Do not watch a Miike Takashi film at the cinemas in 3-D with extreme audio effects.

11 08 2012

If you go against my advice, well, good luck and power to you. And please, bring a barf bag.

[ !!!Spoilermeter!!! Mild discomfort ahead. Nah, I’m going all out. Watch film first, enjoy, try not to chuck, and then come back. Itadakimasu! ]

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I was so absorbed with seeing Eita‘s name in the MIFF guide (Melbourne International Film Festival) that I completely neglected Miike Takashi‘s notoriety in the world of film. I forgot all about the pure gory gruesomeness.

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Eita plays the role of Chijiiwa Motome in the 2011 Hara-Kiri: Death Of A Samurai (aka Ichimei,) a young man pushed to desperate measures and ultimately arriving at a cruel and brutal death. His wish was simple— he needed 3 ryō to save his sick child and wife— but his fate would be nothing short of one heckuva gut-wrenching tragedy. I’m not trying to be a pun-jackass either. I actually fell physically nauseous and contemplated dashing for the restroom. About 30 minutes into the film, Motome is callously forced by the samurai at the House of Ii, headed by the heartless Kageyu (played by Yakusho Koji,) to commit seppuku— ritual suicide by disembowelling himself— with a bamboo sword. The sound effects, reminiscent that of a certain scene in Miike Takashi‘s Audition, coupled with the 3-D viewing, will bring you up close and personal into the extensive barbarity that unfolds inside that pristine, crisp white courtyard. It really felt like it went on for an eternity. Not since those grotesque tongue-related moments in the absurdly dark and magnificent cult classic Ichi The Killer had I wanted any scene to end more. I swear had I succumbed to the aromas at the popcorn stand earlier, without a doubt I would’ve been puking up chunks of kernels right about then.

It would have been sensible to have psychologically prepared myself going into the movie, however, the idea of Eita in a sumo wrestling diaper threw any sense that I may have had out the window. To be fair, the bloodshed in Hara Kiri does pale in comparison to many other Miike Takashi films, however, the sheer brilliant rawness of Eita‘s acting here will have you emotionally and psychologically distraught (come on, you knew I was gonna praise him.) I seriously wanted to put on my invisibility cloak (I’m not silly,) jump into the scene with a sharper blade and put an immediate end to his misery. But as difficult as the scene here was to endure, it was crucial, and burningly irrevocable as it validated our main protagonist’s thirst for revenge. Kabuki actor Ichikawa Ebizo plays the main role of Tsugumo Hanshiro superbly, leading us to follow his heart and soul in challenging just what the label “honour” truly means.

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Once you get out out this bleak and brutal scene, a much more understated and tender stretch of story-telling pursues. But by no means does it leave any less of a mark. We learn that Motome lost his father at a young age and was subsequently taken in by Hanshiro, who was a long-time family friend. Hanshiro, a single father, has a daughter, Miho, who grows up being played by none other than Mitsushima Hikari. That’s right peeps, Eita and Mistushima Hikari, fated to doom epically again. Yay (N.)~! However, compared to the breathtakingly perfect 2011 FujiTV drama, Soredemo Ikite Yuku, I didn’t quite get the same level of chemistry in Hara Kiri between the two young talents, nor did I feel like I witnessed Mitsushima Hikari chan‘s full potential. There was nothing technically wrong with her acting, it just wasn’t as unprocessed or as transparent to the viewer’s heart as her Futaba in Soredemo (I’ve also come to terms with that fact that everytime Eita is paired with an actress who can actually act, there ain’t gonna be a happily ever after~~)

I never felt like Miike Takashi managed to flesh out the young lovers’ relationship in a way that made you see Motome and Miho as intertwined souls either. Their story was almost too simple, albeit the flashback period did take up a considerable length of time, rendering the overall film much less about the spirit of the samurai and more about the destruction and revenge for the poverty-stricken, ill-fated family. I understood Motome and Miho had grown up together, I got that they liked each other and I don’t doubt that they cared for each other— but I would have loved to have seen and felt more passion, more longing. I wanted to feel that they needed each other both physically and emotionally. I wanted my heart to bleed for them.

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Whether or not this was Miike Takashi‘s conscious intention, I don’t know, but I found myself studying and sympathising for them as individuals rather than as a whole. Motome and Miho each carried their own ideals of duty, what it meant to be a husband and a father, what it meant to be a wife and a daughter— they both felt like they had failed the other. As I watched their souls erode away, I wanted to tell them so much to stop the self-guilt. I wanted to tell them, please, stop and love yourself, as only then will you be strong enough to be there for the other. Only then could you both live on. I wanted Miho to realise being sick did not make her a burden, I wanted Motome to not feel like a failure by believing he was not “providing as a man should.” I wanted them to see all that so, so, SO badly. Yet, I could only watch on as they miserably wallowed in their own self-shame. And the more they did that, the worse things became.

