ContactSales: HanWay Films, London (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Premiere: Cannes Film Festival (Competition), 19 May 2011. Theatrical release: Japan, 8 Oct 2011.
Presented by Hara-Kiri Film Partners (JP/UK). Produced by Sedic International (JP), Recorded Picture (UK), Olm (JP), Rakueisha (JP). Executive producers: Hattori Yo, Noda Suketsugu, Irie Yoshio, Okuno Toshiaki, Noguchi Akemiko, Noguchi Eiichi, Hatanaka Tatsuro, Machida Tomoko, Kitano Hiroaki. Producers: Nakazawa Toshiaki, Jeremy Thomas.
Script: Yamagishi Kikumi. Novel: Takiguchi Yasuhiko (Strange Tale of a Ronin 異聞浪人記, 1958). Photography: Kita Nobuyasu. Editing: Yamashita Kenji. Music: Sakamoto Ryuichi. Production design: Hayashida Yuji. Art direction: Sakamoto Akira, Kagoo Kazuto. Costume design: Kurosawa Kazuko. Sound: Nakamura Jun, Shibazaki Kenji. Action: Tsujii Keiji.
Cast: Ichikawa Ebizo (Tsugumo Hanshiro), Eita (Chijiiwa Motome), Mitsushima Hikari (Miho, his wife), Yakusho Koji (Saito Kageyu), Takenaka Naoto (Tajiri), Aoki Munetaka (Omodaka Hikokuro), Arai Hirofumi (Matsusaki Hayatonosho), Namioka Kazuki (Kawabe Umanosuke), Amano Yoshihisa (Sasaki), Hira Takehiro (Lord Iyi Kamonnokami Naotaka), Takahashi Ippei (Naito), Saito Ayumu (Fujita), Daimon Goro (landlord), Sasano Takashi (priest), Nakamura Baijaku (Chijiiwa Jinnai).
Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai 一命
2011, colour, 3-D, 2.35:1, 126 mins
Directed by Miike Takashi (三池崇史)
By Derek Elley
Thu, 26 May 2011, 00:28 AM (HKT)
Intelligent, precision-made version of the novel, with subtle use of 3-D. Beyond Asia, largely festivals and niche ancillary.
Edo (ancient Tokyo), Japan, 1634. In the early years of the Tokugawa period, peace has resulted in unemployment and poverty among the samurai class, with many masterless samurai (aka ronin) driven to threaten ritual hara-kiri in the hope they'll be offered money or a job instead. A typical ronin, Tsugumo Hanshiro (Ichikawa Ebizo), arrives at the House of Iyi and requests permission to perform ritual suicide in the courtyard, as he can no longer bear the shame of poverty. Thinking he's just another "suicide bluffer", Saito Kageyu (Yakusho Koji), chief retainer at the House, tries to dissuade Tsugumo by recounting the story of a younger ronin who made the same request recently. Aged about 20, Chijiiwa Motome (Eita) had had his bluff called by Iyi squire Omodaka Hikokuro (Aoki Munetaka), who had convinced Saito that it was time to set an example. Chijiiwa had hoped to get some money for his sick wife Miho (Mitsushima Hikari) and baby son, but when his bluff was called it was revealed he had already sold his swords and had only a cheap bamboo one. Nevertheless, Omodaka had still forced him to commit hara-kiri in a particularly grisly way with the blunt instrument. After hearing the story, Tsugumo specially requests that Omodaka and two other Iyi samurai should be his seconds during his hara-kiri, but all three are coincidentally absent without leave that day. Suspicious, Saito asks him why, and Tsugumo then tells Saito his own story. It begins some 15 years earlier, when fellow samurai Chijiiwa Jinnai (Nakamura Baijaku), on his deathbed, asked Tsugumo to take care of his young son Motome, who grew up to become his son-in-law.
In retrospect, it was a strategic mistake by MIIKE Takashi 三池崇史 to follow Thirteen Assassins 十三人の刺客 (2010), his engrossing samurais-on-a-mission epic, with another samurai movie, especially in 3-D. In the long run of cinema history, the two films' proximity won't be an issue; but as a result, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai 一命 (2011) didn't get quite the acclaim it deserved at its Cannes world premiere. Those led by Miike's reputation for the extreme, and by the previous film's rocking action sequences, came expecting in-your-lap use of stereography but instead found a low-key, precision-made drama that deliberately under-used 3-D and was very light on blood and guts.
As a complete slice of entertainment, Hara-Kiri isn't quite at the elevated level of Assassins, and plays more like the talky but absorbing first half of that film, with some brief swordfighting at the end. Nevertheless, it's still a finely-crafted drama — intelligently scripted and solidly-to-very-well played — that like Assassins critiques the feudal system that encouraged such senseless rituals and slaughter while also finding true honour and heroism in its main character.
Printed in subdued colours, the movie naturally looks completely different from the stark B&W of Harakiri 切腹 (1962) — KOBAYASHI Masaki 小林正樹's classic version of the late TAKIGUCHI Yasuhiko 滝口康彦's novel — but there's not a great deal of difference in content, more variations in emphases. (Miike and writer YAMAGISHI Kikumi 山岸きくみ went back to the novel rather than the film.) Though he lacks the commanding stature that NAKADAI Tatsuya 仲代達矢 brought to the central role of suicidee supplicant Tsugumo in the earlier version, kabuki star ICHIKAWA Ebizo 市川海老蔵 is much better fitted to Miike's more human take on the story. Instead, the movie's commanding performance comes from YAKUSHO Koji 役所広司 — fresh from his lead stint in Assassins, though better known for modern roles in films like KUROSAWA Kiyoshi 黒沢清's — as chief retainer of the House of Iyi before whom Tsugumo requests ritual seppuku.
Faced with inflexible codes of honour, Yakusho's character has a combination of stubbornness and understanding that's far more 2011 than 1962 and informs the tone of the whole movie. Where Kobayashi was using the genre to critique WW2 codes of honour, Miike tells a much more human story in which Tsugumo's family background with his daughter and son-in-law is sympathetically detailed during the movie's central section, with solid performances by MITSUSHIMA Hikari 満島ひかり (Love Exposure 愛のむきだし (2008)) and Eita 瑛太 (Dear Doctor ディア・ドクター (2009)) as the young couple.
Though set some 200 years before Assassins, the film has much the same subdued but solid look, with the same d.p., editor and production design team. Apart from a couple of jaw-dropping autumnal compositions that paragraph the story, Miike uses the 3-D (in which the film was shot) in the subtlest of ways — to give added depth to his compositions, especially in interiors, and no more. The film will not lose much seen in 2-D but is still worth the effort of watching through glasses. The Japanese title literally means One Life or One Fate.