I try not to be as much as possible, I don't like to get into that arena, but this film kinda treads on some semi-sacred ground for me that I have to address. In case you don't know already, this new film by Takashi Miike, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, is a remake of a 1962 film of the same name (or sometimes called simply Seppuku) by the master director Masaki Kobayashi (i.e. The Human Condition, Kwaidan, a big player in the Criterion Collection). Remakes are nothing totally new to Miike, and his film before this one, 13 Assassins, was also a remake. But where that film and Miike to a large extent were able to play off of the fact that the original was not much seen outside of hardcore Samurai movie-lover circles, Harakiri is a little different. But I'll get more to that in a moment.
The story itself: in 17th century Japan, a ronin, Hanshiro (Ebizo Ichikawa) arrives at the doorstep of a feudal lord asking to commit ritual Harakiri (suicide), and at first the lord is taken aback by how many recent samurai have come to kill themselves. The Lord tries to tell a story to Hanshiro to possibly dissuade him, about a young man, Motome (Eita), who came to the same lord asking to commit harakiri but was under suspicion of being one of a series of 'Suicide Bluffs' who come to a clan and are really asking for money in exchange for not killing themselves.
Motome, as it turns out, is a bluff, but says he is desperate for just three coins to help his sick wife and child. The clan doesn't buy it, and tells him to kill himself. This is one of those brutal scenes that one can't look away from, and Miike to his credit makes both gripping and sickening to watch by what he mostly shows (Eita's terrified face) and reactions of other samurai in the group) and doesn't show (not as much gore as one might expect from Miike, also to his credit).
But then Hanshiro has his own story to tell before he goes through with his act, and as this story unfolds it's clear: revenge is really the motive, and we are meant to see in very exacting detail what lead to this decision. In terms of telling this basic story, for the first two-thirds or even three-quarters, it is very much... no, practically exactly the same as Kobayashi's film. The main difference here being that it is in color instead of black and white and, very bizarrely to me, in 3D. While I saw the film on a VOD version on TV, I couldn't for the life of me figure out why this was shot in 3D. Perhaps because of a few key scenes involving snow? It almost seems like Miike wanted to do it here for some kind of personal experimental reasons that I can't really fathom (you'd think if any movie would benefit from it then 13 Assassins might with its 45 minute bloody battle sequence).
When I say that it's the same as the original film, I try not to be too hyperbolic in noting that, except I recently saw the original film and was incredibly moved by the experience Kobayashi was able to portray with a different look at the samurai experience as being extremely unglamorous and actually corrupted by the feudal system and the dire straits of people in the lower classes (that is, Hanshiro's family, which is Miho, his daughter, and Motome, who becomes his son in law, and the baby). In fact it may be the deepest of all films made about samurai, in terms of its theme being strong but the performances, especially by Tatsuya Nakadai as Hanshiro, and the cinematography and look of the film so clear and powerful in its relation of wide angles and close-ups. It stays with you.
Which is what makes Miike's film so disappointing, for me at least. If you haven't seen the original, and this will likely be for a good many viewers, then the film on its own terms is never less than competently made and shot and the editing gives the film room to take its time and the acting by Ichikawa, Eita and especially in her supporting role as Miho Hikari Mitsushima, is captivating. But I wanted something a little more from such a director who in his God-Knows-How-Many films has challenged the rules of filmmaking and storytelling so often. It's only in the last quarter that he seems to deviate a little from the original - and not necessarily in a good way; where Kobayashi gave us a trio of samurai duels (I won't say exactly with who) and a climax that felt long in the way that true suspense builds in shots that hold on the characters without cutting too quickly, Miike shortens it. It's as if he's more concerned with the mid-section, about the tragedy of the samurai and his family, and not so much with the action - a conscious decision I'd think after hitting such a high-mark for action with 13 Assassins, to be fair.
But for some reason I found this remake/revamp/reimiagining/re-whatever to not inspire much in me, and I mean on its own terms. I just felt hollow once it ended, in the same way following David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I can see a director here attempting something interesting with the small things, with the color of a room or a set or adding snow to a scene, but not with the bigger picture, and that's the disappointment.