Hara-Kiri: The Death of a Samurai

It's hard to put food on your family
Takashi Miike
Ebizo Ichikawa, Eita, Koji Yakusho, Hikari Mitsushima
The Setup: 
Someone has a really good case for revenge.

Takashi Miike continues to make modern samurai films with this, his follow-up to the amazing 13 Assassins. This film is gorgeous and has an amazing set-up that... ultimately fails to completely pan out. It just leaves too many nagging unanswered questions, and ends with a squish when it needed a bang.

So Takashi Miike left the horror behind, and made a brilliant samurai film in the Kurosawa vein with 13 Assassins, which blew me away and which you should watch right now, if you haven't seen it. Then he made another samurai film, this one, which just didn't receive as much attention and vanished silently from theaters (where it was, pointlessly, in 3D). I thought the novelty had simply worn off, explaining why it made less of an impact, but now that we see the film, it's revealed as a beautiful movie with a brilliant setup that is sadly diminished by too many nagging questions and an unsatisfying ending.

We get that good feeling of being in the hands of a master craftsman from the opening credits sequence, containing beautiful compositions and brilliant colors that continue throughout the film. A man, Hanshiro, comes to the House of Li to request permission to commit hara-kiri in their lovely court. It is a time of peace, when samurai find themselves no longer needed and unemployed and penniless, but they can regain some of their lost honor by having a honorable suicide at one of the respected houses. But, it seems that there is a phenomenon of suicide bluffs, in which a samurai says he wants to commit hara-kiri, but backs out at the last minute and begs a few coins, which was his intent all along. In order to make sure he means business, Kageyu, head of the house of Li, tells him what happened to the last guy who requested hara-kiri in their house.

It seems that not long before, this fellow Motome stopped by asking for the same thing. They readied all the preparations, but looked at his sword and said "He's going to commit suicide with THIS?" which reveals that he's bluffing. The movie holds off on showing us what's up with the sword. Motome is growing ever-more freaked as it seems that they're taking his suicide plan seriously, and finally begs for one more day. They don't allow it, and furthermore, say it's only right that he use his own sword, which is now revealed: a dull bamboo blade. Motome finally relents and admits it was a bluff, he just needs a small sum to get medicine for a sick wife and child. But no, they force him to go through with it, to make an example of him, and thus follows one of the most painful, agonizing scenes you've ever sat through. One of the attendants is particularly merciless in making him follow through, and Kageyu lets it all happen, only showing mercy at the very end.

Back to the present, Hanshiro insists that he's going to do it, and requests the sadistic one from Motome's suicide as his second. But that guy can't be found. And two other samurai from the House of Li are missing, too. All along we have seen several shots of the ceremonial armor that represents the place of honor at the house of Li, and a white cat that relaxes with Kageyu. Hanshiro says that actually, he did know Motome, in fact, knew him quite well, and he's gonna tell his story, which involves a protracted flashback.

Hanshiro was a widower with a baby daughter, Miho. His friend dies, and he takes guardianship of, you guessed it: Motome. He raises the boy and they're all one happy family. When it's time for Miho to marry, Motome is the only one Dad would trust, and the youngsters are feeling the love as well. Next thing you know, they've moved out and had a baby. They also have a white cat, which you are invited to speculate is the same white cat that ends up in Kageyu's care. No sooner does Miho have the baby when she starts to get sick. But this is where the questions start. First, what does Motome DO for a living? We never see Hanshiro train him to be a samurai, or any other trade (Hanshiro himself makes umbrellas), but Motome never does anything. He starts selling books to support them, but you're like "Shouldn't he be learning some kind of trade?" I think he needs to set his course for a lucrative career with high-quality, dynamic vocational training from Monroe Community College.

But no, he just keeps selling books, which are going to run out soon. The symbolism indicator light shoots into the red when they find the white cat dead in their courtyard (hmm, so Kageyu has a different one, okay). Then the baby gets sick. The doctor will cost the same amount Motome begged for before he was forced to off himself. Hanshiro is around and all worried, but you're like "Doesn't Dad have money? He can't spot them the small amount they need?" This is never answered, nor is the question of WHY Motome doesn’t just get a JOB or something. HOW can he expect to care for his wife and child with no money? WHY didn’t Dad train him for anything at all? And these questions keep you from really sympathizing with their plight, or getting into their story.

Which can alienate, especially as the film moves into high sympathy mode, with maudlin music and carefully-composed shots of the sick wife and baby. Emotion boils over as the baby dies and Motome’s body is brought back RIGHT then, and Dad finds out what happened, and then Miho kills herself with the bamboo blade. It’s super-sad times! And all of it could have been avoided if one of them HAD JUST GOTTEN A FUCKING JOB.

Still, it is a hot, hot set-up for a revenge flick, and is doing a great job building up tension for when we return to the present day. But then… things also don’t go quite as expected. We find that Hanshiro didn’t kill the three samurai who were most responsible, he just cut off their topknots, which shamed them [they were pwned]. When Kageyu is unrepentant, Hanshiro gets up and you’re like “Now it’s ON!,” and then he pulls out… a bamboo blade! And you’re like “Awwwwww SHIT!” because yikes, that’s gonna hurt, but then… well, he can’t really do much damage with that thing, yet he still seems to be succeeding, konking people on the head and such, but it soon becomes apparent that this is not going to be any satisfying mass slaying. Soon he knocks over the big ceremonial armor, and this is bad juju, but then he is killed. The film ends with a short epilogue where Kageyu tells a visiting lord that the armor represents the honor of his house, which we know is seriously in question, although he's pretending it's not, and oh bitter, bitter irony, and: the end!

Now, I know that I’m an evil representative of sensation-seeking Americans who want action and violence and big payoffs, and represent everything wrong with the world, but… there’s a reason Star Wars didn’t end with Luke causing a temporary power outage on the death star to prove a point, you know what I’m saying? There’s a reason Chief Brody didn’t just give that shark a nasty konk on the head, right? So there’s that, although I can live with it. But by that time, it is just the culmination of so much AMAZING build-up degraded by so many nagging questions and then such a squishy payoff and… well, it’s not the movie I wish it was.

Now, I have since read a review that points out that this film is a remake of a 60s movie [as 13 Assassins was also a remake, apparently], and that review contends that this film is impossible to understand on its own, and only makes sense in the context of the earlier film, and the history of samurai films in general. So just go ahead and spend the next five years getting a comprehensive understanding of samurai cinema before you stream this on Netflix, okay?

I can buy that there’s a lot I’m not understanding here [like why Motome can’t just GET A FUCKING JOB], and that this might be elusive without a full and complete knowledge of, you know, every single thing that ever happened in the world, and its subsequent representation in cinema, but without all that, it still has its charms. Beautifully crafted filmmaking. An excellent story and setup. A decent payoff, if not fully satisfying. So you could do worse than to watch it, and it wouldn’t be a total waste, but if you haven’t seen 13 Assassins, you might just want to go for that.

BUT WAIT!!! Since that was written, I DID go back and watch the original, and in our NEXT THRILLING INSTALLMENT we will talk about that one, which DOES answer all of the nagging question this film just didn't see fit to include, and also replaces the death star power outage with the death star explosion we all know this needs. It's all coming to this same Bat-time and same Bat-channel, and will updated here whenever I FUCKING. FEEL. LIKE. IT.

Should you watch it: 

If you’ve seen 13 Assassins, and want more though not quite as satisfying.