Japanese director Takashi Miike is one of the wildest, most extreme filmmakers around. His notorious 2001 movie "Ichi: The Killer" is a surrealist-fever dream of blood, bowels, and dismemberment. His 2003 flick "The Happiness of the Kataguris" is a strangely sweet comedy about zombies and murder, and it's also a musical. And the latter half of his terrific 2011 samurai epic, "13 Assassins," is so bloody its main characters ended the movie looking like Carrie after the prom. So when it was announced last year that Miike was going 3D for his next film, a remake of Masaki Kobayashi's classic "Hara-Kiri," one could be forgiven for expecting it to be a gorefest with lots of eye-gouging 3D gimmickry, a shogun-era "Piranha 3DD" with katana instead of fish.
Well, you'd be wrong. "Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai" is a remarkably restrained movie that all but ignores its flashy new technology. Miike more or less admits as much in an interview not long after the film's premiere at the 2011 Cannes film fest. "I decided to shoot like I would with a 2D camera, and I consciously decided not to have anything jump out too much. It was a very straightforward, ordinary use of 3D cameras." So while there many pleasures to be found in this beautifully shot movie, 3D pyrotechnics is not one of them.
Set in the early 1600s, "Hara-Kiri" opens with a scruffy looking samurai, Hanshiro (played by veteran kabuki actor Ebizo Ichikawa) requesting an honorable death by seppuku, or ritual suicide, on the grounds of the feudal lord castle. Suspecting the man of bluffing as a way to get a handout, lord's retainer Kageyu (Koji Yakusho) calmly tells him about the last guy who made such a request, a young, desperate ronin named Motome. Even though the youth had sold his blade and carried around a sword made of wood, the retainer forced him to follow through on his request and commit seppuku. And he does so in a grueling and grisly fashion. Of course, Hanshiro turns out to be the lad's adoptive father and is looking not for a handout but for revenge.
Miike stays largely faithful to the story and the tone of Kobayashi's Palme d'Or-winning original. A pacifist who spent much of the Sino-Japanese War in a prisoner-of-war camp, Kobayashi was most marked by WWII of the directors to emerge in the 1940s and '50s. Kobayashi's version of the film is an angry slap at samurai culture's inhuman obsession with honor than lead, in part, to Japan's disastrous foray into Asia. Miike's movie feels much more a part of the post-2008 crash. Much of the movie's baggy middle focuses on Motome's desperate struggle to scrounge up enough money to pay for medicine for his ailing wife and baby. The emphasis, like a lot of Miike movies, is not as much on the hypocrisy of the samurai code as it is on the lack of empathy that those with power showed toward those without.
"Hara-Kiri" might not be the most necessary remake out there, but it's a remarkably humane and deftly made movie. It's just not what you might expect.
See the trailer for 'Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai':