By Eric Kohn | Indiewire May 19, 2011 at 4:32AM
In Japanese filmmaking machine Takashi Miike's loose adaptation of the 1962 "Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai," the best moments come at the end. A despondent samurai faces down the minions of a feudal lord, staging a ferocious battle for the memory of the relatives whose lives were lost to the lord's cruel mandates. The swordplay buzzes along at a breathtaking rate, the bold fighter takes on dozens of foes at once, and Miike cuts to the fleeting image of a cat watching the whole thing go down. In that passing shot, which lasts no more than a second, the director suddenly elevates the material with the welcome element of surprise. Unfortunately, it's a lonely moment.
Miike has a reputation for violent overstatement, along with the skill to frame it in cinematic terms. Ironically, his first movie made for 3-D projection finds him a lot less sensationalistic than usual. "Hara-Kiri" is essentially a melodramatic period piece with occasional spurts of blood. The story revolves around Hanshiro (Ebizo Ichikawa), a broke, middle-aged fighter who arrives at the militant House of Li and requests to commit ritualistic suicide before the disciplined head Kageyu (Koji Yakusho). The lord instantly suspects that Hanshiro has plotted a "suicide bluff," playing on the lord's sympathies to get money out of him without meeting his death. Kageyu tells Hanshiro about the grisly fate of Motome (Eita), whose obvious suicide bluff led to his untimely demise when Kageyu then forced the young man to commit the act. In a flashback, Motome's gory end is seen in extreme close-up.
Now this is the Miike worth writing home about: Motome's inevitably bloody death arrives around the half-hour mark. In the mercilessly prolonged and gruesome scene, the unlikely martyr jabs a bamboo stick into his abdomen and winces as he struggles to rip open his guts. Motome has essentially been forced to kill himself against his will, a terrifying proposition that Miike observes with harrowing remove. If only "Hara-Kiri" could sustain that momentum. This isn't the first time in Miike's filmography that he has depicted hara-kiri: Last year's involving samurai war story "13 Assassins" also began with a death-by-blade scene, but it successfully set the morbid tone. In this instance, Miike abandons the same atmosphere for a pedestrian narrative.
It turns out that Motone was Hanshiro's stepson and the suicide bluff constituted an act of desperation to provide for his ailing family, all of whom have since perished. Hanshiro comes seeking revenge -- but before he gets it, "Hara-Kiri" extensively recounts his family's tragic fate. The death scenes contain an intense dramatic finality, thanks to a trio of involving performances from the two men of the house and the woman playing Motone's ill wife. But it's only a tiny fragment of a generally lethargic experience. Kikumi Yamagishi's screenplay contains a major structural flaw that's at the root of its dry progression. Hanshiro explains the reason for his presence during the movie's early scenes, rather than revealing his connection to Motone over the course of the story. This kills the potential for suspense even faster than the aforementioned death of a samurai.
Naturally, Miike's interests lie elsewhere. On a technical level, his 3-D debut theoretically gives him a new tool for staging set-pieces. ("13 Assassins" would have looked great in 3-D.) However, with the exception of falling snow, there's practically no depth to the visuals. It's possible that Miike's real attraction to 3-D was its commercial appeal, because the story doesn't ask for it. Primarily, he aims for emotional engagement, desperately trying to humanize his characters. "Even a warrior has blood flowing through his veins," someone says. In "Hara-Kiri," however, it runs cold.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Miike's following and the 3-D gimmick probably won't be enough to get the movie noticed much in the U.S., but it could play well in Japan.
criticWIRE grade: C