Director: Takashi Miike
I haven’t seen the original Harakiri, of which Miike’s 2011 film is apparently a remake, but apparently during a press conference Miike explained that his film is based on the “source material.” I’m not clear as to what this exactly refers, but if the original Harakiri was shot through the director’s eye, adding much of its commentary, perhaps Miike’s quote is meant to suggest that they simply looked to the script, and not what was added. This is fitting, as Hara-Kiri is as story-driven of a story as they come, to an almost infuriating level: the most common criticism you’ll probably hear is that the movie is overlong, taking a plodding pace during its long, 90-minute middle stretch to quietly tell a tale that honestly is clear once the first few pieces are in place. And I agree. But as is usual with Miike, his film, when taken in context with his repertoire and the environment in which it was released, adds some further insight as to the potential why’s of its development, and so your willingness to indulge as a viewer will depend on whether or not that matters.
Which is might not. Films should be made, on one level, without a reference point. And to fresh eyes, though Hara-Kiri is at many points beautiful, and its beginning and ending sequences excellent, the middle section is a stretch for anyone. It’s also misleadingly advertised – though it is certainly from the director of 13 Assassins, taglines of that nature are useful for roping in an RIYL viewership… but Hara-Kiri is not 13 Assassins.
Which is the other side of the coin. It seems fitting that 13 Assassins celebrates warriors (or their spirit), and is taken up for half its runtime by an amazing battle, whereas Hara-Kiri shows what happens when warriors are not at war, its one blood-letting scene painful, its one battle scene bloodless and almost deathless, and the majority of its runtime taken up by a family drama. Also the use of 3D. The color-dimming is unfortunate, as Miike seemingly coded colors into several scenes, but the application of the technology is notable: The camera slowly pans for most of the film, and is often blocked by curtains, trees, pillars (a common Miike move that’s applied more subtly here). There is no overt 3D effect, and usual for watching anything over a few minutes in such a fashion, you get used to it after a while and no longer notice it (until something does pop out from the middleground, such as when snow falls during important moments). So again, in the proliferation of action movies converted to 3D, a non-action 3D movie seems an interesting choice. Why not have shot 13 Assassins in 3D? With Miike, who knows if it was purposeful, but it seemed interesting.
I mention the more subtle use of Miike shots, and that subtly applies to the whole film. All of his trademark elements are muted. Not the extremity that’s marked his crossover films, as that isn’t truly a consistent element in the majority of his work (though a dash of perversity often is), rather his juxtaposition of random elements and scene composition. The splash was sacrificed in service of maintaining the mood of the story. There is a repeated motif of a cat, showing up in all elements of life, which was interesting, but it’s given a more linear approach than his general surreal application.
What’s that? The plot? Oh jesus, right. So a samurai approaches the honorable house of li and asks to use their courtyard to commit hara-kiri, as the more honorable location in which you commit such an act, the more honor you gain upon death. The senior retainer of the house tells a story of a young samurai who came to the house not long ago and asked to do the same, but was outed as a “suicide bluff,” a beggar faking his request in order to gain sympathy from the lord and perhaps money or housing as a result. But the house of li called the bluff, and in response, encouraged the beggar to follow through with his request… When then flash back to the life of the beggar his request, and it intersects with our original samurai in such a way to explain what brought them both to the house in succession…
Now obviously I’m a Miike fan. I think this was a very well made film compositionally, but the overall structure – while perhaps a purposeful response to the subject matter – is overlong, and prevents the emotions in the tale from really ringing true. It also should balance out the stirring end scene, but you’ve waited so long for it to arrive that you’re not sure how much of it you want to sit through when it finally does. I was exciting to see Ryuchi Sakamoto’s name on the soundtrack, but except for thrilling scores to the beginning and end, his music goes largely silent during that middle section as well, also adding to its overlong nature… So I wouldn’t recommend the movie to casual viewers. And those seeing it simply as a followup to the original will probably be frustrated by the change in tone. Longtime Miike fans will enjoy simply studying its addition to the director’s lineage. Overall, then, Hara-Kiri is a well-acted, interestingly made movie that works as a period piece, asking for a lot of patience from its viewer as it silently studies its characters. Perhaps best enjoyed at home.
As a note, there’s a more intelligent study of the juxtaposition of 13 Assassins and Hara-Kiri here.
Update 01.02.2017: Having just recently watched the blu-ray, my opinion on most of the above still stands. Although I think good portions of the film are devastatingly effective, there are several patches of silence in the middle that really test viewer patience because even the shot composition – colors, shapes – is stagnant. This might have been Miike testing our / his mettle a bit, really trying to boil down to the minimal needed for a scene, but it maybe crossed that line into “too little.” The transfer on the blu-ray is quite gorgeous (though fucking Tribeca’s trailers are at like 90,000 decibels compared to the movie’s very, very quiet mix) and, interestingly, the “depth” of the shots seems like it would lend itself well to 3-D, but having originally seen it that way and confirmed its relative uselessness… maybe Miike just wasn’t used to the tech. But the majority of the shots / sets are compelling nonetheless. Very much enjoyed it the second time through, especially knowing what kind of pace to expect.