Ebizo Ichikawa stars as Hanshiro in "Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai," distributed by Tribeca Film.
In his new film “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai,” director Takashi Miike downplays the importance of sporadic episodes of well-choreographed swordplay in favor of exploring facets of the human condition, touching on elements of perseverance and poverty, joy and tragedy.
Through graphic scenes of torment, misery and futility, Miike skillfully illustrates the common thread of human suffering.
“Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai” tells the tale of Hanshiro, a mysterious samurai who arrives at the doorstep of a feudal lord with a single request. The samurai seeks an honorable death by ritual suicide.
In an attempt to dissuade Hanshiro, Lord Kageyu recounts the brutal tale of Motome, a desperate young ronin who made a similar request. Motome, it is revealed, had ulterior motives: His request was only a ruse to shame the lord into giving him alms and sending him on his way.
Recognizing the bluff, the house of the feudal lord decides to make an example of Motome. Dishonored, Motome meets a ghastly end.
Lord Kageyu’s tale does not have the intended effect upon Hanshiro, who proceeds to tell his own tale. The viewer then learns of his connection to Motome and what drove the young ronin to commit such a desperate and disgraceful act.
Set during the Edo period and the reign of the Tokugawa shogunate, “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai” is a remake of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 film “Harakiri.” The incidents depicted take place between 1619 and 1630 – but the underlying themes are relevant today.
External events shaped the lives of Hanshiro and his daughter Miho as well as the life of Motome. Formerly prosperous, the house of Hanshiro’s lord had been toppled by the shogunate because it was considered a threat. Faced with an era of peace, Hanshiro could not profit from his skills as a samurai and was forced to rely on other means to eke out a living. Living in poverty, Hanshiro abided modestly – even happily – until calamity befell his family.
Ebizo Ichikawa plays Hanshiro. Ichikawa’s brooding resentment is brilliantly offset by interspersed scenes of bliss and contentment as flashbacks show glimpses of what might have been. As Hanshiro seeks to settle the score, Ichikawa simmers subtly, his seething anger gradually coming to the surface.
As Motome, Eita delivers one of the most visually unsettling sequences in recent memory. Motome’s demise is brutal – and Eita effectively brings the character’s physical and emotional agony to the viewer. Kikari Mitsushima stars as Miho. Mitsushima becomes the embodiment of anguish. As Lord Kageyu, Koji Yakusho is similarly efficient. Kageyu represents the hypocrisy of the feudal system – preferring the pretext of honor to genuine honor. Interestingly, Yakusho introduces a deeper layer into the character by hinting at suppressed sympathies. Ultimately, though, Lord Kageyu is guided by his own uncompromising retinue.
Composer Ryuichi Sakamoto provides a gorgeous original score that accentuates the intricacies of Miike’s storytelling.
Those expecting frequent fights, blood-drenched swords and epic carnage may be disappointed: Brimming with stunning cinematography and conveyed with patient plotting, Miike’s evocative new film is more cerebral than bloody.
Miike lays bare the vanity of a pitiless ruling class, incapable of compassion and devoid of ethical individuals willing to take a stand for evenhandedness. As such, “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai” is a condemnation of authoritarianism as well as a call to question traditional definitions of honor. Such motifs are clearly applicable in the modern world. Viewers are left to draw parallels to the deteriorating middle class, to autocratic corporations and to the erosion of integrity.
For Miike, Hanshiro personifies authentic honor. While watching the film’s climactic fight sequence, the viewer is compelled to ask whether or not the director believes challenging dictatorial regimes is practical.
“Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai” was released theatrically July 27, premiering in New York City, Los Angeles and Boston. Following this limited release, the film will appear in theaters across the United States over the coming months. It also is currently screening on Video On Demand, available on Bright House, Verizon and other cable providers.