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One of my favourite scenes came when Motome, after selling off some of his cherished books, handed over pretty much the last of his pennies in exchange for three fresh eggs. He nests them in his hands delicately and makes his way home, eager to cook a warm meal for his ill wife, but on his way a group of young children accidentally push past him, causing him to drop one of the eggs. The children run off, but Motome continues to stand there, staring emptily at the egg at his feet. Moments later, he falls to his knees and planks his body down, sucking up the egg that was splattered raw on the dirt ground in front of him. Nothing else is happening on screen. There is no soundtrack, no people, no special effects, no words. Yet it is the simplicity of this moment that generates the despair, and that will move even the most rigid of hearts. If there’s any one scene in the film that makes you re-evaluate your priorities in life, this is it. Do things like pride and dignity really get you anywhere? Does it feed you, does it keep you warm? More importantly, what is your definition for these identities, and would it change if you were to be filthy rich or dirt poor? For the sake of his own survival, Motome shows us that he was willing to throw in his dignity. And for the survival of his loved ones, he was willing to give up even more, because for Motome, his family was his pride (and Eita, oh Eita kun… IIIIIII♫ ♪♬♪… can give you Gaatsbyyy ♫ ♪ ♫ ♩ ♬… in return for some nice shu-shu action, ne? *wink* *wink* :) ;D :O )

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The story eventually reaches present day where Hanshiro is gracing the same courtyard before Kageyu and his men, who now realise that our main protagonist isn’t merely here for a ritual suicide as he claims. Hanshiro was here to seek revenge for my baby Eita. That’s right suckers, prepare to have your topknots sliced off. The final 20 or so minutes sees the story take a turn back to what many would come into the film expecting (or hoping) to see. Death of a samurai— is it as literal as it seems? Or is the absence of simple humanity and honour enough to certify the term? Hanshiro basically makes an enslaught through the House of Ii, knowing damn well he is outnumbered but nevertheless does not cower away from challenging their positions as noble warriors. Seeing Hanshiro send one of Kageyu‘s men flying through their grandly armoured statue of worship and all their faces drop to a sullen fright at the sight of the sculpture dispersing into pieces actually made a few people in the cinema burst into hysterics. To me, the laughable nature of this scene suggests the director’s view on honour within the entire story. Honour is not something you can necessarily see or merely talk about but it’s a way of life. You’re kidding yourself if you believe otherwise. While many are raving about this final battle though, I personally feel it didn’t quite match the emotional charge from Eita‘s ritual scene. However, I don’t question that it was majestically shot ( just as the rest of the film is.) It most definitely sustains Miike Takashi‘s reputation as a master of action choreography.

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Even without having seen the 1962 version of Hara-Kiri directed by Kobayashi Masaki, I can still say that I wish Miike Takashi had dedicated more screen-time to the samurai code of honour, or rather, somehow found a way to greater illustrate its weight and significance to society. I wanted to see more of how the samurai were viewed by everyday citizens, and get into the grittiness of the back-of-house corruption— to me, they only scratched the surface of the theme.

I also question the necessity of the 3-D— actually, I’m undecided. Overall, I don’t feel that the 3-D really served to enhance the storyline at all, however I did like the way Miike Takashi integrated the technology to create a visual sensation for the eyes. Quite frankly, the film was glorious to look at. The use of 3-D definitely minimised the distance between the characters and the viewer but then Miike Takashi would contradict this by hiding his characters behind drops of dark, muggy netting during the middle, melodramatic portion of the film. I feel like this added a dimension of guardedness to the characters and their desolate situation, and left you wanting to reach out and uncover the veil to allow the light to permeate their surroundings. I also loved the shots where the vividly coloured, lush Autumn leaves danced off the screens, the dashes of colour only lasting momentarily amidst the dark tonal hues of the film. In a sense, this reminded us that the outside world still remained a beautiful, unpolluted place.

Whether or not this film stands up to the spirit of the original, I can not tell you (at least not now, definitely some day in the future soon) but, for the most part, Miike Takashi‘s Hara-Kiri is certainly an intensely captivating film in its own right. If anything, one thing’s for sure— by the end of it all, you will look at your own life and simply breathe gratitude.

———

[ Images used in this post credit to: autumnsoliloguy’s tumblr, nipponcinema, LA Eiga Fest, Genkinahito’s Blog, also screencapping trailer clip on IchimeiMovie on youtube. ]

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