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The Death (And Life) Of A Samurai

  • Jan 19, 2013
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“Are You Satisfied?”
Takashi Miike.  It’s only two words – a name, actually – but that’s usually all it takes to get some folks’ attention.  That’s because if you’re familiar with the works of Takashi Miike, then you know what kind of a visual treat you have in store for you when you hear he’s releasing yet another film.  I’ve read many reviews that draw comparisons to Miike’s work and that of (stateside) Quentin Tarantino, but, to be honest, I’ve never quite seen it that way.  Mostly, I say that because I consider Miike’s work vastly superior to anything Tarantino’s done.  Sure, they both deal in horror and shock and samurai themes, but Miike tends to lose himself in projects involving greater characters, whereas (for my two cents) Tarantino tends to invest more in story and presentation.
Now, that’s not intended to be an insult (or a compliment) to either filmmaking.  The fact that they’re spoken about so often in comparison works well to both their reputations.  However, I’ll take a repeat showing of a Miike film before I’ll sit through a handful of what I consider to be Tarantino’s lesser flicks any day of the week.  That’s all I have to say about that.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters.  If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
A dark samurai named Tsugumo (a stunning performance by Ebizo Ichikawa) arrives at the palace of a feudal lord named Kageyu (Koji Yakusho), asking for the right to commit ritual suicide.  In kind reply, Kageyu shares with Tsugumo a brief tale of the last man who tried as such – a man believed to be a thief hoping only for a few coins in exchange for having his rites dismissed – hoping to dissuade Tsugumo from attempting the same.  Undaunted, Tsugumo presses onward, and then he asks for a chance to be heard … and what a story it is he has to tell.
I won’t trouble you with the highs and lows of explaining Bushido films, suffice for a few comments.  If you’re here – reading this review or investigating this picture further – then, most likely, you have an interest in them; and I’ll thank you for sharing such a fascination with them as do I.  In short, the stories of Bushido films tend to – at their core – be relatively simple.  In other words, characters are introduced, and then (essentially) they suffer, as is their lot in life.  When there was no war, what’s a samurai warrior to do?  He is to live his life trying to find honor among thieves, most likely, for there is little principled living to be found by those who control the masses.  This gives these master-less warriors someone to direct their morality at, and this is usually what sets these films apart from other dramatic films.  They are examinations of culture – honor, sacrifice, service, etc. – when, generally, there appears to be little.
In this regard, Miike has distinguished himself as a masterful storyteller, and HARA-KIRI does not disappoint.  For my tastes, it’s a vastly more human tale than his last venture into this foray – a remake of 13 ASSASSINS, which was driven and dynamic, but lacked a bit of humanity so far as the lead characters were concerned.  That’s rectified here, as Tsugumo is a tragically romantic (this is a love story about family, not individual love) hero who braved the class/caste system at a time when ronin (a samurai warrior without a lord) were a bit of a blight on the land.  After the fall of the soldier class, this samurai embraced life as his lord.  Despite the prevalence of one challenge after another, Tsugumo distinguished himself by doing right by his fellow man.  What remained of a royal class – without the undercurrent of true military combat to establish a code of ethics – snubbed its nose at him and those like him … and they get theirs, as a consequence.
Be warned: there is a tremendous amount of set-up to this 128 minute film.  In fact, the amount of detail may wreck havoc with folks trying to find a comfortable place in the story.  Personally – were I director or editor – I would’ve trimmed some of the opening 40 minutes; they’re essential, but I’d agree that there’s probably a bit of excess in there.  Once Tsugumo’s reflections begin, the narrative is far more economical with a few exceptions.  Still, it’s the viewer with patience who’s rewarded, and maybe that’s a secondary lesson Miike wanted to share with modern audiences – don’t rush so fast to the point.  Take your time.  Experience l-i-f-e.
After all, that’s what Tsugumo did.
HARA-KIRI is about a life nobly lived, and not about a life of nobility.  In that regard, it’s a timeless story that should be experienced, explored, and examined by every generation.
HARA-KIRI: DEATH OF A SAMURAI – a remake of the 1962 picture of the same name directed by Masaki Kobayashi – is produced by the Recorded Picture Company (RPC), Sedic International, Amuse Soft Entertainment, and a whole host of other participants (check out IMDB.com if you’re that interested in knowing more).  DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled through New Video.  As for the technical specifications, the film looks and sounds stunning throughout; I did have to crank this one up a bit because there’s minimal use of sound (by design) consistently.  This is a Japanese film with English subtitles.  As is all too common in foreign releases, there are no special features to speak of save for a brief (2 minute) introduction by Geoffrey Gilmore (from Tribeca Film, a sponsor); it’s nice, but it’s definitely nothing to ‘honorable’ that a samurai deserves.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  I’ve said it before – and I’ll say it again – Bushido films are definitely not for everyone.  To the untrained or inexperienced viewer, they can appear more than a bit slow and/or overly involved in setting up what at first glance might appear to be relatively rudimentary or mundane details.  Typically, this emphasis is meant to draw the viewer in to these characters’ various struggles so that there’s an understanding and appreciation of the central morality or moral code.  Yes, there’s a fair amount of excess to HARA-KIRI, but it’s perfectly in keeping with the basic formula that distinguishes the samurai film from other classes.  Miike knows what he’s doing … and, once the climax is reached, that reality becomes impressively clear.  What Hanshiro Tsugumo stands for is without question once he engages his enemy in action when he proves – even with a lesser sword – he’s a vastly better man.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at New Video provided me with an advance DVD screener of HARA-KIRI: DEATH OF A SAMURAI for the expressed purposes of completing this review.

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October 10, 2013
Wow! Lots of details and an interesting scene in the dojo !
January 20, 2013
good comments about Tarantino and Miike--Tarantino also idolizes Miike in some ways. I liked this remake but a little too unncecessary; have you seen Kobayashi's original movie?
January 20, 2013
I haven't. Should I run out and pick it up at the video store? I was thinking about it the other day, but I picked up the mid-90's 47 RONIN instead.
January 20, 2013
YES! Run and get the Criterion collection of Kobayashi's HARA-KIRI. One of the most amazing movies I've ever seen that I've given a perfect score. If you love Bushido movies, it gets the highest recommendation. Tatsuya Nakadai was awesome!
January 21, 2013
OK, if I hit the video store this week (on Tuesday), I'll see if they have a copy. Thanks for the recommendation!
January 21, 2013
you may also want to pick up SAMURAI REBELLION with Toshiro Mifune. Another masterpiece by Kobayashi.
January 21, 2013
OK, I put in on my list, if I swing in there tomorrow, I'll see if they have it. Also, have you ever seen Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai (1963)?
January 21, 2013
yes, that was downright depressing. Here you go: here's my old review. Been awhile since I saw that one...
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Ed ()
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What? You don't know enough about me from the picture? Get a clue! I'm a graduate from the School of Hard Knocks! You can find me around the web as "Trekscribbler" or "Manchops".   … more
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