The first thing you notice about Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai is how quiet and understated the movie is. The director is the Japanese wild man Takashi Miike, whose previous film (13 Assassins) culminated with an almost hour-long sword fight; whose installment for Showtime’s Masters of Horror series was so extreme the network declined to air it; and whose violent, unpredictable movies (Ichi the Killer, Zebraman) have amassed enough of a cult to earn him a cameo in Eli Roth’s Hostel.
Understandably, then, the rigorous storytelling and elegant framing of Hara-Kiri (which is loosely based on Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 film of the same name) initially make you wonder if Miike is putting you on. The movie centers on Hanshiro (Ebizo Ichikawa), a samurai in the 17th century who arrives at the House of Li, requesting permission to perform suicide — the fate of warriors of the era whose masters had fallen from power or died.
A year earlier, another wayward samurai, Motome (Eita), has also presented himself before the lord, disemboweling himself with a sword made of bamboo (ouch). Through a protracted flashback, Miike reveals the connection between the two ronin, beginning with Motome’s childhood, through marriage to fatherhood. As much of an ode to a bygone tradition of placid Japanese filmmaking as a paean to samurai sagas, the story gradually reveals a surprising connection between Hanshiro and Motome. The pace is slow, like the first hour in Miike’s horrifying Audition (still his best-known film in the United States), but the destination is radically different. Eventually, there is violence and bloodshed, but Miike doesn’t revel in it with the same ferocity he has used in the past. Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (which was shot in 3D but is being screened locally in 2D) reveals yet another facet of this always-unpredictable filmmaker: a flair for compassionate, humane melodrama.
Cast: Ebizo Ichikawa, Eita, Hikari Mitsushima, Naoto Takenaka, Munetaka Aoki.
Director: Takashi Miike.
Screenwriter: Kikimi Yamagishi.
Producer: Toshiaki Nakazawa, Jeremy Thomas.
A Tribeca Films studios release. Running time: 126 minutes. In Japanese with English subtitles. Violence, gore, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Tower.