Monday, 5 December 2011

'Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai' review:

I don't usually do "spoiler warnings" but if you're incredibly sensitive about plot details then don't read this review. I would hate to spoil this outstanding film for anyone, but it's difficult to talk about properly without mentioning certain events.

That Takeshi Miike has already released his follow-up to last year's remarkable '13 Assassins' should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the Japanese director's career. Prolific would be an understatement for a filmmaker who has made at least two films a year since the mid-90s - indeed, according to the IMDB, he has two films in post production right now. But what is surprising is that his latest film - the first 3D film to play "in competition" in Cannes - is every bit as accomplished as that ultra-violent epic, retaining the feudal Japanese setting but telling a very different type of story. There are thematic similarities between the two, but this is more period melodrama than 'Seven Samurai' styled war film - yet it's no less compelling.

'Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai' begins with a lone rōnin (a lordless and therefore jobless samurai) arriving at a wealthy lord's estate, begging permission to use the courtyard to perform hara-kiri - the highly ritualised form of suicide that involves opening one's stomach with a sword, ideally without showing pain, before having your head cut off by a trusted second. We are told that the higher the status of the premises on which the act is committed, the more honour the act will restore. At a first glance it is this belief in proper social order which brings the sombre Hanshirô Tsugumo, played by veteran Kabuki theatre actor Ebizô Ichikawa, to the estate determined to end his life.

But before granting the request, Kageyu - a sort of head caretaker whilst the lord is away on business, played with trademark intensity by Kôji Yakusho - tells Hanshirô a chilling story in order to test his resolve. In the first of two long backflashes which form the bulk of the film, he tells the warrior about another rōnin, a young man named Motome (Eita), who came by recently with the same request - and whose end was extremely unpleasant (as depicted viscerally). Motome, it is soon revealed, did not truthfully come seeking death, but charity - hoping that the lord's house would sooner give out some food and a few coins than go through the inconvenience of assembling the household staff for such an elaborate ritual. However, he is shocked when the house agrees to meet his request in order to make an example of him and deter future "suicide bluffs".

Hanshirô hears this story and is given the chance to withdraw his request. He declines and, in front of the assembled house, reveals that he has his own story to tell. Of course it barely qualifies as a spoiler to say that Motome and Hanshirô's stories are linked and that the former's death has something to do with the later's arrival on the estate, though I will say that how the two stories link is heartbreaking.

With '13 Assassins' Miike playfully mocked Japanese tradition and criticised the country's historic cultural values. He questioned why honour and death are so often linked and had his heroes kick dirt in their enemies faces - fighting for survival rather than as part of some slickly choreographed pageant. Here these criticisms are foregrounded. Social class, poverty and a culture of obligation are targets, as well as the wisdom of bushido. And just as the child-murdering, woman-deforming lord in '13 Assassins' represented all that's contradictory about a society which saw swordplay as equivalent to penmanship and poetry - outwardly representing all that was considered beautiful - in 'Hara-Kiri' such vanity is attacked again.

Here honourable men refuse to be seen in public after having their topknots cut off, yet are quite happy to watch a boy disembowel himself with a blunt wooden stick. In this society the wealthy would rather see the poor gut themselves than break tradition by asking for help. For the poor (or at least for a poor samurai), trying to live in spite of hardship is seen as a shameful practice. Here the vain pursuit of precise, formal beauty has the effect of destroying that which is genuinely beautiful. That Motome is driven to desperation by a lord's cruelty (he becomes rōnin due to a petty dispute between two nobles) and is destroyed by social convention, expectation and tradition leaves the viewer in no doubt that he is an unlucky pawn in a game played by the ruling class.

When a climactic scene of what could be termed "cool" violence does arrive, Hanshirô is totally non-lethal and his only goal is to force his enemies to commit acts of taboo and break from their preciously held codes. He's shown to be a sane man in an otherwise mad world, ruled by oppressive and ultimately meaningless tradition. Whereas '13 Assassins' arguably contradicts its message by staging such a shamelessly entertaining 45 minute massacre at the climax, here the fight itself is framed as the rejection of violence recalling the sudden brawl in Kurosawa's otherwise sedate 'Red Beard'.

Hanshirô is challenging his attackers to slaughter him in cold blood and, in showing that they can do this without threat to personal honour, underlines the futility and madness of the entire social structure - and even of his own public suicide. It's a brilliantly esoteric triumph but one that is every bit as futile as the social structure he abhors. That Kageyu and his underlings are more frightened and moved by Hanshirô's iconoclastic scattering of a elaborate suit of armour than his sad story - or his doomed appeal to reason - is Miike's final sick joke in another thoughtful and resolutely anti-traditional film.

'Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai' is not yet rated by the BBFC (though it'll be nothing less than a '15'). I saw it at the Brighton's CineCity Film Festival at the Duke of York's Picturehouse, though a limited release should be expected in 2012.

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