Thursday, February 6, 2014

Movie Review: Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Ichimei) - 2011

Debunking the myth of samurai honor

IMDB"Hara Kiri: Death of a Samurai" is another samurai movie by Takashi Miike which he made right after 13 Assassins and which is also a remake of a movie from the 1960s. It is a very different take on the samurai subject though in that it is less of an action movie and more of a bitter social drama that criticizes the hypocrisy of samurai culture in the Edo era.

Mostly told in retrospective, "Hara Kiri" is a story about a masterless samurai who requests a clan lord to allow him to commit ritual suicide on the lord's estate. The lord is suspicious though since such requests have become fashionable among poor samurai as a means to get alms. So the lord decides to make an example: instead of giving the samurai some money he forces him to actually kill himself in a ritual that turns out to be inhumanely agonizing. Two months later, another samurai arrives at the estate, with a similar suicide request. As a warning, the lord tells him about the fate of the poor wretch who died there earlier. But the man already knows about that. In fact, he knew the dead man very well, and he tells the lord the story of his life.

Major part of "Hara Kiri"is spent with the depiction of the poverty of the samurai's family. As your sympathy for him grows, you feel nothing but contempt for the lord and his hypocritical idea of honor, which is just as hollow as the armor suit exhibited at the center of his estate. However, while the display of poverty is crucial to establish the movie's moral, there is just too much of it for my taste. The beginning of "Hara Kiri" is strong and unnerving, but then it meanders in poverty melodrama for such a long time that its action packed last act actually feels out of place.

I have a hard time liking the movie since it is so bitter, but I still think that it is important since it contrasts Hollywood productions that mystify samurai honor, like "The Last Samurai" or the "Kill Bill" series. Or "Ghost Dog", which is about a killer living by the samurai code described in the Hagakure, which is a morbid book mystified in the West as some sort of esoteric business guide. Generally, there is a strong fascination in the West with Bushido, the samurai way of life, which is expressed by movies like the ones mentioned above. However, even the samurai code that the Hollywood movies claim to be based on is basically just a fabrication of the Edo era, which began with the 17th century. That era was way more peaceful than the previous ones, and it was the time when the samurai stopped being warriors and became a ruling class of government officials. Ironically, the more the samurai ceased to be warriors, the more they became obsessed with an idea of warriors' honor that actually hadn't much to do with the samurais' way of living during the previous millennium.

"Hara Kiri" plays in that era, and it is mentioned during the movie that most of the lord's samurai haven't actually fought in battle. The lord's hypocrisy isn't just a plot tool added to give the movie a villain. Rather, the movie appears to provide a fairly accurate description of the state of society at that time. Considering that, "Hara Kiri" is worth watching, so it's a pity that it loses so much momentum during the middle act.

Rating: 6 out of 10 chopped-off topknots.