Review of Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

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An tale of revenge, honor and disgrace, centering on a poverty-stricken samurai who discovers the fate of his ronin son-in-law, setting in motion a tense showdown of vengeance against the house of a feudal lord.
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Movie Review: "Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai"

-- Rating: NR
Length: 126 minutes
Release Date: July 20, 2012 (USA)
Directed by: Takashi Miike
Genre: Action, Drama

"Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai" is an epic story of a poverty-stricken samurai who seeks to avenge his son-in-law's death at a feudal lord's house. Based on Yasuhiko Takiguchi's novel "Ibun Roninki," "Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai" is a 3D movie that interrogates the samurai mythology of honor and respect in a conscientious manner that makes it a tale of revenge. It is also a remake of Masaki Kobayashi's 1962 movie, "Hara-Kiri."

The film is set in 1630. There is widespread poverty and unemployment in the low-rung caste of the samurai. Hanshirô (played by Ebizô Ichikawa), who is a down-and-out ronin, pays a visit to the Li clan. He begs this illustrious clan for space to do seppuku (a ritual disembowelment), in order to ensure that he dies in the honorable way of the samurai.

The feudal lord of this house, Kageyu (played by Kôji Yakusho), hears of an unemployed samurai at the palace gates with a wish to commit seppuku at the courtyard of the estate. He makes an attempt to dissuade Hanshirô by recounting the story of the young man who, two days earlier, made the same request under claims that he was Motome (played by Eita) of the disbanded clan of Chijiwara. The tempo of the narrative begins to pick up as, in flashback, Motome is forced to carry out seppuku by the Lord's samurai minions using his only weapon, a dull bamboo sword. A sadistic example is made of Motome by Kageyu's house in order to stop any more suicide bluffs. Kageyu had realized that unemployed warriors were using desperate methods to obtain handouts, such as narrating their sad stories and claiming to desire hara-kiri.

"Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai" has a story-within-a-story motif and is structured with flashbacks. This combination weaves a detailed canvas of suffering and survival. A melodrama surrounding the entire life span of Motome unfolds, explaining the reasons that drive him and Hanshirô to take to the extreme measure of committing seppuku. Motome has a gentle nature, but he is faced with a plight that has a tragic resonance, pushing him over the edge. His wife, Miho (played by Hikari Mitsushima), is sick, and his child is dying. Masaki Kobayashi created suspense and heightened tension in the 1962 film "Hara-Kiri," but Takashi Miike kills this with the long flashback-after-flashback structure.

The resolve of Hanshirô softens a little with Kageyu's narration of the previous seppuku-petitioner's tale. However, Hanshirô's agenda runs deeper than he lets on. He is a samurai driven by the need to confront this heartless lord head-on.

"Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai" is a diversion from the usual samurai plot of bidding for honor and respectability, as is the case with Miike's 2010 "13 Assassins". Miike has re-adapted Yasuhiko Takiguchi's novel, taking on the hypocritical world of Kurosawa and Mizoguchi with an authority that has been reflected in the iconography and architecture that dictates the film's composition. He has created a deep melodrama that characterizes a mournful eloquence that resembles Yôji Yamada's 2002 movie, "Twilight Samurai." The movie is ceremoniously slow, the plot depicting the inhumanity and pretense of bushido. This holds an appeal for the older generation with an acquired taste for classical drama.

The characters of Kageyu and his henchman (played by Munetaka Aoki) are antagonistic and indelible. Miike has cleverly woven these traits into a canvas that casts Ichikawa into the righteous role of a character bent on fulfilling a single doomed quest. The final scenes present Ichikawa's moment in the limelight, as his Kabuki descent comes to play during the choreographed sword fights. He displays graceful swordplay as he eloquently denounces Kageyu's code of honor. Miike's detour from the usual action-packed and extremely violent productions has resulted in a heroic tale laden with morality.

"Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai" is a film mounted on 3D effects that will give you a vivid viewing experience full of visual artistry. The autumn leaves that set the trees aflame, the snowflakes and the frayed threads of the kimonos are all brought to sharp focus, creating an even deeper perspective mise-en-scène. Though people with a love for gore movies may find "Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai" disappointing, the transcendental experience of the mystical music composed by the legendary Ryuichi Sakamoto makes up for the film's classically slow tempo.

Rating: 4 out of 5