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Cannes 2011. Takashi Miike's "Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai"

David Hudson

Updated through 5/21.

"Miike's gonzo efforts have assaulted the fest circuit for over a decade, and at least one, Gozu, appeared in the Director's Fortnight here," recalls Mike D'Angelo at the AV Club. "But he's finally gotten the big nod for Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, a remake of Masaki Kobayashi's masterpiece Harakiri (which itself won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1963, taking second place to Visconti's The Leopard). Like the original, it's a methodical, often downright somber tale of honor codes gone awry, depicting the repercussions of a horrific incident in which a starving ronin gets his 'suicide bluff' called. Weary of a wave of beggars seeking to inspire pity and a handout by asking for a suitably proud spot to commit seppuku, officials at the House of Ii force one poor fellow to go through with it,even when they see that his sword is made of bamboo. The next ronin to turn up with the same request, however, has other ideas." Final grade? C+. Evidently, it "gets bogged down in an extended flashback that takes up the film's entire midsection."

"After seeing his impotent and droll remake, Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai, it's clear Takashi Miike understands little to nothing about what made the original so sharp," argues Glenn Heath Jr at the House Next Door. "His textured but hollow 3D adaptation changes small but key plot elements, disavows the original's pressurized pacing, and eliminates the mystical qualities of the story's bookend sequences. Miike seems to be lost in a forest of iconography, unwilling to engage the complex ideas forming their foundation."

This is "a story of desperate deeds in which joy is fleeting, poverty is perpetual and the way of the samurai offers few helping hands to those who, in the poignant words of Hanshiro, are merely living their lives, waiting for spring," writes Justin Chang in Variety. "The sense that not just the actors but the characters themselves are enacting a ritualistic tragedy precludes the sort of devastating emotional punch that's called for here. Yet that hushed, heightened formality just as often works for the film's intricately nestled stories-within-stories, creating a stage-like space in which viewers willing to contemplate the film's political and moral underpinnings can do so. There's something chastening about being immersed in a feudal existence where family honor means everything and a few coins can make the difference between life and death. If Hara-kiri is inevitably less satisfying than 13 Assassins (also a remake), it's because it not only lacks that film's sustained virtuosity but also takes a more reverent approach to its source; it's possible to admire Miike's newfound classical restraint while also wishing he'd put a more singular stamp on the material."

"Anyone anticipating an action-packed companion piece to last year's 13 Assassins will need to adjust their thinking to accept something akin to a stately, slow-burning Shakespearean tragedy in which a blade is barely raised in anger before the final twenty minutes," adds Allan Hunter in Screen.

For indieWIRE's Eric Kohn, "the best moments come at the end. A despondent samurai faces down the minions of a feudal lord, staging a ferocious battle for the memory of the relatives whose lives were lost to the lord's cruel mandates. The swordplay buzzes along at a breathtaking rate, the bold fighter takes on dozens of foes at once, and Miike cuts to the fleeting image of a cat watching the whole thing go down. In that passing shot, which lasts no more than a second, the director suddenly elevates the material with the welcome element of surprise. Unfortunately, it's a lonely moment."

"There's nothing about this drama that is naturally enhanced by 3D, but tree trunks, pillars, large rocks, or actors' backs are often placed in the foreground of a shot specifically to emphasize the effect," writes Barbara Scharres for the Chicago Sun-Times. "Looks like cheap tricks to me, and bad composition to boot."

On the other hand, Adam Woodward at Little White Lies: "He's still best known for pushing the limits of taste with stomach-churners like Ichi the Killer and Audition, but it's films like Ichimei that have established him as one of Japan's most consummate filmmaking luminaries."


Wildgrounds has three clips and the grades are coming in at Micropsia.

A couple of weeks ago, Miike told the Guardian's Phil Hoad, "As a filmmaker, it's only natural to feel happy about new possibilities opening up. I picture myself 20 years from now, when 3D is the norm, telling my grandkids: 'In the old days, we actually argued about whether 2D was better.'"

Updates, 5/20: "Anyone expecting a 3D film on Japanese ritual suicide by the director of such ultra-gory fare as Ichi the Killer to have guts and entrails squirting out from the screen has another thing coming," warns Maggie Lee in the Hollywood Reporter. Hara-Kiri is "expensively mounted with comfortably unobtrusive 3D effects, ceremoniously slow, and oh so respectable. As a critique of the hypocrisy and inhumanity of bushido it lacks a bitter sting, nor does it search for a new angle to the subject."

The Playlist's Kevin Jagernauth agrees, finding Hara-Kiri to be "the complete opposite of what you might expect from a three-dimensional samurai movie from the director. Lethargically paced, visually dull and with an emphasis on drama over action, Hara-Kiri plays like a bad Merchant Ivory film with a lot of sonorous or off-key acting building up to very little."

Geoff Andrew, writing for Time Out London, is a tad kinder: "Visually, Miike pulls out all the stops, making subtly effective use of the 3D, careful color coding, and the seasons: blossoms, autumn leaves, rain and snow are all adduced to echo the emotions felt by Hanshiro and his family as they suffer the codes of a society overly concerned with notions of militaristic honour. The performances, too, are nicely understated, as is Ryûichi Sakamoto's sombre score; nevertheless, as the misfortunes blighting Hanshiro's happiness mount up, one does begin to feel that the story, if not Miike's painstakingly controlled direction, is laying it on a little thick. And crucially, the film fails to touch the emotions, which means that the climactic set-piece, for all its formal expertise, remains just that, rather than a satisfyingly cathartic conclusion to a tale of hardship, injustice and revenge."

Update, 5/21: "It's not that Hara-Kiri is so badly made," sighs Stephanie Zacharek at Movieline. "And it's interesting to see 3D technology applied to a slow story for once, rather than an action movie. Plus, Miike uses 3D for a few great effects: A wooden phoenix carving pops out in vivid detail; some pretty snowflakes fall ve-e-e-rry slowly, drifting down quietly at crucial dramatic moments. But mostly, the murkiness of the 3D images work against Miike. Having to work so hard to process the visuals just throws you out of the story."

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