Japanese director Takashi Miike has never met a provocation he didn’t want to amplify. Films as diverse as the terrifying Audition, the grim Ichi the Killer and the absurdist Zebraman are soaked with blood, entrails, semen, vomit and alien ooze. In Miike’s worlds, sadists are heroes, the Von Trapps are cannibals, and the innocent become the personification of grisly retribution for the sins of man.
With 2010’s 13 Assassins, Miike set a high-water mark for himself by experimenting with subtlety, resulting in a wonderfully controlled narrative that exploded into an hourlong symphony of spurting arteries and flaming oxen.
With Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, a 3-D remake of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 classic Harakiri, Miike returns to feudal Japan for the tale of disgraced ronin Kageyu (Kôji Yakusho), who seeks to commit ritual suicide in the courtyard of a local samurai lord, so he may die with honor. Suspecting the ronin is attempting a “suicide bluff,” an act in which a pauper claims to be seeking seppuku but in reality wants the lord to pity him and send him away with money, the lead samurai regales him with the tale of Motome (Eita), whose bluff was called, forcing him to undergo a horrific ordeal.
From the onset, it’s obvious these men are related, and that Kageyu’s bluff is one of vengeance. So it’s puzzling that Miike layers his film with extended flashbacks that take up 80 percent of the film. Through the long slog, we discover family drama isn’t Miike’s strong suit. It plays out like a soap opera: babies are stricken, proud men are forced to humiliate themselves to emotionally charged orchestral swells, and the changing colors of leaves symbolize the looming winter of discontent.
Most startling, though, there’s no real payoff. Since we know the outcome of the overlong exposition, there is no tension, save for what will happen when these men of violence stop talking of honor and finally lock swords. When that does happen, it’s a short, inexplicably weak affair that rushes the film to a close.
You could forgive Hara-Kiri’s
lack of action and bloodshed if its layers were deeper, its
performances more compelling and its message about perceived honor
destroying one’s humanity not drawn in the broadest brushstrokes. It’s
the one thing a Miike film has never before been accused of being:
Critic’s Grade: C
SEE IT: Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai opens Friday at Living Room Theaters.