Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai is set in Edo, now known as Tokyo, during the peaceful late-1600s when the samurai class are no longer required by masters of great Japanese houses. Many young samurai are a part of a warrior class who have not known war but rigidly stick to the samurai code. Wishing for an honourable death, a samurai can request and perform Hara-Kiri – a ritual suicide in which a samurai stabs himself in the abdomen with his own short sword with an allocated second person there to assist in the act via beheading, if required – in a Lord’s house.
Due to the depth of their poverty, many samurai have asked to perform Hara-Kiri banking on the discomfort it would cause the Lord’s staff and accepting whatever money they are given to go away instead. When Hanshiro (Ebizo Ichikawa) arrives in winter at Lord Li’s house making such a request he is told of the story of a young ronin/samurai Motome (Eita). Not wanting to tolerate any more suicide bluffs, the household called the young Motome’s actual bluff, thus setting up the circumstances that have brought Hanshiro to the courtyard of Lord Li.
The extremely prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike has crafted a film that is as taut and restrained as traditional Japanese manners. It addresses the need for a flexible humane approach to life within the restrictions of strict, inflexible warrior codes of honour and the non-chronological narrative heightens the emotional impact of the unfolding tragedy. The vast majority of the film does not follow the typical direction of a ‘samurai film.’ ‘Action’ is kept to a minimum to make it all the more significant and the day-to-day domestic concerns of a family living in poverty is what fuels the film.
Though populated by samurai, Miike’s film stresses that following the conventions of a social order does not make one an ideal example of the reality of such an ethical code. The official of Lord Li’s house, dealing with the requests of Hara-Kiri has obviously known war. However, his younger officers are full of the ideals and not the practicalities of war and it is their inflexibility and lack of humanity that creates the tragic circumstances for Hanshiro and his family.
Miike chose to shoot this film in 3D. Though beautifully filmed, there seems little need for the added dimension. However, one can compliment the director on the very subtle use of the technique as he avoids going for obvious 3D gimmicks. Instead he uses the technology in a refined manner to make his film all the more ethereal with each frame softly lifting out of the screen rather than throwing images sharply at the audience.
Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai is an interesting ethical, moral drama using the conventions and traditions of samurai culture and its film genre. The music by Ryuichi Sakamoto is used as sparingly as the action in the film to stress the emotional beats being struck. Though the pacing is purposely slow, Ebizo Ichikawa mixes traditional Japanese acting with a toned down modern acting style which compliments the quiet and internalised styles of Hikari Mitsushima and Eita. With one scene most certainly not for the faint hearted or weak of stomach, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai is a welcome addition to Miike’s impressive resume.