The samurai movie has a great and glorious tradition, but Japanese directors have long been of two minds about the samurai themselves. For every “Chushingura” remake that celebrates the samurai ethos of loyalty and self-sacrifice, there is a genre masterpiece that questions it.
One is “Seppuku (Harakiri),” Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 drama of revenge that exposes the injustice and inhumanity of which the samurai were capable. And yet the samurai hero, played with hollowed-voice gravitas by Tatsuya Nakadai, is noble in his pursuit of righteous vengeance — that eternal samurai movie theme.
Almost half a century after “Harakiri” won the Cannes festival’s Jury Special Prize, Takashi Miike’s 3-D remake, “Ichimei (Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai),” appeared in the Cannes competition, where it received respectful notices but no awards.
I’m not sure whether Miike was aiming to repeat Kobayashi’s festival success, but the fans who know and love his earlier bizarro shockers, with their punkish bad attitude and black sense of humor, will probably not have same affection for the subdued, grown-up “Hara-kiri,” which favors a classically Japanese sense of the tragic.
As a fan of both Kobayashi’s “Harakiri” and Miike’s work, the wild stuff included, I’m glad he made the film the way he did, with respect for its serious central story but also with his own flair for violence, from the flamboyantly swashbuckling to the disturbingly self-inflicted. A “real” (i.e., outrageous) Miike film, with 3-D swords jabbing at audience eyes, would have been a travesty.
The story is set in the early 17th century, after the Tokugawa clan consolidated national power and a long era of peace began. Thousands of samurai, their martial skills no longer in demand, found themselves stripped of clan affiliation and stipends. One of these ronin (masterless samurai), the fierce-eyed Hanshiro (Ebizo Ichikawa), comes to the Edo (old Tokyo) compound of the powerful Ii clan with a request: He wants to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) on its grounds.
The clan leader, Kageyu (Koji Yakusho), tells Hanshiro of an earlier visitor, the young ronin Motome (Eita), who asked for the same favor. Unfortunately, he only had a frail bamboo sword to kill himself with, but the clan forced him to use it, resulting in a prolonged, gory and undignified death. They committed this cruelty as an example to other impoverished ronin who were making seppuku requests to extort money from the clans, who would usually pay them to go away rather than deal with the bother and, one imagines, the aftermath.
Hanshiro, however, persists — and the clan reluctantly grants him his wish. Before he cuts his stomach in the courtyard, however, he tells all assembled a story of bitter poverty and unjust loss that reveals him to have a personal reason for his presence. Jaws tighten and hands reach for sword hilts.
Much of the film is devoted to this story, told in an extended flashback, while action scenes are given relatively little screen time. But Miike slowly, surely gathers his narrative strands together, like a vengeful god building storm clouds to terrifying heights. Only then does he hurl his lightning bolts of swords-out violence.
Miike is ably supported by Kabuki star Ichikawa, whose Hanshiro echoes Nakadai’s career-peak performance, but with his own inner fires and impeccable technique. As Motome, Eita hits the true notes of extreme emotion and pain. Watching him trying to stab himself to death with a sliver of bamboo, I realized again how hard it is to fake physical agony — and how hard it can be to watch when an actor gets it right.
Finally, Hikari Mitsushima is almost too perfectly cast as Miho, Motome’s devoted but consumptive wife. She inhabits the role so completely, cavernous eyes and thin frame included, that I found myself worrying about her real-life health. Whatever she did to prepare for this role, I thought, couldn’t have been good for her.
The 3-D was less of an intrusion than I had feared, but it also makes the compositions look oddly artificial and under-lighted, like old-time stereopticon slides. Or maybe it was just my aging eyes in less-than-perfect screening-room conditions.
Miike’s “Harakiri,” however, rises above technical hurdles and comparisons with the past to achieve a solemn grandeur and pathos of its own. I just hope that next time out, the crazy Miike of old returns — jabs to the eye and all.