Saturday, October 29, 2011

Festival du nouveau cinéma 2011: Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011, Takashi Miike)

The measurement of a director’s strength is a tricky thing. Some directors find a comfort zone, hone their skills and run wild with ideas and talent. Greats like Sergio Leone and John Carpenter are clearly known for working within specific genres and specific actors. Their body of work is excellent, despite them rarely having told stories that were not either westerns or horror. There are other directors who can flow in and out of genres and yet consistently be at the top of their game. Names like Steven Soderbergh and Martin Scorsese come to mind. Then there are those who spend the majority of their careers in a genre or sub-genre, only to suddenly take sharp turn for something different and, despite the stigma attached to them, defy the odds and impress us. Takashi Mike, following years and years of work telling stories that mish-mashed horror, gore-fests and drama, took cinephiles by storm with his remake of 13 Assassins and takes a stab at the samourai film once more with a remake of the Kobayashi 1962 classic, Harakiri.

This new 2011 version, filmed in 3D, follows the story of the original quite closely. In the 17th century, it is a time of peace during which the samurai’s service are not as in demand, hence less  money to earn, meaning lots of ‘ronin’ (masterless samurai) walking around, searching for ways to make a living. One such ronin, Hanshiro (Ichikawa Ebizo Xi), enters the house of a lord, currently absent but the home is under the auspices of a retainer named Kayegu Saito (Koji Yakusho from 13 Assassins), to plead for the opportunity to perform honourable suicide in their courtyard. Given the economic hardships the samurai no longer has his place in the world but a true samurai will nonetheless want to preserve one’s honour, even in death. The retainer of the house understands this, but questions Hanshiro about his dedication to follow through with such a request, for not so long ago a younger samurai named Motome (Eita) also made a similar plead. Unfortunately it turned out the younger man only wanted money, not to perform hara-kiri, (showing a sword into one’s stomach) yet in order for the lord’s house to save face and to preserve the samurai code, Motome was in effect forced to go through with the act anyhow...with his cheap bamboo sword! Hanshiro, possessing an agenda of his own, has arrived to right some wrongs.

It was mentioned in the opening paragraph of the review that famed Japanese director Miike has, in the last couple films, shown a new side of his directorial skills, to the surprise of many. One need not search too long in a list of the gentleman’s filmography to comprehend how this can be. Ichi the Killer (reviewed earlier this year) is but one example a story for which he has been showered with acclaim. Audition and Three...Extremes are two others which have earned themselves and its director some notoriety as well as praise. 13 Assassins was an immediate change of direction, with a lot of solid, naturalistic drama supporting some good old fashioned action. There were moments of Miike relishing in some dastardly gruelling moments, but those were far and few between. Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai is very much in the same vein as its immediate predecessor, although with even less action than the former. Miike is really just interested in re-telling this emotionally complex story about love, honour, and what exactly the latter might truly mean in the face of archaic, contradictory institutional forces. In truth, the film’s opening sequence, that which sees Motome arrive at the lord’s house, does offer a bit of what some might come to expect from a Miike film even though it is covered in some calm, deliberate cinematography and editing. When Kayegu and his staff ‘force’ Motome to go through with hara-kiri, this despite that the young man has finally admitted to not genuinely desiring such a fate, it plays out like a very slow, discomforting scene of self-mutilation. Not much is shown, but Miike succeeds in having the viewer still feel the tension-filled impact of the scene, in particular with the sound design. Apart from that small portion, much of the movie is concerned with the character relationships and how their stories connect with another, oftentimes in touching ways. It makes for a very un-Miike like experience, but then again, this is the point being made: he can tell a good story without resorting exclusively to his old tricks, cool as they may have been at times. 

The story wistfully weaves its way back and forth in time not once, but twice, with Kayegu retelling the events of Motome’s visit to Hanshiro and, subsequently, Hanshiro revealing the true intentions of his own visit, which elaborate on who Motome was in relation to him. It is an effective tool in setting up and then paying off powerful emotional beats. The opening referred to earlier, with Motome slowly learning that he has landed himself in a heap of trouble, is good in of itself, but to discover how all of that came to be is where the heart of the story lies. His upbringing, meeting his eventual wife Miho (Hikari Mitsushima), who also happens to be Hanshiro’s daughter, their plight of living in poverty juxtaposed with the happiness of being together, all the essential moments of Motome’s life are revealed in a way as to make the character a three-dimensional person the audience can sympathise with and want to cheer for, which is the real kicker since we know that he is already dead, it was the first thing revealed! It is a tough way to play with the viewer’s emotional attachment to characters, but it makes for some good storytelling and Miike plays the cards nicely, never relishing too much in specific moments, nor overlooking others. By the end all the pieces fit into place perfectly. Hanshiro’s goal all along, apart from gaining with little revenge he can considering the odds, is to at least try to make his samurai brethren realize the foolishness of their ways. Speaking of honour and devotion yet refusing to come to the aid of a poor man and his sick family is the height of hypocrisy. The stakes have been raised to such a degree that the viewer is dying to know what Kayegu and his staff, who outnumber Hanshiro about 40 to 1, are going to do with the protagonist. Tricked for a second time and offended!

While actors like Eita and Hikari Mitsushima do a splendid job bringing their characters to life, the center of the picture is undoubtedly Ichikawa Eibo Xi as Hanshiro. Rarely has a samurai film depicted a man with such a strong character, who can show such strength via tenderness and empathy. By the film’s end, little doubt remains regarding the quality of the man’s skills as a fighter (regardless, there was mention of him participating in a war some years ago), yet it is the many sides to his persona that create the lasting memories. A good sense of humour, devotion to caring for his family, an entrepreneur (he hand crafts umbrellas), and capable of showing tremendous rage when injustice befalls those he loves. Ichikawa is tremendous at displaying the emotional rage necessary to make Hanshiro the core of the story.

Ah yes, lest we forget, Miike shot the film in 3D. Before anyone, be they supporters or naysayers of this newly mass marketed technology, starts to huff and puff, the review should come out and be as clear as possible: there is absolutely nothing wrong with the 3D as presented visually (it looks fine, does not necessarily distract, etc), but serves no purpose whatsoever. There is nothing remotely enhanced, and I stress the word enhanced, in this movie by having it displayed in 3D. In fact, there are plenty of moments when it is difficult to discern what is ‘in 3D’ and what is not in a given scene. Given that such is the case, what was the point all along? This reviewer, for one, has never understood the ‘subtle 3D’ argument. Why make movie goers pay more if the effect is going to be so subtle to the point of being virtually unnoticeable in many scenes? If it is going to be unnoticeable, then I shall much prefer saving 3 or 4 dollars and watch the exact same, top notch movie. 3D for something like, say, Drive Angry, can be fun. For a film like Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai? I just do not get it.

For those who have seen the original, there is not too much here to discover. For the die-hard samurai film fans, and those who just want a solid movie, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai delivers.

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