I say this with as much cultural sensitivity that a good middle-class American liberal can muster: what's up with the 17th century Japanese?
My innate curiosity of other cultures, as well as my ingrained attitude of acceptance toward customs alien to my own, finally met its match about 25 minutes into Takashi Miike's (Yatterman)
new film about code, honor, sacrifice and all the other heavy words that can lead a man to slice his belly open all over a nice rock garden. With each bloody gurgle and ritualistic tear of gut, a lifetime of an enriched, multicultural education was impaled and the reactionary within spewed forth: what is WRONG with these people?
As it happens, I need not feel so guilty. The big reveal at the end (if I may give it away) is a populist rejection of so-called nobility's demeaning (and arbitrary) invocation of enforced, self-administered honor sacraments – but I'm getting ahead of myself. And if anything can be agreed upon concerning Hari-Kiri: Death of a Samurai is that this is a movie that takes its sweet time.
The film begins with a succession of well-manicured, locked-off shots at a Lord's compound. A traveler approaches. He is a masterless ronin, and out of work due to the ongoing peace of the early 1600s. (Blasted peace!) Our traveler wants to commit seppuku, a/k/a hari-kiri, a/k/a that thing when a dude kneels down, slits his belly from side-to-side so his guts come out then his best pal chops his head off. It is the only respectable way for a former samurai to go, now that he has been reduced to begging. It would be even more honorable if he did it in the courtyard of a nobleman.
But is that really his goal? The nobleman's second-in-command (the big cheese is off somewhere) tells the story of another masterless ronin that was down on his luck that recently asked for the same thing. Turns out, though, he was bluffing. (It's here that I learned that “suicide bluffing” was a common thing back in the day.) The would-be dead man was hoping for charity – either a job or some gold to send him on his way. The House would have nothing of it, and bullied him into actually going through with the deed. Only it turned out that this faker didn't even carry a real blade – he had a sword made from dull bamboo. This means that his death scene is all the more grotesque.
After the flashback we learn that, indeed, our traveller did know the first man, and, after an extensive look at their relationship, it is revealed that this visit is actually an elaborate act of vengeance.
Unfortunately, with this second flashback the movie slips into a new gear of storytelling, and that gear is S for soporific. Since we can kinda-sorta guess where it's all headed (they were friends, the forced suicide wasn't fair, the death lead to personal tragedy) the bulk of the film feels like a great big stall for time. “Get on with it,” however, is a plea that means little to Miike here.
Given the intense seriousness of absolutely everybody in the picture, it is impossible to relate to these characters on any human level. They do nothing but look miserable and ramble about honor. As an ethnographic piece, the film works, I suppose, and it sure looks beautiful. The music by Ryuichi Sakamoto
is nothing to sneeze at either. Overall, however, my reductive summation can be summed up in two words: boring and gross. There are many more enlightening and entertaining films
out there about ancient Japanese traditions
that are far more deserving of your time. You can cut this one from your list.