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Review: ‘Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai’

Another Samurai Tale From Takashi Miike

Above: Takashi Miike's "Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai."

Last year Japanese director Takashi Miike treated audiences to a grueling samurai epic, "13 Assassins." Now he delivers a very different samurai tale, "Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai" (opening August 31 at Reading Gaslamp Stadium Theaters).

"13 Assassins" was a stunning slow burn action film that paid off with one of the most exhausting samurai battles since "Seven Samurai." The body count was massive and by the end you felt like you had been through battle with the characters. "Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai" offers a stark contrast to that cinematic experience. The body count is low and the action minimal by comparison, yet on a certain level it is as brutal and grueling.

Instead of a tale about a band of samurai, this time Miike focuses mainly on the death of a single samurai. The film is based on Masaki Kobayashi's 1962 classic, "Harakiri." and does it up in 3D (I don't know why the 3D). The 17th century drama unfolds through a series of flashbacks as two samurais express a desire to commit hara-kiri, a ritual suicide.

The first samurai we meet is Hanshirô (Ebizô Ichikawa). He arrives at the ruling House of Li and explains his wish to use its grounds to commit suicide. Kageyu (the ever splendid Kôji Yakusho), the retainer in charge, and others are suspicious of his request. Peace times are hard for a ronin or employed samurai so there's suspicion that he is only threatening suicide in the hopes of extorting money or sympathy. Kageyu says he doesn't take well to these "bluffs" designed to extort money. In order to make his point, Kageyu recounts a tale of a similar ronin named Motome (Eita) who also arrived expressing a desire to kill himself at the House of Li in the hopes of regaining some honor after struggling for years in poverty. But Kageyu's men made an example of Motome by forcing him to carry out the ritual disemboweling with a dull bamboo sword that can barely puncture the skin. The suicide proves painfully brutal. But this story doesn't have the impact Kageyu had expected. In fact, the story proves to be precisely why Hanshirô is there.

"Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai" is a rather conventional film for the often extreme Miike. He's the man who gave us "Audition," "Ichii the Killer," and "Visitor Q." But conventional for Miike is still quite good. The film is restrained -- not something Miike often displays -- but well crafted and paced. There is not a lot of action or violence but what is there is superbly done. The central hara-kiri scene is excruciating and memorable. So while there is not the excess of violence that overflowed from "Ichii" or the "Dead or Alive" films, the brief scenes are handled with an unflinching effectiveness.

Miike is above all a craftsman. He is one of the most prolific filmmakers, cranking out films, videos, commercials, TV show, and more at a breathless rate. He is like one of those old studio directors who just kept working and doing whatever assignment he was handed with equal professionalism. When he makes films so fast he doesn't have time to linger over them or worry about whether they were exactly the right project for him or not. With that in mind, "Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai" feels less personal than some of his other works but it is compelling and smartly handled.

"Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai" (in Japanese with English subtitles and unrated but for mature audiences) is another solid rather than flamboyant film from Japan's master of extreme Takashi Miike. It doesn't have as satisfying a pay off as "13 Assassins" but it allows more time for characters to develop and to paint a portrait of samurai life in times of peace. Although it's nice to see a more restrained side of Miike, I have to confess that I long for him to return to something that pushes the envelope a little more. But for now I am happy to appreciate his skillful sense of craft and measured storytelling.

Companion viewing: "Harakiri," "13 Assassins," "Visitor Q"

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