We all have certain films that really resonate with us, that we remember distinctively and decisively for any number of reasons. For me, Masaki Kobayashi's 1962 classic "Harakiri" is one of those experiences. I didn't know anything about the movie before I sat down to watch it, and it absolutely blew me away. A quiet morality play that really challenges the notion of what honor means, "Harakiri" has a power, honesty, and emotional impact that is earned through a surprisingly understated narrative device. Instead of explosive dramatics, the screenplay takes its time in unraveling. And this focus on character development makes the ultimate confrontation both heartrending and harrowing! When I heard that prolific Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike was on board for a remake, I had feelings of both optimism and apprehension. I think the original holds up quite well and there is little to improve. But I've followed Miike for years and loved much of his work. Though, to be fair, I don't know that I've ever considered him understated in his projects! However, my worries were unfounded. Miike approaches "Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai" with a real sense of respect, restraint and maturity.
In many ways, maybe our era of financial turmoil is the perfect time to resurrect this story. "Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai" tells of a time when many legendary swordsmen found themselves struggling to get by. These ronin, having no house or master, were left with little but their honor and their swords to survive in economically challenging times. As "Hara-Kiri" opens, a samurai named Hanshiro (Ebizo Ichikawa) approaches the house of the ruling lord to request the opportunity to commit ritual suicide (considered an honorable death) in the courtyard. This has become somewhat of a trend, though. Desperate samurai are reported to be proffering these noble requests in order to save face but actually secure a position or at least a few coins from the wealthy estates. In an attempt to discourage Hanshiro, he is told an unpleasant tale of the last samurai who made such an offer in this house. But Hanshiro is undaunted and seems to have an agenda of his own. As the personal tale unfolds, "Hara-Kiri" becomes a slow burn morality play about suffering, sacrifice, and real honor.
Miike really takes his time in "Hara-Kiri," and this may be off-putting to those anticipating a traditional Japanese epic with plenty of sword play. The opening sequences in the movie provide at least one unforgettable scene that Miike draws out beyond all reason for the exquisite anguish of it all. Truly remarkable. And the end is fully satisfying as well. But most of "Hara-Kiri" is an extremely intimate story. A tale of family, young love, and sacrifice that is bleak and unforgiving. Ichikawa is absolutely fantastic as Hanshiro, and Eita is terrific as the young samurai who initiates the tale. I'm pleased that Miike has brought this classic tale back into the spotlight. The original (available in the Criterion Collection) is still one of my all time favorites, but this update is certainly worth the time for adult audiences. Remember, though, this is not a frenetic Miike actioner. It unfolds like a good book. Patience is both required and rewarded with this story, it is not for those expecting non-stop carnage and mayhem. KGHarris, 1/13.