harakiri1Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri is one of the great samurai films and one of the most unsparingly anti-samurai films ever made. Its narrative does not so much flow as drip like water torture, an arrhythmic, cold splash that sends shivers down the spine just when matters seem to be calming. When the ronin Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai) arrives at the estate of a daimyo and requests the honor of committing ritual suicide there, he sparks a series of stories from others, and himself, that twist deeper and more ragged than the bamboo tantō that comes to carry horrific significance.

Shot in crisp black-and-white, Harakiri plays on the geometric angles of classical Japanese architecture, all perpendicular intersections and parallel uniformity. They suggest order and discipline, but Kobayashi often shoots from angles that bend lines, disrupting the sense of unity and precision of the structures (and, by extension, the codes they are meant to reflect). As the film descends into psychological terror with some harrowing flashbacks of another samurai’s (Akira Ishihama) suicidal bluff called in the most callous fashion possible, then further as Hanshiro turns the tables on the audience for his own supposed suicide, the camera even tilts to accentuate the upending of this cloistered world.

harakiri2Kobayashi sends that world spinning so far off its axis that even Hanshiro cannot enliven the proceedings with heroics, and what little he manages as a last protest against the system will be hastily covered up through bureaucracy after he is gone so everyone will save face. Preserving honor is paramount among the nobility of the estate, seen in merciless close-up with Motome’s forced suicide and in farcical long shot at the end as counselors scramble to keep their shame under wraps. Kobayashi had already communicated his hatred of contemporary war and violence with his 10-hour The Human Condition, but this insight into the relativism and deception shaping codes of warrior conduct lays the framework for that later conflict.

In 2011, prolific director Takashi Miike decided to remake the film, which most would argue could not be improved upon, and shot the project in 3D. Whatever expectations this news, and Miike’s reputation for extremity, might have created, however, hardly matches his delivered picture. Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai transforms Kobayashi’s disgusted view of the daimyo system into a florid melodrama that, despite its digital, 3D cinematography and its modern rendering of colors, seems more attuned to the original Harakiri’s 1962 release date than Kobayashi’s film. In fact, Miike even treats the violent acts that propelled the original as perfunctory stopgaps, unavoidable narrative moments deserving of nothing more than a quick acknowledgement before moving on to other matters. In his version, Saito (Kôji Yakusho) relates the full extent of Motome’s (Eita) fate to Hanshiro (Ebizô Ichikawa) in minutes, and before Hanshiro relates his own tale, he lets everyone know that he knew the dead ronin.

harakiri3As Miike plays his hand so early, he devotes nearly half the film to the flashbacks of Hanshiro raising Motome and the fate of the family the young man made with Hanshiro’s daughter (Hiker Mitsushima). This shift in attention, away from a direct focus on the samurai code and onto the actual conditions of life for penniless samurai, adds an element of class-consciousness largely absent from the original. The remake stews in the pressure-cooker of poverty, and the stone walls of Motome and Miho’s home even sweat and drip like a sewer as their desperation builds. Even earlier, in the flashbacks of Saito’s story, the decision to call Motome’s suicide bluff stems less from outrage at the thought of losing face than the thought of losing money to some wandering beggar.

Miike’s elegance, using slow tracks and long takes, is brashly classical, and it also aestheticizes the class themes of the film. In his version, the suit of armor that sits empty in the estate is not a symbol of the hollow worth of the daimyo but merely one more piece in the museum that is the richly ornate building. Kobayashi’s camera sickly tilted with every wrenching pain and charged with fury at the final outburst, but Miike’s is so graceful and muted that pillow shots of autumnal leaves that break up Miho and Motome’s monotonous melancholy are as arresting and stunning as any bloodshed. The bloodshed is innate in Kobayashi’s film, but violence is merely the final act of desperation brought on by need in Miike’s.

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