Sunday, May 6, 2012

Review - Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

Third-dimensional Seppuku

Ebizô Ichikawa prepares for ritual suicide

Masaki Kobayashi's 1962 film Harakiri comes damn close to being an undisputed masterpiece. A brilliantly cynical critique of samurai honour, hypocrisy and ritual, it remains electrifying (and endearingly melodramatic) cinema fifty years on: dare I suggest on par with even the best Kurosawas? On a remake roll following the critical and commercial success of 13 Assassins (based on a much more obscure original than this), the ever-productive Takeshi Miike has taken it upon itself to remake Kobayashi's film. It's an odd yet curious proposition for a plethora of reasons, and one that ultimately proves a little pointless.

The narrative is to all extents and purposes almost entirely identical to the original. Disheveled samurai Hanshiro (Ebizô Ichikawa) approaches the house of Ii asking to commit ritual suicide on their grounds. The house has had a spate of 'suicide bluffs' recently: down-on-their-luck, desperate samurai who will happily walk away with a few coins instead of inconveniencing the respected clan with a messy seppuku. However, house retainer Kageyu (Koji Yakusho, racking up quite the filmography) feels obliged to tell Hanshiro the sad tale of young samurai Motome (EITA) who made a similar desperate request, but with the unexpected consequence of the house forcing him to go ahead with the ritual in order to scare off any further bluffers. Undeterred, Hanshiro continues to demand his right to honourable harakiri. Ii reluctantly agree. They don't count on Hanshiro having a sad tale of his own to recount...

Fans of the original will find themselves spending much of the film trying to spot the difference. There aren't many. Bar a few subtle, unimportant changes - the newly ambiguous fate of one central character, the newly conclusive fate of three others - this is the same story, with almost every narrative beat accounted for. The flashback structure is present and correct. There is a briefly extended epilogue that basically just re-stresses the thematic and moral message in case you didn't get it, but that's your lot. This is the same brutal deconstruction of the samurai genre in most respects. While Miike is on surprisingly reserved form here, he has - as you might expect - added some further visceral force to the suicide scenes and action climax: but even those bits remain equally shocking and powerful in the five-decade old original. Indeed, the opening to 13 Assassins was a fairly definitively Miike take on harakiri in the first place. Overall, one really has to wonder why any of this needed repeating when it was all there first time around?

Clearly Miike - or at least someone in Shochiku or Recorded Picture Company - felt Kobayashi's masterwork was lacking a third visual dimension. This proves to be a debilitating misjudgement. This is arguably the worst 3D I've ever seen, and I've hated almost every use of the technology I've seen. It makes the picture unforgivably dark and grimy. Taking off one's glasses reveals an entirely different colour scheme, and I couldn't help but wish the cinema release didn't have to feature this technological nuisance. I'm using a bit of creative hyperbole here, but the black & white original felt more colourful at times.

It's a particular shame, because there are some nice stylistic flourishes by Miike, even if they are drowned out by the silly sunglasses. The costume designs embrace every colour of the rainbow, while the contrast of red and white in the courtyard where much of the action takes place is eye-pleasing. The most rewarding Miike addition of all is the powerful sense of seasonal change, achieved through clever transition and shot decisions. The snowy climax is undeniably a thing of terrible beauty, too. The immediately forthcoming Blu-Ray will likely look stunning, even if your TV won't fully emulate the 2.35:1 glory. Such a shame the 3D - floating titles (sub and otherwise) aside - so damages the strong aesthetic and art design.

I can't really fault Miike's work with the cast, either. But overall the film has only a few minor pleasures for those familiar with the source material. Even the changes are mere variations on Kobayashi's directorial decisions from fifty years ago. Hara-Kiri isn't quite as redundant a remake as Van Sant's Psycho, but nor is it anything other than a curiosity for the converted. Newcomers are better off seeking the original too, as they got it right first time around. There's nothing particularly wrong with Miike's take on the tale (except for the 3D of course, which is very wrong indeed) but it's a rather pointless waste of resources. A rare remake where more deviation from the original may not actually have been all that bad a thing.

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