Code of samurai honour and Japan under Tokugawa shoguns under superficial examination in “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai”

Takashi Miike, “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai” (2011)

As this is a Takashi Miike film, this flick has the requisite blood-letting shock factor to satisfy Miike’s fans for whom “Ichi the Killer” is his one and only masterpiece, but apart from the excruciating act of seppuku near the beginning of the film and the frenzied fighting that climaxes it, “Hara-Kiri …” is an examination of the concept of honour and its debasement in Japanese culture. The setting is early 17th century Tokugawa Japan, over 30 years after the Battle of Sekigahara which brought Ieyasu Tokugawa to power as the Shogun. Many clans that supported him and which expected handsome reward as a result of their loyalty despite earlier spats now find themselves abandoned and one such family is the Chijiwa family. The patriarch dies and his young son Motome is taken in by a loyal retainer Hanshiro Tsukuno (Ebizo Ichikawa) who brings up the boy together with his own daughter Miho in genteel poverty. Years pass and a now-adult Motome (Eita) takes a job teaching village children how to write. He and Miho (Hikari Mitsushima) marry and have a child but they struggle to make a living. During a hard winter, Miho and the baby fall badly sick and Motome, desperate for money and having sold his swords, decides on a risky request: having heard that the nearby Lord of the House of Ii has been visited by down-and-out samurai requesting to commit suicide in his courtyard and receiving instead money to avoid embarrassment and shame, he will also try the same ruse …

This is the background Dickensian tale-of-woe told in flashback that provides the motivation for the act of seppuku and which forms the film’s moral heart and structure linking the suicide and Tsukuno’s act of vengeance against those who cynically and contemptuously force Motome to kill himself and indirectly cause Miho to suicide as well. The story of Tsukuno’s family and how it falls on hard times due to the whims of the Shogun and the Shogunate’s restrictions on what people may and may not do (which extends to whether they can repair their homes or not, let alone determine how they make a living and earn money) is almost as excruciatingly painful to watch as Motome’s death. Miike sure knows how to draw out maximum pathos by focusing on close-ups of the cute chubby baby when alive early on and later featuring unbearably sad close-ups of the li’l fella dead.

The story ultimately revolves around a moral duel between Tsukuno and the head official, Kageyu (Koji Yakusho), deputising for the Lord of the House of Ii who is absent: Kageyu is shown early in the film as something of a faceless bureaucrat who likes his creature comforts and who lacks a moral backbone. He’s not lacking in compassion and he does have potential to be a wise arbitrator but he allows himself to be used by others like head swordsman Omodaka and his lord, and he slavishly follows convention. Kageyu could have used his authority as deputy to let off Motome and give him money, and also to show mercy to Tsukuno; but by obeying the letter rather than the spirit of the law and custom of the land, he debases the notion of honour. With that, the society of Tokugawa Japan stands indicted as all style, conformist and fetishising military values and codes, but lacking in substance, mercy and compassion for suffering and helpless people, and ignorant of true honour. The retainers of the Lord of the House of Ii are shown up during the climactic fight scene as a bunch of idiots who can’t even cut down one middle-aged samurai wielding a wooden sword.

The film’s narrative structure affords many opportunities for Miike to make a very beautiful film that partakes of the concept of mono no aware (awareness of the transience of life and having a wistful attitude to that knowledge) in its cinematography which sometimes dwells on images of still life and nature to show the passage of time. On the other hand, gorgeous visuals aren’t enough and are sometimes too much also: Miike’s close attention to trivial details and obsessing over particular scenes or a story-line more than is necessary take his attention away from a more probing inquiry into the nature of honour, mercy and compassion, and the film comes across as fussy and superficial with an empty centre. Character development is uneven: Ichikawa does a good job of portraying Tsukuno but other actors playing Motome, Miho, Omodaka and Kageyu either don’t have enough screen-time or aren’t given enough to do to flesh out these characters as other than one-dimensional stereotypes. True tension between Tsukuno and characters like Omodaka and Kageyu is lacking: the film doesn’t even make clear whether the tension should be between Tsukuno and Omodaka, between him and Kageyu, or between him and the higher layers of the aristocracy with whom his real beef is – after all, Kageyu and Omodaka, self-serving as they are, are following orders.

Famous musician Ryuichi Sakamoto is called upon to provide a musical soundtrack and what he supplies is a mix of bland kitsch movie-orchestral melodrama full of heavy emotional swells and stark minimal piano melodies that tug too hard at the heart-strings.

For all the above, Miike is to be commended for trying to break away from his earlier career of genre pieces heavy on shock, gore and commercial values and for remaking classic Japanese historical drama films using technology and methods not available to the directors of the original films, in the process trying perhaps to educate himself on how past masters wove universal themes into their films that resonated deeply with their audiences, and striving to do the same himself.

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