.  The ronin would happily accept the money since it was his original intention.  The downside is that word would spread and the house would receive a steady stream of ronin trying to get a handout.

This is what happens in Hara-Kiri except the majordomo (the master is away) takes the ronin up on his offer much to his surprise.  Determined to go through with the bluff in order to maintain his remaining honor, the samurai commits suicide with a bamboo sword (he has sold his real sword).  The majordomo and the other samurai cruelly watch as the suicide which should be quick, is agonizingly extended by the dull edge of bamboo.  We later learn the baclstory of that ronin which includes a newborn and ill wife which puts his actions in a different light.  The second half of the film involves the ronin's father-in-law (also a ronin) avenging his death by approaching the house with the same suicide request and expecting the same response.

The film is quite damning of the hyprocrisy of the samurai and their code of honor.  This is the same message as the original film.  Actually, I was hard pressed to see the difference between the two films.  In Miike's version, the father-in-law does battle with a bamboo sword which I don't recall from the older version.  Miike's version also spend more time on the backstory and showing the grinding poverty in which the ronin lived and the sumptuous luxury of the samurai and their master.  This results in Hara-Kiri feeling more melodramatic than the orginal which didn't cast the samurai as quite so sadistic. 

Mildly appreciative of Miike's work, Hara-Kiri is my favorite work of his so far.  His last several films have shifted to more traditional storytelling techniques and narrative structures.  Unlike 13 Assassins, he dispenses with special effects and large battle sceens.  This makes Hara-Kiri a more personal tale which the audience can more easily relate to with universal themes about honor, wealth disparity, love and revenge. 

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