Movie: Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai
My Rating: 4 stars
What a great movie! Or, movies, rather. As soon as I learned that Takashi Miike was remaking this classic samurai film from 1962, I knew I had to watch them both. Of course, it took me a few years to actually execute that plan (as it always does). My list of movies and books to watch and read just seems to keep growing completely out of control. But, I finally pulled the trigger on these films. And, the first thing that I have to say about them is that they’re completely deceptive. Both the original and the remake seem like they’re going to be like all those other, sleepy, old-timey, samurai flicks made in the 60s (like Twilight Samurai), that plod on and give you a feeling for living in a rural, Edo period village. But, this story has a completely surprising, vicious underbelly.
Because, this is a story about revenge. And, this is revenge over a very traditionally Japanese concept—a warrior’s honor. And, we all know just how bloody and cruel that can be. The story takes place during a very transitional time in Japan. The country is now enjoying peace after a long period of warring states. However, that means that there are many samurai who are out of a job. Without any real way to make a living or provide for their families many former warriors have taken to presenting themselves at large estates, asking to be allowed to commit ritual suicide in their courtyards. (But, really, they’re hoping to be sent away with a few coins in their pockets). And, this film tells the story of the tragedy that surrounds one such poor, young samurai when the master of the estate decides to actually grant his request. We all know this can’t end well.
I wasn’t quite as impressed by Miike’s remake as I was expecting to be, but I think that probably has something to do with my watching both films so close to one another. This is a story that benefits from some element of surprise. It gives the viewers pieces of information little by little, gradually revealing the whole, terrible truth. So, I think my second viewing was ruined by knowing exactly what was coming—not by any fault of the director. Of course, Miike does change a few very notable things in the story. I’m not sure whether he did this to add a little variety, or to tailor the story to his own, warped sensibility. (That guy can be pretty nuts!) He alters some of the expository scenes, changing how characters learn key bits of information. And, he changes the final body count. But, most notably, Miike changes the ending. Without spoiling anything for you, I can tell you that in the original, the transgressors learn from their mistakes, and express remorse for the injustice they’d wrought. However, in this new film, they appear to learn nothing, turning this story into a real tragedy, rather than just a cautionary tale. That’s the part that impacted me the most.
You should definitely see one of these films. I don’t think it’s necessary to see them both—especially not back to back, like I did. But, I’m not quite sure which one to point you toward. The original does have its charms. But, the new one is definitely more beautiful. (I’m a sucker for snow falling into a Japanese courtyard). And, vintage footage can have a tendency to put people off. People imagine that they’ll be bored by such an old movie. I’m here to assure you that that won’t be the case, but if you feel that watching the new film will make you more likely to watch it, then go with that one. And, let me know what you think!