The samurai business is like any other: When demand falls, unemployment rises. So in a story taking place during peacetime in 17th-century Edo, penniless warriors run “suicide bluffs,” requesting the honor of using the courtyard of a samurai house to commit seppuku, under the expectation that its leaders will be moved by their plight, and reward them with charity or a job. Takashi Miike’s powerful melodrama Hara-Kiri: Death Of A Samurai, a remake of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 classic, opens with one such warrior approaching the House Of Ii, only to have his bluff called. In the middle of a courtyard, surrounded on all sides by pitiless samurai who could be in his place in unluckier circumstances, he draws a flimsy bamboo sword and is forced to follow through on his request.
In a film that mostly limits his signature excesses in favor of a more restrained, classical approach, the Miike of Ichi The Killer and Dead Or Alive resurfaces for this sequence, registering each desperate twist of the blade in agonizing detail. (Miike shot it in 3-D, too, just to make the spectacle that much grislier.) It’s important to Miike that the utter cruelty and pointlessness of this death register as forcefully as possible, because most of Hara-Kiri takes place in an extended flashback that gives it a tragic context. Eita stars as the ill-fated samurai, and an extraordinary Ebizô Ichikawa plays another warrior who issues the same suicide request shortly after Eita dies. In flashback, the film ties Eita and Ichikawa’s stories together and lays out Ichikawa’s reasons for making a bluff he knows will be called.
Arriving on the heels of 13 Assassins, Miike’s gloriously irreverent take on the samurai action genre, Hara-Kiri seems conventional by his standards, especially in a long middle section that occasionally dips into sentimentality. But the two films complement each other nicely, with Miike making the case, in emphatic terms, that the “honor” on which these samurai houses are built is a cover for corruption, injustice, and pitiless cruelty. The House Of Ii making an example of Eita by calling his suicide bluff is no different than the higher-ups in Paths Of Glory making an example of three soldiers by court-martialing them for “cowardice.” The Miike of old resurfaces for the climactic sequence, but Hara-Kiri seems intent on proving that his instinct to shock runs secondary to a more consistent instinct to rebel.