New Video // 2011 // 126 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // February 6th, 2013
After rocking my world with the masterful 13 Assassins, legendary director Takashi Miike returns to the world of feudal Japan. Sadly missing: screaming flaming bulls.
A skinny, young ronin shows up at the home of a powerful lord. Impoverished and desperate, he asks for the honor of committing harakiri in the lord's courtyard, ensuring he departs this world with a heaping helping of honor. The lord's servants are skeptical; lately there's been a rash of suicide bluffs, with out-of-work samurai who have no intention of falling on their swords showing up at other compounds requesting a venue for their death, only to leave with some coins in their pocket. So they decide to make a statement and what ensues is a brutal grisly death.
Later, another ronin shows up at the same home with the same request and is similarly accommodated, but before he plunges a sword into his gut, he regales his audience with a tale of woe and heartbreak.
13 Assassins was both my favorite film and the best film of 2011. I previously had known Miike only for his infamous cult offerings, but the prowess he exhibited with this samurai action epic made me stand up and take notice. What would he follow it up with? And how soon can I pay money to see it?
With Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, we're once again all up in this Bushido business, and I embraced the tale willingly. Prior to the film's release, the scuttlebutt indicated this was going to be a far more reserved tale than 13 Assassins. However, Miike had built enough credibility and goodwill to sign up for whatever samurai story he wanted to tell.
Miike's visual gifts are on full display here, as he paints a beautiful picture of 17th century Japan. It's a stunning tableau and easy to lose yourself in, especially the opening where we meet our young ronin and are forced to endure his unbearable denouement. A word of warning, though. This sequence is awash in blood and sinew, with Miike pulling no punches. The severity of this character's departure is key to the story, so prepare yourself for a rough ride.
I understood the necessity of such brutality in the context of the story, but the problems with Hara-Kiri stem directly from this set-up. We discover that Suicidal Ronin #2 has the inside scoop on what propelled Suicidal Ronin #1 to put himself in such a desperate position. And it is that story which becomes the central narrative.
Oh, it's a downer alright, but it fails to be much more compelling than "this family that's really really sick." For as much emotion and heart-wrenching angst as Miike wrings out of his scenario, I never felt the story was unique enough to earn the weight of the moments that came before it. Add to that a methodical pace (some might say "deathly slow") and you're dealing with a saga that can't hold up to the pressure of carrying an entire film.
The third act of the film holds the pay-off to this forlorn expedition. While there's potential for an epic wrap-up, what could have been a memorable conclusion settles for an oddly prolong action sequence and some major-league monologuing about the role of humanity in the samurai code.
Though I may be lukewarm on Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, New Video's Blu-ray is dynamite. A glorious 2.39:1/1080p HD transfer pushes out the visuals and serves as a fantastic supplement to Miike's skilled lens. The fidelity is reference quality level, with razor-sharp detailing and crisp color work permeating the treatment throughout. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track has its moments and, when the on-screen action calls for it, can kick out some aggressive cuts. But the film is so low-key and so dialogue-heavy, don't expect any wall-shaking aural output. Only one extra: a brief introduction from Tribeca Film's Geoffrey Gilmore.
"A movie about Bushido clashing with basic human decency? Wow, Japanese filmmakers haven't done that a million times." -- Judge Dan Mancini
Not Guilty, but frankly disappointing.
Review content copyright © 2013 David Johnson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Video
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Japanese)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 126 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated