8 January 2013 | wandereramor
On the deficiencies of wooden swords
Takashi Miike's second straight tribute to the samurai genre is a well-crafted and finely honed object. It's more consistent than Miike's previous samurai film, 13 Assassins, although that also means it lacks anything as great as that film's final battle. But what sets Hara-Kiri apart is its willingness to not just offer a pastiche of these films but genuinely question their values in a way that is still challenging to the contemporary viewer.
Through a series of events told partially in flashbacks, Hara-Kiri poses the question of how relevant our values are -- whether they be highly codified values like honour or the more nebulous instincts that guide us today -- in the face of human suffering. The ronin that we see humiliated and killed in the first act is not guilty of breaking some arcane samurai bylaw but of doing something most of us would find disgraceful. But as the film goes on it argues that we should hold compassion even for people such as this, and that honour is ultimately irrelevant in the face of social suffering. In an age of recession and austerity, where so many try to cling to their ideas of what they or other people "deserve", this is an important message.
It's an easy film to appreciate and a difficult one to love -- there's a kind of coldness to this set of Miike's movies that seems out of place with the gonzo enthusiasm of his earlier work. And doubtlessly it will be too slow and cerebral for some. But its critique of not just a canonized genre but the way in which we view ethics makes it well worth seeing.