May 4, 2012

Hara-Kiri: The Death of a Samurai [18]

Dir: Takashi Miike
The insanely prolific Takashi Miike - who has recently 'slowed' his work rate to a positively sedate average of two films a year - was last seen in UK cinemas with his remake of 13 Assassins, now he's back with another remake, of Masaki Kobyashi's 1962 classic (which, in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I've not seen). Hara-Kiri sees Miike working in 3D for the first time, but, having been supplied with a Blu Ray for this review I have only been able to see the 2D version.

Miike's work, as you might expect of a man who has amassed 88 directorial credits in 21 years, is hit and miss and after making a fantastically energetic and fun samurai film in 13 Assassins, he misses with Hara-Kiri.

The setup is initially intriguing: a middle aged samurai (Ebizô Ichikawa) arrives at the house of a feudal lord (Kôji Yakusho) and asks permission to use his courtyard to commit ritual suicide. In response the lord relates a story about the last time this happened, when a young samurai (Eita) made the same request, but had been bluffing. It soon becomes clear that there is a connection between the two men. The problem is that, while the setup starts out reasonably interesting - the story of the younger samurai builds with expert tension, and is paid off in what is easily the film's most memorable and best scene - the film is approximately 80% setup. For most of the first 99 minutes of this 120 minute film all we get is backstory and, especially after THAT scene happens around the 40 minute mark, it is unpardonably tedious.

Of course it's good that Miike wants us to get to know his characters, but there is so much in the hour of backstory about the relationship between Hanshiro (Ichikawa) and Motome (Eita) that we just don't need to see. We need to establish the connections, and how Hansiro's daughter Miho (Hikari Mitsushima, in a role that asks far too little of her, given her talents) ties into the story, but AN HOUR? Miike could easily have established everything we need to know from this sequence in twenty minutes and it still would have felt generous. It's especially plodding given that we already know at least half of the endgame here, and can easily infer the other half. The acting is reasonable from Eita and the underused Mitsushima, and Ichikawa is a solid and charismatic centre. Miike's surprisingly stately direction is stylish too, but the lack of pace and the redundancy of what Miike is telling us make this achingly dull, and you long for just the tiniest bit of action.

There are only really two beats in the film where it stutters to life. The first, when Motome's bluff is called, is excruciating in its length, its detail and its impact, and it's where Miike really comes good as a director, making the violence feel incredibly brutal and painful without dwelling in it in truly explicit detail. Over an hour later Hanshiro gets a small action beat, but the impact is severely lacking, both in the light of that earlier scene and because by this time I was so bored that I just didn't care anymore and, while it's not badly done, the choreography of this - the film's sole major action scene - is hardly anything new.

In Miike's defence he seems at least to use 3D with restraint (things are never poked out of the screen at us), but can honestly imagine the point of the format for the endless family drama flashback in the middle of the film? Not really. The illusion of visual depth is just as present - perhaps more so - in the essentially flawless Blu Ray image as I suspect it will be in cinemas, and without putting a barrier between your eyes and the picture of draining 30% of the colour from and already frequently dark film.

Overall though, Hara-Kiri is a huge disappointment, there's no question that there is a lot of talent brought together here, but the final result is tedious in the extreme.

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