Desperate samurai threaten suicide
By Krysti Peacock and Suzie Setzler
One might expect “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai” to be riddled with horrific violence for more reasons than its grisly title; after all, it’s directed by “13 Assassins” filmmaker Takashi Miike, who is known for action-packed and shocking fight scenes. Surprisingly, this film — which is a remake of the 1962 version by Masaki Kobayashi — took great care to focus on a much more somber heart-breaking story of humanity and pride.
Set in the 1600s during a more peaceful Japan, the samurai caste was no longer necessary for warfare and many found themselves without a way to make a living to support their families. Having lost their military function, these masterless samurai, or ronin, became a social problem during the Edo Period. This point of desperation is where the story begins.
The samurai Hanshiro (Ebizo Ichikawa) arrives at one of the wealthy estates, the House of Ii, in order to commit the ritual suicide ceremony known as hara kiri or seppuku. At this time, many wealthy clans experienced disgraced samurai making the same request in the hopes that they would receive pity and be rewarded with either a charitable donation or promise of employment. To remind him that the “suicide bluff” would not be tolerated, clan counselor Kageyu Saito (Koji Yakusho) tells Hanshiro a story of another ronin, Motome Chijiiwa (Eita).
With its first flashback sequence, we meet Chijiiwa who is one of the warriors lying about his honorable request. Having sold his sword to care for his family, he is forced to carry out his suicide with a bamboo blade in a tormenting and agonizing display with the pitiless samurai clan making an example of him. In a twist, Hanshiro shares with the clan through another set of flashbacks his relationship with Chijiiwa where we meet the scholarly and kind-hearted Chijiiwa and the story takes on a completely different tone.
Like the samurai who watched him die with contempt, we judged Chijiiwa as an opportunistic fallen warrior, which couldn’t be further from the truth. From Hanshiro’s depiction, we are able to see Chijiiwa grow up in poverty, marry his daughter Miho (Hikari Mitsushima) and have a child of his own. We see Chijiiwa through new eyes and feel anxious as we know how it will end. Although he is extremely honorable, the unfortunate series of circumstances — his wife and son become ill — force him to sacrifice himself in the hopes of saving his family.
As Hanshiro’s story ends in the same place Saito’s began, it is clear that he is there for vengeance. He reminds the samurai that they could all easily have been in Chijiiwa’s position and that these samurai houses are based on the pretense of honor but are merely vehicles for allowing cruel injustices. The movie climaxes with a fight scene, which is choreographed and executed with finesse rather than pure gore. The poetic action is filled with emotion as Hanshiro tries to show them that he and his son-in-law had so much more integrity and decency. This sentimental tale is also one of morality questioning the ritualistic code of honor versus basic humanity and sympathy.
Ebizo Ichikawa (Hanshiro Tsugumo)
Kōji Yakusho (Kageyu Saito)
Eita (Motome Chijiiwa)
Hikari Mitsushima (Miho)