Monday, 28 January 2013

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Hara-Kiri: Death Of A Samurai

Directed by: Takashi Miike

Produced by: Toshiaki Nakazawa
Jeremy Thomas

Screenplay by: Kikumi Yamagishi

Based on: Ibun ronin-ki (Hara-Kiri) by Yasuhiko Takiguchi

Starring: Ebizo Ichikawa
Koji Yakusho
Hikari Mitsuhima
Munetaka Aoki

Music by: Ryuichi Sakamoto

Cinematography by: Nobuyasu Kita

Editing by: Kenji Yamashita

Studio(s): Recorded Picture Company
Sedic International
Amuse Soft Entertainment

Distributed by: Shochiku Company (Japan)
Rezo Films (France)
Tribeca Film (United States)
Revolver Entertainment (United Kingdom)

Release date(s): May 19, 2011 (Cannes Film Festival)
October 15, 2011 (Japan)
November 30, 2011 (France)
May 4, 2012 (United Kingdom)
July 20, 2011 (United States)

Running time: 126 minutes

Country(s): Japan
United Kingdom

Langauge: Japanese

Production budget: N/A

Box office revenue (as of publication): $3, 523, 463

Alright there, folks, me again, up to tricks. Given how bloody busy I am with keeping up with films from 2012 and in prominence during this interesting awards season, this is my last full review for the year of 2012 in film. After this, I will do the traditional movie of the month, and for the rest of the year do smaller capsule reviews. I don't like compromising myself, but there's really no other feasible way to address the movies without taking away from my upcoming year-end awards, which, like last year, I actually want to get in on time! So, for less preamble and more movies in capsule format (at least temporarily), keep your eyes posted!

In that regard, I am glad (good or bad) to be finishing off the long format reviews for 2012 with Takashi Miike's Hara-Kiri: Death Of A Samurai. For those of you who don't know, I'm a huge fan of Miike, and even though I have probably seen about ten of his movies, I'm only touching the precipice, as in his now twenty-plus years as a director, he has directed over eighty productions, this being his eighty-third. Despite being known (indeed, notorious) for the depiction of sadomasochism in Ichi The Killer, his Masters Of Horror episode Imprint, which was deemed too disturbing for television, his yakuza films (which have been compared to Tarantino) and Audition, which is for me one of the ten greatest films ever made, he's a director of quite extraordinary range, doing everything from superhero films to westerns to children's movies. In this regard, his recent well-received jidaigeki film 13 Assassins has seen his reputation turn from what Michael Atkinson of Village Voice called a "crap-and-gore, genre-minching Tasmania devil" into "a tasteful, even resonant art house master." Following along this line, we have Hara-Kiri: Death Of A Samurai, another jidaigeki, adapted from a novel by Yasuhiko Takiguchi (earlier adapted in 1962 by Masaki Kobayashi), it became noted as the first 3D film to debut at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011. Now, I don't like 3D, but thankfully I didn't have to judge to as such, because I got my copy on DVD and in pristine 2D. Brief plot synopsis, impoverished samurai Tsugumo Hanshiro (Ebizo Ichikawa) shows up at a lord's palace asking for the use of their courtyard to commit the ritual act of seppuku, much to the dismay of Saito Kageyu (Koji Yakusho), who proceeds to tell him the story of a suicide bluff committed by Motome (Eita), the last samurai who expressed the same wish. It's all in the title, and the film unfolds as such that to say more would be to spoil the plot, so, let's get crackin'!

