The transformation might be complete: The crap-and-gore, genre-mincing Tasmanian devil of Asian pulp psychosis Takashi Miike we've come to know and, well, kinda semi-love since 1999's Audition seems now to have finished evolving into a tasteful, even resonant art house master. It has only taken him 50 movies or so — if that's what has happened. Any familiarity with the Miike-verse at all should tell you never to pigeonhole this most protean and unpredictable of filmmakers.
Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai is more than just another bid for respectability, like 13 Assassins — it may well be Miike's best film, a patient, ominous piece of epic storytelling that conscientiously rips the scabs off the honorable samurai mythology. Readapting Yasuhiko Takiguchi's novel (Masaki Kobaya-shi had an international hit with it in 1962), Miike takes on the portentous shogunate territory of Mizoguchi and Kurosawa with authority; architecture dictates composition, and iconography speaks for itself. In a feudal lord's palace, news comes from the gate that an unemployed samurai wishes to perform seppuku in the estate courtyard. "Another one," the head honcho (Kôji Yakusho) grumbles, already apparently weary of "suicide bluffs." Times are so tough, we're told, that legions of jobless warriors have resorted to claiming desire for hara-kiri and turn up to tell their sob stories and risk having to go through with it but secretly angling for a job or a donation instead. It's all about the money.
Spinning yarns as lives hang in the balance is the crucial activity — coupling stories within stories, the film weaves a broad but detailed canvas. The would-be gut-cutter in question (Ebizô Ichikawa) appears resolved until he is told the story of the last seppuku petitioner, who despite being young, wracked with doubt, and armed only with a dull bamboo sword was forced by the lord's badass samurai minions to carry through with his task. Ichikawa's steely hero knows this already, and his agenda has layers — not the least of which is to confront the heartless neocon samurai ethos head-on.
Miike's version is both a melodramatic deepening and a grisly doubling-down of Kobayashi's great original, and though its good taste might frustrate the blood thirst of Miike's fan base, the movie satis-fies more classical movie hungers. The film's mournful steadiness and eloquence more resembles the late career work of Twilight Samurai's Yôji Yamada than, say, 2001's maniacal Visitor Q (only Miike's oeuvre could possibly cover that distance), and his elasticity has already earned him complaints. (Beware die-hard Miikeists who talk about being "bored.") Certainly, Miike never mustered acting this authentic and wise from a cast; Yakusho and, as the most uncompromising of the lord's henchman, Munetaka Aoki are indelible, but the movie belongs to Ichikawa, a big star in kabuki (his name, in fact, is an inherited honorific, of which he is the 11th-generation bearer) and here a nuanced, righteous everyman worn down to a single doomed purpose.
Miike's movie is filthy with moments of grace, from the rain that slowly turns to snowfall as bad news looms to the climactic, torrential one-against-many anti-battle. (We could do without the Christ posturing, philosophically apt as it might be for the martyred hero under the circumstances.) Japan's own fifth-gear Tarantino engine, Miike salutes golden-age Japanese cinema the right way — by respecting its heart and celebrating its iconic dazzle. In fact, his detour away from the hyperactive gore and genre excess that made him famous, by way of this deep-dish morality tale, feels positively heroic.