So I watched Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, by Takashi Miike, who had directed another samurai picture I was really into, 13 Assassins. It was good, with a great setup, but sadly only a thematic payoff (and themes alone, meh), and in reading reviews of it, I learned that it was actually a remake, and that the new version cannot be understood except in relation to the original (surprise: 13 Assassins was a remake, too). So I was interested enough to watch the original, and guess what? The new one cannot be understood except in relation to the original. Not least because the original makes clear a lot of points that, in the remake, were so unclear as to hamper enjoyment of the film. Plus, the original is in the Criterion Collection, and the new one is not, you know what I'm saying?
The Criterion disc comes with an introduction by a film scholar that contains several interesting bits of context, although it does also come with numerous spoilers. Maybe best to watch it afterward. We open with images of a suit of ceremonial armor, which occupies a proud place in the House of Lyi, local samurai constabulary, overseen by Kageyu. It is 1630, a time of peace, meaning that all the samurai are now no longer needed, and most of them have been plunged into poverty. Hanshiro, our hero, appears at the House of Lyi and asks to commit hara-kiri in the courtyard. The idea is that committing suicide, in this honorable way, will also get honor plus points by being done in an honorable place. Kageyu says sure, no problem, but let me tell you about the last guy who came asking for the same thing. You see, there was a case of a samurai who asked for this, and the house found him so honorable that they took him in and gave him a position. Thus numerous samurai have asked for the same thing, hoping to be taken in. And many of them are sent away with some money to go do it somewhere else. These are called suicide bluffs.
So Kageyu says this dude, Motome, was just here, asking for the same thing, and they were convinced he was bluffing, a fact confirmed by that he has sold his blade and has it replaced with bamboo. Having sold his blade, which is "the soul of the samurai," means he was really on the skids. In the remake, they save this information til a powerful moment. Anyway, they decide to make an example of Motome, and make him go through with it. Motome, who only wanted money, shits a brick when they tell him to go for it, and trap him inside. Then, nary a brick was so painfully shat as when he realizes they're going to make him do it with his bamboo blade. You know that hara-kiri is disembowling yourself, right? And doing it with bamboo is akin to doing it with a butter knife. So I think it's safe to say that the folks at the House of Lyi are pretty much dicks.
SPOILERS > > >
Well, they make him do it, in a hard-to-watch scene, but not quite so excruciating as in the Miike remake, but hey--that's Miike's forte, right? The remake, by the way, has Kageyu show mercy at the last moment and behead Motome, but he's much more of a hard-ass here. There's also a lower-level samurai who is the one who really makes him go through with it. He is Hikokuro. So Kageyu asks Hanshiro: having heard this, you still want to do it? Hanshiro is like fuck right, buddy. So they go to the courtyard. Hanshiro asks for Hikokuro to be his second (appointed to lop off his head and end his misery once the damage is done), but Hikokuro called in sick that day. Hanshiro says, well, while we're waiting for him, let me tell you a little story.
Turns out he did know Motome, he says. In fact, when Motome's dad died, he adopted the lad. Here Motome is taken in while a young adult, while in the Miike version he's a boy of six or so. Anyway, he raises him, along with his daughter Miho, and when the time comes, he asks Motome to marry Miho, because if not, she'll end up with someone who makes her a concubine. Motome protests that he has no money, but Dad encourages it, and they marry and soon have a child. A very key difference here is that we show Motome working as a teacher, and trying to get work in construction, which circumvents a key question in the remake, which is "WHY doesn't he get a job?" We also know that Dad is barely squeaking by, which circumvents questions arising in the remake of "Why doesn't Dad lend them money?" These unanswered questions actually make it difficult to engage in the story of the remake, because they linger so heavily over proceedings. Anyway, soon Miho gets sick, and so does the infant, and after a period of suffering, Motome gets an idea and goes out... and well, we all know how that worked out.
So back in the present, Hanshiro impugns the honor of the House of Lyi, and says he knows where the guy he asked for is, and forks over his topknot. This is the tied bit of hair a samurai wears on his head, and if someone takes it, you have been pwned big time. He also as the topknots of the two other samurai who helped the one. Then he makes clear his intentions to take as many of them as he can down before he is killed. Kageyu retreats into the other room, and it turns into a huge fight and bloodbath in the courtyard.
Now, a huge difference in the remake is that there, Hanshiro has replaced his own blade with bamboo, which has a nice symbolic resonance but is going to seriously hamper his ability to take a bunch of these bitches down. And it does; he inflicts a few mild scratches and hurt feelings at best. Symbolic, awesome, but it also hinders one's movie satisfaction, as you spend the whole time building up to this bloodbath, then get only a mild tussle. Here, Hanshiro still has his blade, and lays considerable waste. Finally he ends up in the room with the symbolic armor, and knocks that shit down. Then, when he's confronted with guns, he commits hara-kiri and dies an honorable death. In a coda, Kageyu says to order the guys who got topknot-deprived to kill themselves, and then list all the other casualties as illness. They reset the symbolic armor (which we note, as the historian at the beginning points out, is empty) and we fade out knowing with the big irony that the House of Lyi goes on, keeping their besmirched honor a secret.
< < < SPOILERS END
So the remake does a good job of making a lot of this more vivid, from the bamboo hara-kiri up front and all the way through the long flashback, building this sense of "Woah man, this shit is ON when we come back!" Only then, it isn't on. It's just a tussle, symbolic honor-toppling, and, I guess that's good on a literary level. So that's lame, and also the momentum is seriously hampered by all the unanswered questions, which leaves you feeling "Well, I guess all of this could have been avoided of Motome had just gotten a job!" All of those questions are answered here, which makes this one work much better as a standalone film, and helps one understand what is meant when folks say the new one cannot be understood but in relation to this original. I suspect that the new one is a real pleasure if you're quite devoted to the original--it is quite gorgeous--but it just can't fully stand on its own.
So if you're going to watch one, watch this one [then the remake is purely optional], as it's a much more full expression, without the nagging questions that undermine the story, and concludes with all the whup-ass you know you want after the slow, slow burn of the story. One's a classic, one's a footnote.
Yes! Watch this one, then the other only if REALLY interested.