Cannes (Official Selection) – Via his blood-spattered multitude of movies, director Takashi Miike has cut out more intestines than most over the years. Now he gets to do it in gloriously gory 3D. Paul Martin dons those silly little glasses. Again.
It can sometimes be very hard to wrap your head around the motion picture industry's current lust for all things 3D. Putting aside the financial incentives (which admittedly is a bit like talking about Captain Birdseye without mentioning the breadcrumb-coated frozen fish products, but try to bear with me), and the actual screen spectacle delivered by the big stereoscopic films of the last couple of years have been decidedly mixed. Sure, Avatar and Tron: Legacy might have dazzled, but often you are either left with a crisply-shot but pointless reason for balancing an irritatingly weighty pair of specs on your nose for two hours – Green Hornet, Pirates 4 – or a blotchy eyesore – Alice in Wonderland, and now, disappointingly, Takashi Miike's Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai.
A simple law of averages declared it inevitable Miike would at some point deliver a 3D feature. After all, the guy produces films more frequently than the rest of us produce farts (in addition to Hara-Kiri, his Ninja Kids is also screening in the market section at Cannes), so how could he resist the temptation of using at least one of them to experiment with the movie biz's latest craze? As an experiment, however, it has to be declared a failure. Miike's camera prowls the outer rim of the courtyard where much of the action in Hara-Kiri plays out, like an eavesdropper sneaking from pillar to pillar, but the 3D adds very little to the proceedings and, most unforgivably, rendering the colour palette far muddier than you would hope (well, it was in the screening I attended, and from there is where I have to make all judgements).
In terms of content, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai comes over very much as a companion piece to 13 Assassins, one of the two new films which Miike debuted at the 2010 Venice Film Festival just eight months ago. Assassins was a remake of a 1963 picture by Eiichi Kudo, and Hara-Kiri follows in the footsteps of another old movie, this one having been made in '62 by Kobayashi Masaki, before competing at Cannes the following year. Both of the Miike films are set in feudal Japan, and both deal with periods when the samurai code still held sway, despite actual combat between warriors being rare.
Both also deal with the tension between prestige and humanity that exists within the honour system, with Miike's view across the diptych seeming to be that said system was hypocritically used by those already in power to reflect glory back onto themselves, rather than having anything to do with actual valour. Certainly the diabolical Lord Naritsugu in Assassins and also the nobleman Kageyu in Hara-Kiri (played by Kôji Yakusho, providing an acting link between the two films) use their privileged positions to abuse those beneath them – more blatantly and outrageously in the case of the former, perhaps more insidiously from the latter.
Hara-Kiri begins in 1634, when a saturnine ronin, Hanshirô Tsugumo (played by Ebizô Ichikawa), arrives at the home of Kageyu, demanding that he be allowed to commit ritual suicide by disembowelment, seppuku, in the courtyard, apparently a common enough practice from those seeking to restore lost honour. But Kageyu responds to this request with caution, choosing to relate a tale from some months earlier, when a young man from the same area that the ronin hails from arrived at his home and made an identical request.
The youngster's name was Motome (Eita is the actor playing him), and after Kageyu's lieutenants had decided that his suicide request was a bluff, designed to elicit sympathy and money from the noble, they force him to go through with his professed plan. His sword having been revealed as a fake made from bamboo, Motome duly kills himself in the one truly gruelling gore scene in the whole film.
This story having been recounted, it seems as if we are in line for a stupendous revenge tale, as Kageyu finally, in Hanshirô, meets a foe who is his match (the noble soon realises a number of his key henchmen are missing, with their collective absence seemingly linked to the presence of the ronin). But just as you begin to salivate in anticipation of the action apparently about to unfold, the movie dives back in time, providing a lengthy flashback of how Motome came to be stood before Kageyu on that fateful day.
Just from the first two minutes of the flashback, you can tell exactly where it is all headed. Yet it still takes another hour or so for Miike to cut back to the contemporary (in the context of the film), where Hanshirô can prove his mettle against Motome's tormentors. And while that final confrontation features some exciting and unexpectedly inventive fight choreography, it scarcely compensates for the soggy family saga which bogs down the middle of the movie.
Rating on a scale of 5 deaf samurai: 3
Release date: UK = TBC; US = TBC
Directed by: Takashi Miike
Screenplay by: Kikumi Yamagishi, based on the film 'Harakiri', written by Shinobu Hashimoto and Yasuhiko Takiguchi
Cast: Ebizô Ichikawa, Kôji Yakusho, Eita, Hikari Mitsushima
Cert: UK = TBC; US = TBC
Running Time: 128 minutes
IndieMoviesOnline users in the UK can watch Takashi Miike's 2002 Yakuza thriller Deadly Outlaw: Rekka here for free.