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Review of Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

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"I was merely living my life.....waiting for spring"

A ronin appears on the estate of a powerful lord and asks for the honour of committing ritual suicide on the estate to regain some of his lost honour. The lord hears him out, and casually explains how conmen have used such demands in the past to coerce money from landowners and lords. He then explains how a ronin had tried this con previously, and how they had brutally enforced the young ronin's suicide.

Spoilers for both movies abound;

Takashi Miike's remake of the 1962 samurai classic Harikiri is an odd sort of duck. I absolutely adore the original film and as such I was kind of fascinated by how one of my favourite working directors would approach the material. Kobayashi's original is a seminal piece of work, emotionally devastating, layered with social commentary and bouyed by a central performance from Tatsuya Nakadai which is almost unmatchable. Miike's film hits all the story beats of the original, but in taking the story from a slightly different perspective creates a different tone. The films are, mechanically, far more similar than I first assumed they would be (my initial assumption upon hearing that Miike was remaking the film was that it would have a far more exploitative, punchy, sort of tone). The basic plot of Harakiri is about a man fighting against an overwhelming institution, an organisation far more powerful than any one person, with an outcome that is depressingly obvious. Kobayashi was a master of these sort of movies in the 1960s (indeed many of the great samurai movies of the 1950s and 1960 deal with the inherent corruption of the Samurai system and the doomed efforts of individuals to survive within those confines, in fact this tone was so rampant that it sort of became something of a default setting for more modern samurai fare), whilst Miike had dealt with very similar tonality in some of his gangster movies (at least the ones that didn't include dwarf executions, tempura torture, and bullheaded god visitations).

But whereas Kobayashi's film railed against the Samurai system in general, his movie deeply politicised and his emotional gut punches largely institutional rather than personal, Miike's film is about the destruction of a tight knit family. A lot of the political stuff is moved to the background, and the film becomes less about the abuse of institutions in general and more about one specific family that has been wronged. As such the movies operate on different emotional spectrums. Kobayashi's movie bristles with a sense of injustice whilst Miike's film is about a man who has been wronged. One of it's key final lines, which I started this post with, perfectly surmises the tone of Miike's film. It's a deeply personal tragedy, felt acutely due to the time Miike spends with his characters. Kobayashi's film takes place in a large and grand world, where the events play out on a much grander scale, Miike's film almost macro focuses on his core characters and in doing so turns the story into a family tragedy rather than political spiel.

These changes in tone come from differences in structure and presentation. Kobayashi's film presents it's narrative as a back and forth conversation between the samurai and the lord, the events of the past relayed stacatto in numerous flashbacks. Miike's film breaks the film into two distinct flashbacks, with the present day events serving more as bookends than as a continued narrative. This change alone is important as Kobayashi's film uses this odd pacing to general build a sense of loathing and claustrophobia, the rites and rituals of the clan laid out over almost an hour of screen time. Miike's film gets to the business of its major catalyst within the first half hour, and the horror of the younger ronin's suicide reverberates through the rest of the film. From that point on Miike's film plays as arch tragedy, whilst Koyabashi's film builds into a righteous fury. The denouement of both films feeds off these two styles. In Kobayashi's film his central character engages the lords men viciously, wounding several and killing four, before finally being killed attempting seppuku. Miike's finale plays out similarly, but his lead character adopts a defensive posture. Wounding only one man, and killing none, before lowering his guard and allowing himself to be cut down. The tonality of the endings are therefore massively different, with the lord in Kobayashi's film quickly acting to cover up the event, whilst the lord in Miike's film looks to be visibly shaken by what has transpired.

With absolutely glorious cinematography (the snow drenched finale is spectacular) and a beautiful score by Ryuichi Sakamoto Miike's Harakiri is a surprisingly reflective, empathic movie, the perfect stablemate to the original.
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Added by Spike Marshall
4 years ago on 25 September 2012 21:00



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