Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai begins with Kageyu (Koji Yakusho), the head of the House of Li, telling Hanshiro (Ebizo Ichikawa) the tale of Motome (Eita), a samurai who arrived at the gates of the House of Li asking for the use of their courtyard to commit ritual suicide (Harakiri, or actually more accurately Seppuku).
Hanshiro is requesting this very same thing and it is clear that Kageyu is attempting to offer Hanshiro a warning. Motome had no intention of actually going through with the suicide and was actually attempting a ‘suicide bluff’, a newly popular technique of extracting money from the wealthy houses, who would give the desperate samurai money and send them on their way.
The early seventeenth century in Japan (the beginning of the Edo period), the time at which the film is set, was a period of difficulty for samurai who were largely unneeded. Without a war to fought many found themselves without retainers and therefore penniless. This ‘suicide bluff’ was therefore a way for a desperate masterless samurai to get his hands on some money when he was in direst need. The House of Li are aware of this growing trend and, suspecting that this is exactly what Motome is up to, decide to make an example of this latest chancer. Motome is scared and bullied into committing suicide in the courtyard and has to do so with a bamboo sword, having sold his own sword and replaced it with a bamboo replica, an effort to save face.
This moment of brutality, as Motome repeatedly thrusts the inadequate weapon into his stomach, is the only point in Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai in which Miike presents us with gory violence, the kind that many would probably be expecting in this follow-up to his 2010 film 13 Assassins. Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai is very different film from 13 Assassins and this blood heavy sequence is included in an effort to emotionally confront the viewer, to make it clear what a deeply unpleant act this is. The sequence is much longer and graphic than the equivalent sequence in Kobayashi’s original but it is perhaps necessary here, in order to provoke such a strong reaction in some modern audiences.
Returning to Hanshiro and Kageyu the story then continues with Hanshiro seated in the courtyard, ready to commit seppuku. His final request though is for a particular second (the one who decapitates him following his disembowelment at his own hands) but neither this choice or either of his other two choices are available that day. As messengers are dispatched to find them Hanshiro begins telling his own tale, the story of Motome pre-suicide. Motome was actually his adopted son and ultimately son-in law and the story he tells is a very sad one, told entirely in flashback and with a sensitive touch from writer Kikumi Yamagishi and director Takashi Miike.
The unfolding narrative summarised above, and the subsequent developments in the story, are without doubt the greatest strength in Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai and they are as compellingly told here as they were by Shinobo Hashimoto and Masaki Kobayashi in 1962. A key difference between the original and this 2011 remake is the visual approach though. One fascinating aspect of Kobayashi’s film was the cinematography, particularly the use of vertical and horizontal lines to divide the characters in the courtyard scenes, and the contrasting approach in the flashback scenes, less harsh delineations and more slow-moving camerawork. Miike takes this same idea in the courtyard scenes, demarcation and visual division, but uses an entirely different technique.
In Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai this is achieved stereoscopically, the characters divided by their position on the positive or negative parallax of the 3D image (mostly using the positive – appearing as if behind the screen). This coupled with a minor use of vertical and horizontal lines in the set design leads to a startlingly effective but relatively subtle result. Aside from being incredibly pleasing to the eye and simple to understand visually, this manipulation of the image enforces the separation between the standing of various characters and, perhaps most effectively, strongly separates Hanshiro from the other characters in the courtyard. He appears alone but, more and more as the story develops, defiant and a lone voice amongst many. Mirrored in the narrative that unfolds this is conveyed visually with his placement in the 3D image, a startling and incredibly impressive example of the capabilities of 3D technology.
This impressive use of 3D continues throughout Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, in particular in the use of extreme depth of field and an interesting type of ‘close ups’ in a number of scenes, notably including interior scenes. One common comment regarding the 3D in Avatar was that the 3D was much ‘better’ in the exterior scenes on Pandora and while this could perhaps be based more on the visual extravagance of the Pandora scenes there are issues in some of the interior scenes, mostly with objects or side characters seemingly incorrectly taking prominence in a scene (stereoscopically speaking). This is not an issue in Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai as at any one time one’s eyes are tracking to the ‘correct’ part of the frame, particularly in scenes in which a character is strongly emoting and this their face should be the entire focus of our attention.
Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai is ultimately a film that focuses heavily on the character’s emotions, an investment in their plight is crucial to the twisting and intriguing narrative having the necessary impact, and it is in the aforementioned interesting type of ‘close ups’ that the 3D technology again achieves something quite special. Characters seems to stand out from the backgrounds, their faces coming to the forefront and holding our concentration. Conventionally this would be achieved with a close up but here Miike shoots wider but achieves the same effect with the background appearing far into positive space and the character’s face standing out against it. It is not, it is perhaps important to note, done by placing the character far into negative space. In fact, negative space is used with great restraint and is used more to enhance the extended depth of field and never to make objects or characters fly out at you.
Due to the prominence of characters’ faces within the image and the nature of the story a lot of weight rests on the shoulders of the actors and they all equip themselves adequately, a lot of the work is perhaps done in their casting more than anything else though. That said, Ebizo Ichikawa is excellent as Hanshiro and despite playing the same role made famous by the wonderful Tatsuya Nakadia, Ichikawa is very memorable in this new version of the story, making the role very much his own.
Whilst Miike’s Har-Kiri: Death of a Samurai may be lacking some of the political urgency that Kobayashi brought to the table in 1962, especially in Kobayashi’s use of the film to explore untrustworthy and morally bankrupt leaders and the Japanese concept of honne and tatamae (public perception versus the truth) , Miike has lost none of the classical beauty of this compelling story. Also, with the decision to film Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai in 3D he has employed some stunning visual techniques and found a new and highly effective way to tell this story.