Wow, Takashi Miike’s got another great samurai remake under his belt, and this time as far as I’ve heard he didn’t even have to cut out a demon-rape scene to make it classy. Like 13 ASSASSINS it’s got a strong mood and great story built upon the great structure (I’m told) of the original (Masaki Kobayashi’s HARAKIRI ). A word of warning, though: this one is not the action spectacular that 13 A’S is. It’s closer to the classical tradition where it’s a drama about castes, codes, corruption and conflict, and eventually you know they’re gonna pull out the swords, but that’s the cherry on top, not the actual ice cream.
I’d heard that, and it made me hesitant, but it turns out it wasn’t necessary. This is one of the best movies I’ve seen in the last year. I loved it. Not just a LIMITS OF CONTROL “this is trying my patience but is intellectually interesting in some ways” type of appreciation. Even watching it late one night after work I found it genuinely engrossing from beginning to end (although I had to have somebody decode the final scene for me because by that time it was past 3 am and I was losing consciousness).
It’s a story about ritual suicide. Penniless samurai Hanshiro Tsugumo (Ebizo Ichikawa) comes to a palace to request use of their, you know, suicide suite or whatever, so he may end his life like a warrior. That’s something that won’t just come to him in this time of peace (a.k.a. samurai recession). Before they’ll agree they want to tell him a story about this younger samurai Motome (Eita [Just one name, I guess, like Madonna or Vern]) who came by recently for the same reason.
For a while they had this policy, they didn’t want to encourage all these jobless samurai to fuckin kill themselves, plus it was probly a pain in the ass to clean up. And there’s a bunch of rigamarole too, you gotta get the retainers and the ceremonial robes and everything. It’s like just having to do free wedding ceremonies for anybody that shows up at your house. You can’t just expect them to do it all day every day. So they started giving these suicidal samurai a few coins and telling them to beat it. Cheer up, kid. Go buy yourself some ice cream.
But word got around and now they’re hearing that some of these incidents are actually “suicide bluffs” from samurai with no intention of really going through with it, just faking it to get the pay off. Sonofabitch. Not honorable. They figured out that’s what this Motome was up to – in fact, the sword he brought supposedly to do the deed wasn’t even real, it was made of bamboo. So they decided to call his bluff, make an example out of him to put an end to this fad. They made him go through with it.
It’s a horrendous story-within-a-story. There’s something darkly humorous about the awkwardness of the whole situation, but Miike is sure to make it more painful than funny. He’s known for his outrageous violence, and here he makes the poor bastard have to stab his belly open with the fake sword. It takes a while. The idea of it is so horrible it had a very desensitized horror fan (I’m talking about me here) wincing without showing much at all.
So they tell Tsugumo that story and they give him an out. See, pal, now you know why you don’t want to bluff us. It can’t end well. Why don’t you just hurry along? We don’t fuck around here. But he refuses. He would never bluff them, he says. He insists on going through with the suicide.
Oh shit, is this guy serious? I guess get the robes then. As the ritual begins and he starts making his requests about who he wants as his retainer and everything (is this guy turning into a hara-kiri bridezilla?) the court starts to notice some suspicious things – like three of their guys are missing – and they figure out that this samurai has some other motive besides the money or the warrior death.
So he tells them why. See, he was actually acquainted with Motome of the bamboo sword suicide. So we go back to see the sad fuckin story of Motome’s family life and the circumstances that led to him being so desperate for money that he would try this suicide bluff business. I mean, this is some seriously sad shit. There’s a scene, I’m not gonna say what it is but it’s pretty much one of the most devastating things that can happen to a person, and you gotta watch it. There’s alot of crying.
To the royal court this was some asshole trying to rip them off, and they thought they showed him a thing or two. Ha ha, we’re gonna teach this guy a lesson. We got ‘im. But Tsugumo shows them the context. This was a good man suffering in ways their class never experiences, and he would do anything for his family. They could’ve helped him, instead they killed him, and in the most painful way imaginable, and his death had more repercussions they didn’t bother to consider. What they did was so cruel that here is another man who wants to die in order to get revenge on them for it. (And yes, that’s when you get your cherry on top. Most of this movie is not sword fights, but when the shit does go down it’s of SWORD OF DOOM proportions.)
I guess it’s supposed to be a critique of the feudal system, but I think it applies to modern cultures too. It’s a very blunt reminder to have sympathy for other people and their individual circumstances. There are so many things people believe at a distance, assumptions they make about people they don’t know, cultures or lifestyles they have no experience with, opinions about who deserves health care or who should be allowed to do what… it’s easy to be an asshole at a distance. It’s better to know the whole story. And especially to know the whole story before a guy with a sword tells it to you.
HARA-KIRI was actually shot in 3D. Somebody told me it wasn’t great 3D, but I regret missing it. I don’t think there’s even a 3D blu-ray of it if I ever end up with the equipment to watch that. It seems to me that the way it’s shot, with lots of very precise camera movements, and with some beautiful snowing scenes, would be the kind of thing I like to see in 3D.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.