Fans of Japanese cult director Takashi Miike's more gruesome or abstruse offerings – say 1999's Audition or 2003's yakuza freakout Gozu – might not appreciate the solemn, stately pace of this, the director's remake of Masaki Kobayashi's 1962 film Harakiri. It's a far cry from the artfully designed, swordsmen-slashing ballet of Miike’s last film, 13 Assassins, although the very notion that a Miike film could be anything other than "artfully designed" is pretty ludicrous to begin with. You have to wonder – not too hard, though – what this gore-soaked auteur's bedtime dreams are like.
Shot in 3-D (not how we viewed it, however), Hara-Kiri is ostensibly what the title says: the tale of a penniless ronin, Hanshirô (Ichikawa), who insults the lord Kageyu (infinitely watchable Yakusho of Babel) by asking permission to perform the sacred act of self-disembowelment in Kageyu's extremely artfully designed courtyard. As it turns out, many ronin have come before and failed to follow through on their deadly requests. Not so with Hanshiro, who is forced to perform the face-saving act of seppuku with nothing more than a bamboo short sword. Miike, being Miike, draws out the agony of that lengthy sequence with the assured mastery of a man intimately familiar with cinematic boundaries and how best to transgress them. It's a stomach-churning exercise in pathological honesty, and makes for extremely uncomfortable viewing. From this emotionally freighted sequence, Miike's film recounts the route by which Hanshiro arrived at this awful demise. It's by turns moving, elegant, and (very occasionally) slow going as we learn the exact circumstances behind the death of this particular samurai.
Miike is renowned for being one of the most prodigious directors in his field, and veers between genres and sub-sub-genres like something of a cinematic ronin himself. The results don't always work as well as they might were he not directing three to four films per year, but the films are never less than interesting exercises in pushing boundaries and buttons. Hara-Kiri may be a lesser Miike work, but it's still a (literally) gutsy exercise in prolonged narrative recursiveness, and a melancholy and mordant examination of one lonely ronin's woe from centuries past.