The vagaries of international distribution, a ritual of rights and markets and their attendant webs of contractual arcana, necessitates a pretty irritating gap between the production of a film and its eventual release, a delay sometimes doubled or tripled in length and complication for foreign exports. Such a dilatory system must, of course, struggle to keep up with an artist as boundlessly prolific as Japan's Takashi Miike, who's produced 16 feature films over the last five years alone; the best North Americans can hope for is one new Miike film per calendar year, which, with some delay, is roughly what surfaces here through official channels. Distributors thus choose their import-friendly Miike films wisely, which has the adverse effect of making those that are chosen seem more self-consciously “major” than Miike probably intended. This is particularly true now, as the trend leans away from Miike's former horror extremism and instead toward his ostensibly grander samurai epics.
Unlike nearly every one of Takashi Miike's other fiftysomething feature films, last year's surprise critical success 13 Assassins seemed defined by a certain refinement, almost an elegance, as appealing as it was unexpected. Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, the latest Miike film to hit U.S. theaters, after premiering at Cannes in 2011, is of a piece with this newfound tastefulness: At first blush, it too seems guided by an assured, confident hand, one more interested in slowly teasing out a story than in dicing it up with glee. And so the question presents itself: Has Miike, now over 50, finally mellowed in middle age? Not quite. Those Miike films which do end up on our shores, each presented as a high-profile special event, has a significant impact on our perception of what's actually a much broader body of work. One may note the nonexistent reception greeting both Zebraman 2 and Ninja Kids!!!, the two films Miike made between 13 Assassins and Hara-Kiri, and we've yet to hear word of an American premiere for his following project, a live-action adaptation of the Phoenix Wright video games. It must be easier to bill an import as dignified when his characteristically zany work is ignored.
This sort of context is important when one considers that the sobriety of Hara-Kiri is largely a misdirect. 13 Assassins was, at heart, a blood-and-guts genre piece as slight as it was satisfying, and it succeeded on both the efficiency of its setup and the grandeur of its finale. It lacked depth (all that talk of honor and duty was nothing more than conventional lip-service), but from that portentously brandished “Total Massacre” scroll on, it was enormously entertaining. Regrettably, Hara-Kiri is not. An early scene suggests why: As in Kobayashi's original, a destitute ronin presents himself to the house of a feudal lord, requesting the use of their courtyard for a ritual act of suicide known as hara-kiri. The members of the house tell the story of Motome, a like-minded ronin who appeared at their doorstep not long ago with the same request: Sensing that the ronin didn't intend to go through with the suicide and was only there to collect what he assumed would be charity (and pleaded exhortations against taking his own life), the house sat Motome down before them and demanded that he see the ritual through to its gruesome end, as a kind of cautionary tale to those who might seek to implement a similar ruse.
Miike tells the beginning of this story capably, gradually amplifying the tension in the build-up to Motome's forced hara-kiri; his camera pans across rooms slowly, gliding through doors and around pillars, and the ample silences speak volumes. But, once it's revealed that Motome brought only a false bamboo sword and is pressured into going through with his suicide anyway, Miike lets his familiar—but until-then repressed—tastelessness get the better of him, relishing the grisly seppuku-by-bamboo in unnecessary detail. It's a base, gross-out shock tactic (those squishy, literally gut-wrenching sound effects seem ripped straight out of the torture scene from the climax of Audition), protracted to veritable exploitation-flick length, and while it's certainly technically accomplished, it feels as though it belongs in a different film entirely. One begins to understand, at precisely this moment, where Miike's true predilections (and talents) lie.
The second act—in which we're shown, at much greater length than in the Kobayashi version, the story of Motome's upbringing and eventual descent into desperation—isn't exploitative or shocking in the least, and so in a sense suffers the opposite problem of the act which precedes it. It's a bit of a slog, and in terms of exposition and emotional development it seems almost entirely superfluous; what's covered across more than an hour could have rather easily been pared down to under five minutes (or, if one was feeling particularly hasty, a few helpful lines of dialogue), and that it wasn't is an egregious structural miscalculation. It's a shame, too, because once the film shifts gears and arrives, finally, at the story of the present (the ronin from the beginning throws down and takes on a samurai army by himself), the film begins to find its voice, falling into exactly the harried rhythm to which Miike's style is best suited. This is also the point at which Miike begins to show some evident interest in the material before him, a relief after suffering through more than an hour of casual disengagement. Had he embraced the feel of this climax from the start, and had the manner of the film been so fleet throughout, Hara-Kiri might have been another coup on par with 13 Assassins, a film perhaps less ambitious but at least more capable of delivering narrower pleasures. Aspiring to something heavier but not meaning it is nothing more than a cheap ruse.