Since the monster success of Avatar, we’ve experienced a noticeable increase in 3D features in subsequent years. Though 3D is not a genre unto itself, there are certainly shared characteristics between the types of films that get the 3D treatment. As the format places a lot of emphasis on spectacle, it’s no surprise that horror, science fiction, action and adventure make up the bulk of 3D films.
Last year at the Cannes Film Festival, a milestone was achieved for the format when the first ever 3D film screened in competition – Takashi Miike’s Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai. Given the expectations of the format, and the fact it has “Samurai” in the title, you could be completely forgiven for assuming that this would be a genre film with plenty of spectacle. While an argument could be made that there are some visually spectacular moments, the most surprising aspect of Hara-kiri is that it’s actually a very serious family drama, and because of this it feels completely incongruous with the 3D format.
Set in Japan in the 17th Century, the film opens with a down-trodden samurai named Hanshiro (Ebizo Ichikawa) requesting permission from the noble House of Li, to commit ritualistic suicide in their courtyard. With his fighting days behind him, he’s one of many samurai who no longer have the purpose and drive they used to and struggle to make ends meet. Therefore committing hara-kiri in such a noble and honourable place is a way for them to move onto the next life with dignity and their head held high.
The head of the House then tells Hanshiro the story of a man before him that also had the same request, and this tale makes up the first third of the film. A younger samurai named Motome (Eita) came to the House, but his intentions were interpreted as a bluff. Apparently some samurai knew that they could make the request and either the elders would be so impressed by their actions, they would welcome them into the House, or not wanting the fuss, would give the samurai a couple of coins and turn him away. Both options were better than the intense poverty and desperation they were enduring.
For poor Motome, they House of Li decided to make an example of him as a warning to others who want to try a “suicide bluff” and granted him his wish to commit hara-kiri. Before Motome can figure a way out of it, he finds himself in the courtyard of the temple, surrounded by other samurai and being forced into carrying his “bluff” through to fruition. In what has quickly become my favourite scene of the year thus far, Motome’s pleas to be given one more day, one more hour, turn into acceptance and he decides to try regain some final honour, despite not quite having the proper tool for the job…
After this horrendous scene (in my screening, a man very loudly dry-retched during it), the elder’s story had finished, but Hanshiro has no intention of changing his mind. When the time comes for him to carry out the act, he reveals that he knew Motome, and that he has a story of his own to tell.
Hanshiro’s story comprises the bulk of the film and it’s a sad tale that raises plenty of questions about honour, family and sacrifice. Unfortunately, once the audience realises where the tale is going, there’s a long period of waiting for him to finish so we can finally see the House of Li’s reaction. When it does come, it leads to the most one-sided fight I’ve ever seen on film and we get a glimpse of what Miike’s 3D samurai film would look like if it was a genre piece.
Claiming that the 3D is unnecessary is somewhat of a staple in film reviewing, but while that’s certainly the case here, it’s also working against the film, drawing in the wrong crowd (especially those looking for a follow-up to 13 Assassins). The only place the 3D excelled was in making the subtitles appear slightly closer than the rest of the film – a cool effect but completely superfluous. Ultimately, Hara-Kiri is a devastating family drama that raises plenty of questions about honour, that’s unfortunately undermined by its employment of 3D.