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An Exploration of Revenge, Individuality and Honor in the Face of an Oppressive Tradition

  • Jul 21, 2012
Most of my friends and those who have followed my reviews know how rare it is that I award a perfect score to a film be it an American or foreign film. Such an honor means that a film had truly made an impression on me and had given me an experience that I may never forget in cinema. The 1962 Japanese classic directed by Masaki Kobayashi “Seppuku” (aka. Hara-Kiri) is one such film that have earned such honor for me.

When I heard that it was being remade by the same people who remade “13 Assassins (2010)”, I was both worried and at the same time ecstatic. Takashi Miike is once more at the helm for this remake which means that Miike will probably know how to execute such a film, but at the same time I was worried because Masaki Kobayashi’s film was near-perfect and such a remake may prove to be unnecessary. Well, this is the age of remakes after all, so producers Toshiaki Nakazawa and Jeremy Thomas are about to take advantage of this recent thread.

                      Ebizo Ichikawa in "Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai."

The core premise of the original film remains intact for this 2011 film called “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai”. The story begins when a mysterious samurai called Hanshiro Tsugumo (Ebizo Ishikawa) arrives at the doorstep of a clan estate, requesting that the lord of the house grant him an honorable death by way of ritual suicide. The lead of the retainers, Saito (Koji Yakusho) tell Hanshiro of the tragic tale of another petty samurai called Motome (Eita) who had made the same request with ulterior motives, only to meet a very brutal end. Undaunted, this mysterious samurai now tells a story of his own, with a resolution that no one would see coming. The house of Li will never again be the same….

Much like the 1962 original, “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai” is a gripping exploration of revenge, honor, individuality and serves as a scathing indictment of the code of Bushido. Miike does pay homage and tribute to Kobayashi’s classic tale, and the message is as powerful as the original’s. While it carries a very critical commentary on the pretensions of the code, there is more of a human side to Miike’s execution and in some ways I feel that he had held back. Kobayashi’s tale was all about the hollow practices of the samurai tradition while Miike’s appears to be making an appeal to our more human instincts. I understand, the original had been more inspired by Kobayashi’s experiences in the army, (as in his film series The Human Condition) and such, it was darker, brooding and far more thought-provoking than this remake. Miike does express a more modern take, meant to appeal to more modern viewers with the use of a more subtle, dramatic approach. I do understand, but there is something here that misses from Kobayashi’s original vision.

Remakes should only be made to A) Expand on the original material. B) Apply the premise to more modern viewers, and C) make improvements and pay tribute to the original story. I guess it is because that Kobayashi’s film is one of my favorites that I found this film very predictable and truth be told, the film is almost a shot for shot colored remake of the original in the first two acts of the movie. Miike does not expand on the original premise, but rather applies some ’humanized’ touches in his own way. The chief retainer Saito is presented as a proud leader, and yet, he does display a very human side. Also, part of the film’s variations from Kobayashi’s original is the more straight-forward re-telling of the past, and a less than methodical approach on Hanshiro’s humiliation of the clan. Miike seemed to focus more on the story of Hanshiro’s family and its dramatic impact in its narrative. In the original, the past was told with some partial narration from Tatsuya Nakadai, which gave it much more strength. Here. Miike’s relies on visuals and allows the passage of time to be told in the display of the seasons and some subtle use of metaphors.


The original “Seppuku” had the commanding presence of Tatsuya Nakadai, who may well be one of the premier actors of his generation alongside Toshiro Mifune. Nakadai’s voice exuded grief, fury and righteous indignation, all at the same time. Ebizo Ichikawa looks quite similar to Nakadai, that he even captures his physical make up and some of his key expressions, but Ichikawa feels more like a furious parent rather than a warrior driven to virtuous fury. Ichikawa can never match Nakadai’s screen presence, but he makes do with what he has with the script, that I could truly sympathize with his emotions. Eita and Hikari Mitsushima (who plays Miho) were good in their respective roles, I did feel that they were able to communicate their tragic story and it made Hanshiro’s determination much more comprehensible.

Much like the original, Miike’s remake has that climactic swordplay in the final act, although this time he uses a wooden sword to further humiliate his opponents. I do have some issues with the manner Miike and screenwriter Kikumi Yamagishi made some changes to the original screenplay, that made me think that this movie had held back with its scathing commentary and went for a more human and familial revenge theme rather than something driven by anger on the pretentiousness of the Bushido code. Be that as it may, the film does get a good update from a visual standpoint. The cinematography is on par with the original and the use of a muted color palette was a very good move. The set designs were accurate and the costumes truly reflected the 1630’s Japan. Miike is known for nihilistic themes and graphic violence, but in this movie, he practices a sense of restraint. He keeps to the familiar tempo and mood that made the original very engaging.


Takashi Miike’s “Hara-Kiri” may be a good film, but I am still having a hard time determining if it was a necessary remake as his “13 Assassins”. Kobayashi’s film was just so amazing that any remake would prove futile. Miike’s version is good, and for someone who has not seen the original, it may prove excellent. This film was also originally shot to be in 3D. I guess, this 2011 remake is indeed worthy of a look, and let’s be honest, it is refreshing to see that chambara films are making a comeback in this modern time in cinema. It also helps when one of Japan’s most prolific and versatile directors is at its helm. I ache to see more.

 Recommended!  [4 Out of 5 Stars]

                                  Poster art for "Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai"

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Ichimei)
An Exploration of Revenge, Indivuduality and Honor in the Face of an Oppressive Tradition

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July 23, 2012
You know this will be mine
July 22, 2012
Well done - you've whetted my appetite! Not having researched this, I'd wrongly assumed that Yakusho was cast for Nakadai's role instead of Mikuni's.

Very few contemporary thespians can aspire to Nakadai's formidable presence and nuance. I'm entirely unfamiliar with Ichikawa, and so curious to see how his performance compares to that of a living screen legend.
July 22, 2012
I have just replied to your comment under the quick tip and I would like to read your take on this film. Nakadai was just fantastic as the brooding samurai warrior in the original. His voice, his expressions were just phenomenal. Ichikawa did a good job, and I am sure I would've been more impressed if I had not seen Nakadai's performance. Wasn't Nakadai a former stage performer back in the day?
July 22, 2012
He still is! Nakadai was steeped in the realist shingeki theater movement that adopted and western stories (especially Russian tragedies) in a modern Japanese context. As this genre directly influenced the postwar cinematic humanists (Kinoshita, A. Kurosawa, Kobayashi, Naruse) who supplanted the likes of Ozu and preceded the nuuberu bagu enfant terribles, Nakadai was an ideal candidate for stardom during the '50s and '60s. Incredibly, he's since survived nearly all of his contemporaries and remains a fixture of both mediums. Approximate a decade ago, he starred in a stage production of Death of a Salesman that was well-received in Tokyo.
July 21, 2012
Great review with wonderful action pictures too!
July 21, 2012
Thank you, sir! I've also reviewed quite a popular topic if you are interested. I do however, try to do something different once in awhile.
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