4:12 pm Jul. 20, 2012
Takashi Miike is renowned as a prolific and controversial director of super-violent and even exploitative films, Audition and Ichi the Killer being his most famous stateside. But Miike's latest, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, is less a flamboyant provocation than an over-long evasion of purposeful cinematic choices. And it's in 3D.
Now playing at the IFC Center after a Cannes premiere, it is a remake of the 1962 film Hara-Kiri, directed by Masaki Kobayashi (The Human Condition, Samurai Rebellion). Where the original has all the symbolic directness and tightness of stage drama, evoking Sophocles as much as Noh and kabuki theater, Miike's alterations to the story make moral and aesthetic nonsense out of the material. Miike clearly intends this remake of a Japanese arthouse classic to give a patina of improbable respectability to his career, like if Quentin Tarantino were to remake a Merchant Ivory picture. But instead of putting a decisive stamp on the material, or simply paying homage, Miike overwrites and muddies it.
Take for instance the art direction. The original film has one of the most stark, high-contrast visual styles imaginable. Shot in black and white, everything is black or white: snow, blood, cherry blossoms, robes, gravel, hair, paper, and ink. Miike's version, by contrast, is … without contrast at all: dim, grey, with the color palette of a video-game dungeon. Where the original film has the crisp outlines of an Ingres painting, watching the 3D version is like looking at the world through molasses. (If you see this movie, watch it in 2D: nothing about the directing suggests that it was conceived with 3D in mind, so one is essentially just wearing sunglasses in an already darkened room.)
The basic premise of Hara-Kiri is carried over from the original film: Hanshiro Tsukumo, played by Ebizo Ichikawa, is a masterless samurai who appears at the estate of the Iyi clan requesting to be allowed to commit an honorable suicide rather than meet a disreputable end in the agony of starvation. The clan leadership anxiously confer; it appears that a similar incident happened recently and did not end prettily. The samurai is told the story of this previous supplicant, Motome Chijiiwa, who was not in earnest about killing himself but was only looking for a handout. To make a rather brutal example of him, though, the clan forced Motome Chijiiwa to go through with his bad-faith proposal. But hearing this monitory tale does not dissuade this second ronin, and so things are made ready for his public suicide, fully attended by the Iyi retainers.
Part of what makes Greek or Shakespearean tragedy so effective is that, once set in motion, the tragic sequence is unstoppable. No one can leave behind their role in order to throw on the emergency brake. In the 1962 film, the Iyi retainers are compelled onward not by personal malice but by upholding lofty notions of order, hierarchy, and proper forms. Kobayashi's social criticism, obviously addressed to legacies of authority still reigning in post-war Japan, attacks the hypocrisy built into the ideology of honor and saving face. In his version, the brutal meting-out of mandatory suicides is enforced in order to “keep up appearances.” Every one is acting in bad faith and nothing is called by its right name. This of course is a suspicion held by both sides—the ambiguity of Hanshiro's motives visibly fray the nerves of a paranoid power structure. So, when it is revealed that Motome Chijiiwa has, in his dire straits, sold his sword and is carrying only a dull bamboo blade with which to disembowel himself, everyone pretends not to notice. Or, in order to ensure the utmost agony in Chijiiwa's suicide, his second (who is to finish him off by beheading) tells him, “Our proceedings today will not sink to such empty and debased forms" as the now-customary mercy stroke leveled after a merely gestural self-inflicted wound. But this is an entirely dishonest, cynical performance, spoken in front of the entire clan retinue, but actually addressed to some imaginary center of power looking down on them.
In Miike's film, instead of this impersonal tragic force, personal will intervenes repeatedly, as if to say, this doesn't have to happen. Another way to say this is that if Miike were remaking Hamlet, he would simply allow Hamlet to kill Claudius at his prayers. This would be a more direct and sensational direction for the narrative, but unquestionably worse.
Where the suicide in Kobayashi's film is compelled by deference to unspoken proprieties and merely-suggested consequences, Miike has his characters blurt out the obvious: that these itinerant samurai intend only to “bluff suicide.” By thus making explicit the difference between what is said and what is actually occurring, Miike robs the symbolic order of its silent efficacy. But that is the whole point of these forms and rituals.No one checks in, after the Eucharist, to ask how much like Christ's body and blood it tasted. Where in Kobayashi's film, dialogue is always in tension with gesture and procedure, Miike's version is simply unable to shut up.
Most of the tension in the original film comes from the crazy glint in lead Tatsuya Nakadai's eye and the uncertainty of his purpose. A line like, “I came here with every intention of dying,” is offered as a reassurance that he is not bluffing at suicide, but also hints at a more fatalistic, perhaps spectacular purpose. Nakadai plays Hanshiro as clearly unhinged, a man deeply offended yet also inscrutable, even eccentric. There is much dark humor in his feigned surprise at hearing of events he knows all too well. Ichikawa, on the other hand, offers only variants on “grimly solemn”—again, Miike has only dampened the tone. His flat, serious portrayal also undermines the film's conclusion. Without giving anything away, neither original nor remake concludes with a straightforward revenge-massacre of the Iyi clan. By playing the character with such dogged single-mindedness, Ichikawa suggests a coherent aim which is nowhere borne out.
The original film has one glaring flaw, which Miike faithfully reproduces: a long domestic flashback in the middle, with the obvious goal of compelling our sympathy for characters not otherwise seen and who are uninterestingly one-dimensional. It is, in short, a little melodrama inserted into the film. Miike dives into this material with aplomb, playing up every sensitive glance and tender joke. As if to show off his directorial range, Miike indulges and stretches out this cloying section of the film. Not only can he do intestine-slitting, limb-hacking, and other assorted splatter, we are meant to observe, he can also subject us to the tedious and predictable longings of earnest young lovers. But instead of versatility, this is mere eclecticism.
Miike's motivation for making this movie, as he has said in publicity interviews, is the supposed timelessness of the story, how it captures “universal human suffering.” On the contrary, the original film is firmly planted—not in the 17th century where it is set, but in the anti-authoritarian sentiments of the 1960s and the blossoming of auteur filmmaking in Japan and elsewhere.
Miike, however inadvertently, gives us a Hara-Kiri for our time as well: over-saturated, over-explicit, over-psychologized. But all you need to know about this movie is that the original is the ultimate film about the authority of empty façades ... and that Miike felt it really needed to be filmed in 3D.
'Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai' plays at IFC Center through July 26.
More by this author:
- In 'The Master,' P.T. Anderson investigates spirituality, but mostly human imperfection
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