Starting with the good here, it is a very well acted film. Each of the principles do a solid job in depicting their characters, but I wish to flag up a few particulars. Koji Yakusho's Kageyu is a determined yet emotionally and rationally conflicted leader, and Munetaka Aoki, who plays the most terrifyingly uncompromising heavy in a good bit, are both strong, however, performance wise, the film belongs to Ebizo Ichikawa. The eleventh 'Ebizo' of the Ichikawa clan of Kabuki actors is the glue that holds this film together. He has a terrifically expressive face, which, in all the restraint that the character shows, ensures that the audience is able to make a connection to all the subtle gestures, furrowing of brows, and the same can be said for his voice, picking up little intonations that tell us more than any screaming over-actor ever could. Also, he is anything less than believable and convincing in his part; it is quite something for a man in his mid-thirties to be able to pull off the part of a veteran samurai ten-to-fifteen years older. This is an effective, versatile and highly subtle performance. Subtlety is a characteristic that defines Hara-Kiri: Death Of A Samurai. The make-up and hair for Ichikawa is equally important in convincing us of his legitimacy as the character. So many make-up jobs are designed as such that our attention is drawn towards it, but here it serves to enhance the performer. Likewise, the costumes and set design, despite this being a relatively low-budget film set in a few locations, are never less than convincing. We do believe in the legitimacy of the film being set in this period and just go with it. Another unique aspect of the film is that it involves a collaboration between Miike and Ryuichi Sakamoto, who composes the score for the film. I'm a big Yellow Magic Orchestra fan (where do you think my Emotional Heartstrings Orchestra got its name?), he's a terrific solo artist, and as a film composer, Sakamoto is known for the lush aural soundscapes on the likes of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and The Last Emperor. What I got was quite different to what I expected, but a nevertheless appropriate and great score. Sakamoto's work here is sweetly minimalist, with some scenes just having a single drum beat, which cranks the tension like a slowly turning vice. It's also a technically solid film in that it does not hog up the proceedings, and I put that down to the wise instincts of director Takashi Miike. I've known Miike for years to be a director who is able to get substance out of the most perverse of films and to be a cerebrally intense filmmaker that injects his films with style and a wicked sense of humour. Here, Miike shows another layer to his immensely textured palette, because while he has always been controlled, he hasn't always been restrained. His Hara-Kiri is an austere, rich drama based on human emotions and behaviour. It's down to Miike that this is the case, with the always unpredictable director delivering one of the best and most interesting in his prolific oeuvre.

Although Miike's Hara-Kiri is for the most part a great movie, there are a small number of deficiencies in the script which, while minor, deny it passage into the upper-upper echelon. The main issue at hand is that while the principals are well-written, I feel that there something lacking in the characterisation of Motome and Miho. Granted, they are realised before the audience in diegetic retrospect, but I do not feel that Kikumi Yamagishi has managed to get all he could out of these characters, who do come across as two-dimensional. Also, while it has a slow crank in terms of pacing that works rather well, I do think a bit could have been chipped off the edges to tighten up the screenplay as much as possible. Finally, while I have tried to do my research, I can't tell if it is down to desaturation of colour due to the stereoscopy, but I think some of the lighting in the film could have been improved.

These things being said about deficiencies in the script and some of the low-key lighting, Hara-Kiri: Death Of A Samurai is a great film. It's well acted, with the principals Koji Yakusho, Munetaka Aoki and especially Ebizo Ichikawa putting on great performances. The mise-en-scene is well-established, with the make-up/hair, costume and production design departments all subtly contributing to the diegesis. Also, in an unexpected but welcome turn, Ryuichi Sakamoto trades lush soundscapes for minimalism in this fascinating and appropriate score. Finally, the wise instincts of Miike-san shine through, churning out an austere drama while revealed another colour in his palette, delivering one of the best in his oeuvre.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 8.6/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Tired (busy week ahead, kicked off with the 2013 Royal Rumble, another great PPV from WWE)

P.S. I grumbled about the 18-certificate rating, but thankfully the brilliant BBFC website was able to give me an explanation as to the rating, which boiled down to the unabashed depiction of ritual suicide. I may disagree, but they explain they're reasoning at least. Unlike Cole Smithey.

P.P.S. Someone tell me to stop watching Cole Smithey's stuff, it just makes me cross!

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