BFI London Film Festival Review: Hara-Kiri – Death of a Samurai (2011)

Hara-Kiri Death of a Samurai (2011) Movie Image

Prolific and unpredictable Japanese auteur Miike Takashi follows up his hugely popular and critically acclaimed “13 Assassins” with another period samurai outing in the form of “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai”. The film is again a remake, this time of Kobayashi Masaki’s 1962 classic “Hara-Kiri”, and despite its sombre mood and themes was actually shot in 3D, conjuring images of swords being thrust at the audience and hacked-off limbs sailing into the middle distance. As usual, the film sees Miike pulling together an interesting cast, including Yakusho Koji (also in “13 Assassins” and himself a Kiyoshi Kurosawa regular, having appeared in “Tokyo Sonata”, “Retribution” and others), Ichikawa Ebizô (“Space Battleship Yamato”), Mitsushima Hikari (recently in “Smuggler”) and Eita (from the “Nodame Cantabile” television series and films), as well as enlisting the talents of noted composer Sakamoto Ryuichi.

The film opens in 17th century Japan, with a ronin called Hanshiro (Ichikawa Ebizô) turning up at the house of Li, asking for permission to use their courtyard to commit ritual suicide after falling into shameful poverty. With it being a common practice of the time for some samurai to use such empty requests as a means of eliciting money or finding work with clans, the Li chief official Kageyu (Yakusho Koji) attempts to put him off by telling him of the horrible end that met the last ronin to have done so, a young man called Motome (Eita). Although Hanshiro appears undeterred, as his own story unfolds it soon becomes clear that he is masking his true intentions.

Hara-Kiri Death of a Samurai (2011) Movie Image

By now, audiences should probably know to expect the unexpected from Miike Takashi, and that’s certainly the case here, as despite being another classical samurai remake, “Hara-Kiri” is a very different film to “13 Assassins”. If anything, the film is even more restrained, and even less like his wilder outings of the past, coming across more like a particularly doom-laden Yamada Yoji effort, with a slow, deliberate pace and an emphasis very much on character and plot rather than action. In this respect, Miike’s film is also quite different to the Kobayashi original, showing a much simpler and more stripped down approach to storytelling, broken neatly into a fairly basic structure through a series of flashbacks. This approach works well, and the film does a good job of exploring the same themes of respect and honour, along with the hypocrisy and injustice inherent in the old feudal system and the futility of obsessively trying to save face. The various plot twists are all effective, and though the film is a touch overlong, mainly due to a padded out middle section, it’s surprisingly moving and powerful in a sad and tragic fashion.

The film as a whole has a funereal air, and is definitely one of Miike’s more atmospheric efforts. This is to a large part due to some quietly gorgeous visuals and set design, with the period being brought to convincing life in gritty yet beautiful manner. Miike’s direction is subtle and controlled throughout, with none of the weirdness he has become so well known for, and this fits the film and its grim mood perfectly. Although this may sound disappointing for viewers anticipating more epic “13 Assassins” style battle scenes, the film for the most part revolves around dialogue and drama rather than action, with very little in the way of bloodshed. This having been said, the film does finally erupt into a spectacular and gloriously choreographed mass sword battle towards the end, which is all the more exciting and tense for its emotional build-up.

Hara-Kiri Death of a Samurai (2011) Movie Image

Sadly, it has to be said that the film really does suffer from its truly needless 3D gimmick, which adds absolutely nothing either to the climatic action sequences or to the proceedings in general. It’s really quite mystifying as to why it was ever thought to be a good idea, as it only serves to darken and blur the image, with a few scenes definitely coming out murkier than was surely planned. Although this by no means ruins the film, it’s definitely enough to make the 2D version infinitely preferable where available.

Still, even with such pointless use of modern technology, “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai” is a fine, handsome and stately film that does justice to its source material while taking a slightly different approach. An affecting and gripping entry into the modern samurai genre, it again proves that Miike Takashi is not only one of the most talented, but also the most versatile directors working anywhere in the world today.

Takashi Miike (director) / Kikumi Yamagishi (screenplay), Yasuhiko Takiguchi (novel)
CAST: Kôji Yakusho … Kageyu
Naoto Takenaka
Hikari Mitsushima … Miho
Eita … Motome
Kazuki Namioka
Ebizô Ichikawa … Hanshirô Tsugumo

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