Review: Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2012)

HARA-KIRI-1_600Takashi Miike is an enigma to me.  I appreciate most of his movies but he’s become increasingly difficult to pin down, jumping from the over the top violence that put him on the cinematic map to children’s pictures and now samurai movie remakes.  He’s the Neil Young of filmmaking.  This time he’s remade one of the most critically acclaimed Japanese films of the early sixties, Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri (AKA Seppuku), which I reviewed HERE.

Miike’s new film is more of a technical update than it is a remake.  With remakes, most directors want to filter the original content through their own vision.  In this case, Miike seems to be replicating most of the original content and simply doing more technically than was possible in 1962.  I’m sorry to say that he even shot the film in 3D.  I didn’t see it in 3D, but the film was obviously shot with 3D in mind, hence the plethora of foreground elements that go sliding by throughout the film.

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The story is told in a very lucid manner through a mixture of present and flashback action.  Over the course of a few days, two ronin (masterless samurai) visit the compound of the local lord, both asking to be allowed to commit ritual suicide to reclaim their honor.  The bulk of the film is the slow revelation of how the two ronin are connected and how that connection affects the samurai status quo.

This is a near-flawless, if somewhat unnecessary, remake.  The actors even look like those from the original film.  The sets are absolutely gorgeous and Miike’s attention to detail is both sumptuous and disturbing.  My only real issue was with the darkness of the images.  Maybe it’s some sort of artifact of the particular 3D process they used, but I found the film to be absolutely murky most of the time.  In fact, the actors seemed to disappear in favor of the richly textured settings.  I may be wrong, but it looked to me like the actors were frequently shot with a softer focus than that of the background elements.  It made me feel like I needed to update my eyeglass prescription.  That’s a shame, because the performances on display here deserve better.

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Sound is also top notch, with subtle sound effects and an evocative score by Ryuichi Sakamoto. The sparseness of the sound mix actually helped to create a clarity in a piece that mostly exists as a murky visual tone poem.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on the visuals.  I really liked what I saw on screen – so much so that I wanted to see more of it.  I can imagine how dark this must have looked through a pair of 3D glasses.  Was this 2D version an attempt to emulate that?  Cinematographer Noboyasa Kita certainly doesn’t need me questioning his choices, but I have to wonder if this was the way he intended the film to be seen.

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I feel that I must mention the particulars of the blu ray release here in the states.  The film was released in the US under the auspices of “Tribeca Film” and a major credit card company that I will not mention here.  We’re supposed to believe that “Tribeca Film” is an indie film festival, but with a credit card company and some A-list talent in their back pocket, just how indie can they be?  Besides, Miike’s HK is hardly an independent film.  While many here stateside have never heard of him, he’s bank in Japan and commands a decent budget on a project like this.  I don’t give a damn about Tribeca Film and its sponsorships, but I do care about how the best of Japanese cinema is presented here in the US. In this case, not so well.

I fail to understand why this major release wasn’t given top-flight treatment by a company such as Criterion.  I don’t mind this not being a Criterion release in particular, but I use them as an example of a company that almost always does right by filmmakers and audiences alike.  This is the barest of bare bones discs.  Even the subtitles are half-assed and the one lone “extra” is some pompous windbag “discussing” the film for less than two minutes without even pronouncing the title correctly.  What a waste.  I recommend you see the film but I’ll be damned if I recommend that you buy this paltry package that bludgeons the viewer with credit card ads that are not even skipable!  Avoid it until someone who actually cares about Japanese cinema re-releases it.

 

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