DVD: £9.99, Blu-Ray (Play.com exclusive): £8.99
When I reviewed Hara-Kiri at the London Film Festival last year I was, it’s fair to say, most interested in the use of 3D in the film. We’ve been enjoying something of a mini Miike festival recently, with no fewer than three of his films arriving on UK home video within a few weeks of each of other, all of which are totally different from the others. Given his varied history and general love of chaos and bloodshed it seems unusually perverse of him to turn to 3D in order to remake Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 samurai film Harakiri (Seppuku), which is itself almost an exercise in stillness. Now, revisiting the film on DVD, I was keen to find out just how much of my reactions to the film had been influenced by 3D cinematography and my own perception of it.
Firstly, a brief outline of the plot for those who missed it previously. Hanshiro is a down on his luck samurai who has come to petition a noble house for the use of their courtyard to commit Seppuku so that he might escape his life of poverty and die with the honour befitting his rank. However, it seems there have been a spate of such requests lately which have not been genuine - the petitioner hopes that the lord will have pity on them and either take them into their own household or send them away with a few coins. The retainers therefore spin Hanshiro a tale about the last man who made such a request whose bluff was called - he was forced to commit suicide with the bamboo blade he carried to replace the noble sword he’d sunk so low as to sell. Hanshiro thinks this is a sad story but still he wishes to proceed; he’s ready to die but perhaps there are a few other things to take care of first.
It seems quite clear to me now why Miike chose to shoot this in 3D and in my opinion the technology was used very well here. Coming now to the film in a 2D medium many of those strengths still carry over. The impressive visual depth that it affords the film still seems in evidence even without the actual 3D to boost it, as does the strange way the credits and occasional bits of text seem to float away from the film itself. This works very well with the sort of dreamy, floating way the camera seems to move at the beginning of the film, giving off the sort of classical theatrical feeling you often find in Japanese period films. However, the negative effects of 3D have also carried over - the relatively small size of the average TV set compared to the cinema screen means that the darkness of the colour palette is even more exaggerated than I found in my previous review. The muddyness of a lot of it does render certain scenes very difficult to make out indeed - I recall one scene in which the key aspect was clearly supposed to be Ebizo Ichikawa’s facial reaction, only you couldn’t see it because it was so dark. I don’t believe this to have been an artistic decision but something brought about by the inherent limitations of shooting in 3D.
It was maybe fortunate and unfortunate that the London screening occurred so close to the release of 13 Assassins; in some ways they are two sides of the same coin - samurai at war and samurai at peace. 13 Assassins is an action packed film full of samurai doing battle against a cruel lord, but Hara-Kiri is about what happens once they’ve won and peace rules the land. Kobabyashi’s film was full of the blistering anger of his time towards people who claimed to be one thing whilst doing something else. The lord is both weak and cruelly indifferent to other people’s suffering (even to those of his own class, perhaps moreso). He has allowed a retainer to dictate the policy of his house and even though he actively disagrees with the goings-on he makes no attempt to stop them. What’s worse is that after the fact he will take his own measures to erase the event from history and cover up what really happened in the household.
Miike’s film lacks Kobayashi’s raw passion and the desire to burn a hole right though society’s hypocrisy, but perhaps it shares his compassion for the poor and those who’ve fallen on hard times through no fault of their own. Having said that though, this softening of approach does make it much more of a melodrama than a hard hitting film about social injustice. It is a shame that the film is not available to view in a 3D format, but Miike’s Hara-Kiri is still a valiant effort even in one dimension less than intended. In choosing to remake Kobayashi’s seminal film, and choosing to do so in a technology which is in equal parts praised and reviled, Miike had undoubtedly given himself a hearty challenge. That his film doesn’t quite match Kobayashi’s version is perhaps to be expected but Hara-Kiri is a strong film in its own right and one well worth seeing even just for the technical experiment it presents.