Death of a Samurai 

HARA-KIRI-Death_of_a_Samurai_225.JPG

Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai
Directed by Takashi Miike

Seppuku —the suicide ritual whereby a man slices his own stomach open from left to right, enduring the pain until he either bleeds to death or is mercifully decapitated by a pre-selected partner —is no cultish leftover. Bound up in disgrace and ceremony, it can be a supra-legal means of conceding defeat, a last-minute purification, or an indictment of systemic hypocrisies; the final tack was taken in 1962 by writer-director Masaki Kobayashi with his furious Harakiri, a movie just as much about boilerplate samurai power struggles as the "masterless" human flotsam of postwar Japan. (Philosopher Nitobe Inazo wrote, "the syllogism of seppuku is easy to construct: 'I will open the seat of my soul and show you how it fares with it. See for yourself whether it is polluted or clean.'")

All of this to say, the pressure facing Takashi Miike's 3D Harakiri remake is steep—fifty years of cinematic respect, or several centuries of bushido, your pick—and the film mostly rises to the challenge plus change. Little from Kobayashi's classic is kept except names and core premise: a tattered ronin named Hanshiro (the magnetic Ebizo Ichikawa) turns up at a 17th century lord's estate requesting permission to disembowel himself in the courtyard. The lord and his vassals are skeptical, and recount an earlier incident whereby another, younger wanderer named Motome (Eita) made the same request, and it turned out he was bluffing—a common means of getting alms at the time. The retainers vengefully forced the baby-faced samurai to go through with it anyway, despite the fact that his sword was actually made from bamboo.

"Every man has his own honor. Without the heart to preserve that, we're nothing." The scene is excruciating; Motome's seppuku arrives after forty minutes of deliberations, the language of the players faithfully pitched just between stern lecturing and explosive rage. The film's ad campaign unwisely-but-probably-necessarily paints Hara-Kiri: Death Of A Samurai as a symphony of clanging katanas, but it's really not. Clarifying the relationship between Hanshiro and Motome, the director opts for full-bore period tragedy played out in two crosscutting narratives, using the (mostly useless) 3D less for cartoony angles than for lush texturing: blood on bamboo, footprints on gravel, a trio of severed topknots on snow.

Is Miike showing his age? As with 13 Assassins, there's scarce mystery to the film, and nothing that would've been out of place in a classic 50s Tohoscope feature (beyond a few spurts of genuinely startling violence). This is mostly slow-burn genre filmmaking rendered in classic style. (Fanboys who, as with Cronenberg, grouse that they want the old Miike back might find solace in his announcement that "Next, if I have the chance, I want to have things that shouldn't come out of our bodies be hurled at the audience.") It's borderline uncomfortable to consider that an auteur who cheerfully rollerblades off the most remote cliffs of human sanity has a better grasp of 3D's potential for humanism than, say, Scorsese, but he hits more than a few notes insidiously irony-free—like a vista of a newborn baby's face.

Opens July 20 at IFC Center

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