The FilmWhen it was announced that Miike Takashi was following up his success in re-imagining one samurai film by taking on the masterpiece that is Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri many feared for the results. When it became clear the film was to be made in 3D and that the great score by Fumio Hayasaka was to be succeeded by the work of the less celebrated Ryuichi Sakamoto, even more were worried at the possible desecration of a great film by a film-maker who has often made questionable decisions. When the completed film arrived, all that presumed disappointment dissipated as a surprisingly faithful movie was presented to the film-going public.
Produced, like 13 Assassins, by the estimable Jeremy Thomas (A Dangerous Method, The Last Emperor) and mounted with set design that contrasts the ornate finery of the Li clan with the desperate poverty of the starving Ronin family, this is an ambitious visual piece. I watched the film in 2D, I don't believe a 3D edition is available anytime soon in the UK, and was struck by cinematography that if not quite as impressive as the monochrome of the original still gave plenty of impact to the film's design. This is a serious well produced and dramatic attempt to re-stage what was a fine tale already.
A few variations in performances and characterisation soften and moralise the original story but a synopsis would read very similarly... And here goes, a middle-aged Ronin follows some months after a young Ronin to the house of Li to request to commit Seppuku in their courtyard. He is told the cautionary tale of the younger Ronin who had come trying to bluff money from the clan but had to follow through on the Seppuku as an example was made of him. The film concludes when the older Ronin reveals his own story and his own relationship to the younger man.
A new screenplay gives greater weight to the tragedy of the Ronin family, increases the motivation and humanity of the lead retainer of the Li clan and posits the purpose of the story less as political fable and more as a symbolic vengeance tale. The conclusion even reclaims the emasculated image of the bamboo sword, and explores this symbol throughout with a graphic representation of the first Seppuku and later depictions of the widow picking bamboo splinters from her husband's corpse.
In fact, the films best moments are deliberately not the brief bouts of swordplay or the passionate conclusion but the vignettes of the troubled, sometimes happy/sometimes desperate Ronin family. Their nobility and honour in living with their poverty, their awful luck and their subjugation are held up as the true representation of moral values supposedly owned by the preening samurai of the House of Li.
This treatment of the family inevitably means the film can be accused of sentimentality and of softening and personalising what was originally a screaming protest against injustice. Where Kobayashi made a film about society, Miike is more interested in the family as outsiders. This means that Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai works well as melodrama where the original was more about polemics.
A more serious and less action based endeavour than 13 Assassins, this is still fine fare from Miike and growing evidence that he is willing to be seen more seriously across the globe. His film may be a re-write of one of the greatest samurai films of all time, but it is still a very good work in its own right.
Tech SpecsRevolver offers the film only in 2D and includes no extras on this BD50 disc. For those worried that image quality would be affected by a 2D treatment (I'm not sure you exist, but just in case), I can tell you that the transfer holds up very well with plenty of dimension and detail, excellent contrast and a very natural appearance to edges. Flesh-tones look fine and a sole instance of aliasing was all I could complain about.
Two lossless audio tracks come with irremovable English subs. I watched the film using the 5.1 master audio track which offers a degree of atmosphere through the use of occasional music and effects in the rears and plenty of impact in the subwoofer for the ominous beats of the score and the ambience of the very rare interiors. Dialogue is clean and the only real issue is this is quite a quiet track overall (I increased my volume controls about 40% above my normal setting).
SummaryA decent non stereoscopic treatment of this film features solid lossless options and a good transfer. The film itself is very well told, an accomplished effort which only suffers when compared to the Kobayashi original.
Please note at the time of publication the Blu-ray release is a Play.com exclusive.