Things have gotten so bad in 17th-century Japan that some samurai are resorting to a truly dishonorable (if also rather crafty) trick: the suicide bluff. A samurai with no master to serve has not only lost his means of support; he’s lost his purpose in life. So he should commit ritual self-disembowelment, or hara-kiri. There’s a twist to this, however. Committing the act at the house of a noble lord enhances the deceased’s status. “The greater the house where he dies, the more honor he regains,” explains one warrior to another in “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai,” Takashi Miike’s remake of the 1962 film “Harakiri,” based on Yasuhiko Takiguchi’s novel.
Yet what nobleman wants some down-at-the-heels samurai spilling his guts (literally) in the nobleman’s courtyard? So once the unemployed samurai has announced his intentions, chances are good that the master of the household will offer a few coins to get him to go away. The suicide bluff, in other words, is a form of extortion.
It’s also a faintly comic premise (if not so faintly grim). You can imagine the fun Monty Python, say, could have had with it. Any humor attached to the premise disappears, though, should the bluff be called. What happens if the master refuses to pay? The samurai’s code of conduct requires that he go through with the suicide or lose all honor. You don’t have to know much about samurai to know which way even the least devoted of them is going to go when the choice is between death and dishonor.
The astoundingly prolific Miike’s previous film, “13 Assassins,” was also a samurai picture (set in the 19th century). Clearly, Miike’s at home in the genre — just how clearly the first section of “Hara-Kiri” makes plain. It’s superb filmmaking, uncluttered and utterly assured. Miike places us in the household of Li, offering up rich, deep colors, with an almost painterly exploration of fields of depth and volume.
The arrival of Motome (Eita), an impoverished samurai seeking permission to commit hara-kiri, initiates a set piece that’s both impressive and quite gruesome. A year later another samurai, Hanshiro (Ebizô Ichikawa), arrives for the same purpose. Except that certain things aren’t the same. What’s happened to the three samurai who insisted that their lord not let Motome back out of his request? Is there a connection between Hanshiro and Motome?
The next section of “Hara-Kiri,” an extended flashback, answers the second question. We meet Motome as a child. The son of a samurai, he’s raised by another when his father dies. He marries his stepfather’s daughter, Miho (Hikari Mitsushima), and they have a child. We see the circumstances that bring him to the Li courtyard. After the all-male stylization of the film’s first section (no wonder the samurai genre continues to thrive: Is there a more inherently theatrical warrior tradition?), the domestic interlude feels a bit soggy, even formulaic.
The final section returns us to Hanshiro in the Li courtyard. Domestic melodrama (of sorts) now becomes full-blown revenge tale. Serious swordplay ensues. Miike seems at home again — too much so, perhaps. Ichikawa has not a little of the ferocious magnificence of Toshiro Mifune, but even Mifune would have been challenged to match Hanshiro’s prodigies of bladework (with a bamboo sword, no less). Miike can’t seem to get enough of Hanshiro’s heroics. That’s not just visual excess, though. The director wants to make a larger point about his righteousness and how artificial the idea of “honor” in the samurai code is when contrasted with life’s realities.
Hanshiro’s ability to hold off the forces of the House of Li may seem preposterous, but no less so at times than the subtitles. Did 17th-century Japanese warlords really use a command like “Slice him”?