Takashi Miike's remake of Masaki Kobayashi's Hara-kiri is one of those movies where nothing's really wrong, but that by itself isn't enough for the territory. It's a perfectly competent update for a movie that didn't need it, and maybe that's the problem. The original film was not flawed in any significant way, save maybe in the eyes of a modern audience for having the effrontery of not being in color. In fact, Hara-kiri was and remains a masterwork, a product of the samurai cinema of the Sixties that used the form to challenge authority, to question the mystique and pomp of the warrior class that had been used as emotional propaganda for generations.
Much of that confrontatory attitude has drained out of Japan's moviemaking. Almost all of the samurai productions of the last couple of decades have been redolent with sentimentalism. Even Miike himself — normally one of Japan's bad boys of moviemaking (a label he'd have gained for Ichi the Killer alone) — had veered into weepier territory with productions like Sabu. I liked Sabu a great deal, if only because it showed that Miike was not a one-note Nelson. The man could, and has, made movies in just about every genre imaginable, and learned to reign in his excesses when it mattered. If there was someone to make a confrontatory movie in today's climate, it was him. But this somehow isn't that film.
Hara-kiri follows the same story as the original film, itself adapted from a novel. A samurai from a disbanded house (Ebizo Ichikawa) approaches a lord (the ever-excellent Koji Yakusho, here exuding magnificent arrogance) and asks for permission to kill himself on his property, as a minimal way to save face after being disgraced. The lord is not amused: he's seen this ploy before, usually a way for the would-be suicide to extort money from others, and he relates a hair-raising story about another young ronin who attempted the same thing before and came to a terrible end. But this new ronin is adamant, and so the lord grants him his request. Turns out that the whole thing has been a ploy to get revenge, and after a flashback in which he describes how his suffering brought him here, get it he does.
I mentioned how Miike has developed the good sense to reign in his stylistic excess when it's needed. He did a beautiful job of balancing excess and restraint in the amazing 13 Assassins (another remake project). Here, he does the same thing: the first, botched seppuku scene is shot almost entirely out-of-frame or from behind, and is all the more ghastly and affecting for it. The acting, too, is restrained and well-modulated: Yakusho in particular is excellent at making a fundamentally unlikable character into someone we want to watch to see what he does next. Ichikawa, as the ronin, does something interesting: he tries to channel the wide-eyed, hollowed-out intensity of Tatsuya Nakadai from the original film, and it almost works — that is, when it's not just leaving us hearkening back to how Nakadai embodied this sort of thing effortlessly instead of making it look like acting.
The film's stark beauty is in line with the original, but the original was hardly in need of revisiting.
There's no shortage of technical competence, either. The whole thing is photographed in subdued colors that reminds us current movies don't all have to be color-corrected to death in teal and orange. There is a fine attention to biting little details, as when the starving hero sucks a broken egg up from the ground or when the beloved of the first dead samurai gently pulls broken bits of bamboo from his corpse's hand. And the massive, climactic swordfight — it wouldn't be a samurai movie without one, y'know — where our doomed hero defends himself with nothing more than a bamboo blade and where his opponents fear pain and humiliation more than they do death, is beautifully assembled and played off.
What's missing is something that seems prevalent in most any remake: a sense that there was a real need to revisit this material. The original did everything it was meant to do and has lost nothing with time. It was not the product of a dated sensibility (e.g., the Miyamoto Musashi Samurai trilogy), and it had no major technical shortcomings. The remake is admirable and more than competent. It isn't a work of mere mimicry. And yet in the end it's still just a remake of a work that hardly needed remaking. If nothing, this film is further proof Japan isn't immune from also tinkering compulsively with its own cinematic heritage.