Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai
Takashi Miike maintains his reputation as a prolific international filmmaker of considerable talent. A 52-year-old director with 88 films to his credit, Miike is a boldface name on the international cinematic circuit with good reason. His confident sense of style and commanding use of composition combine with sophisticated taste on par anything Eastwood, Lynch, Polanski, Scorsese, or Tarantino have put on the big screen.
Miike’s update of Masaki Kobayashi’s black-and-white 1962 film “Harakiri” never brushes a wrong note. The story’s set up is the stuff of dramatic fascination. As with the unforgettable opening of Abel Ferrara’s “Ms. 45,” the audience is instantly hooked.
The setting is Japan’s 17th century feudal Edo period — a peaceful era without much demand for samurai warriors. Hanshiro (Ebizo Ichikawa), an impoverished ronin, approaches his local samurai lord — Kageyu (Koji Yakusho) — to request use of the House of Li’s courtyard in order to commit seppuku, so he can have a warrior’s finish to his dishonorable state. Hanshiro’s request is met with cold contempt. Kageyu tells in flashback the story of another samurai — Motome (Eita) — who came with a similar request the previous week.
In this sequence, Kageyu’s assistant Omodaka warns his master that he suspects the man of attempting a “suicide bluff” in order to procure money. Once situated in the courtyard, Motome is assigned a second, a witness, and an attendant. Realizing his dire condition, Motome begs for one more day, or even a few hours, to leave and return before carrying out his bloody mission. His desperate appeal is refused.
When he is finished telling the story, Kageyu offers Hanshiro the chance to give up his request and leave without incident; Hanshiro refuses, and insists on following through with his ritual suicide. What follows is the backstory behind Motome’s own decision to attempt a suicide-bluff, and his relationship to the unwavering Hanshiro. “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai” is a stunner from start to finish.
Not Rated. 126 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
Master Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda returns to his trademark familial themes with a charming coming-of-age film that focuses on an emotional, rather than sexual, awakening. Twelve-year-old Koichi (Koki Maeda) and his younger brother Ryunosuke (Ohshiro Maeda) have lived apart since their parents’ divorce. Koichi is with his mother Nozomi (Nene Ohtsuka) and grandparents (Isao Haahizume and Kirin Kiki) in Nozomi’s southern hometown of Kagoshima. Ryunosuke resides with the brothers’ musician father Kenji (Joe Odagiri) in the northern city of Hakata. Koichi misses his little brother terribly. Telephone calls do little to assuage Koichi’s feelings of displacement. News of a new bullet train that will connect the two distant towns stimulates the boys' imaginations. The hopeful siblings imagine that witnessing the two trains passing one another at top speed on the line’s maiden voyage will bring true the wish of whoever is there to witness the singular event. The brothers hatch a plan to ditch school with a few of their friends and meet up at the midway point on the train line to realize their fantasy. The improbable adventure calls for raising the necessary funds to purchase train tickets. Help from their young friends, family, and other adult figures play a crucial part in making the miracle happen.
Magical realism permeates a story that honors a child’s natural inclination to explore the world in a way adults have forgotten. That such a discovery would be impossible without some amount of tacit approval and even complicity from the adult world around them brings to light a communal sense of awareness and maturity in Japanese culture. Innocence has incalculable power in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s thoughtful study of childhood perspective. Wide-eyed humor, eternal optimism, and fearless audacity come with this territory.
Rated PG. 128 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
In the Realm of the Senses - Classic Film Pick
Nagisa Oshima's towering influence over world cinema came as a result of the counter-culture self-identity he developed while involved in '50s-era student protest movements at Kyoto University. After stumbling into a filmmaking position at Japan's state-run Shockiku film studio in 1954, Oshima snaked his way through Japan's New Wave film movement of the '60s with groundbreaking films such as "Night and Fog in Japan"--a film whose controversial nature caused him to leave the studio and launch his own independent production company. Oshima's fiercely leftist temperament was not given to repetition or to safe subject matter. Instead he gravitated toward topical allegories based on actual events that questioned Japanese social mores. He consistently reinvented his cinematic approach with each new project so that no two of his films are alike.
Under the inspiration of adventurous French producer Anatole Dauman, Oshima set out to go beyond the constraints of Japan's thriving Roman Pink industry. “In the Realm of the Senses” would be a pornographic depiction of the legendary story of a woman named Sada Abe, who remains a unique folk heroine in Japan. Oshima was also intent on celebrating Japan’s erotic traditions which had been diminished by foreign influences, especially after World War II.
After working for years as a prostitute at the age of 31 the real-life Sade Abe took on a restaurant job in Tokyo where she fell into a torrid affair with its married owner, Kichizo Ishida. The couple's sexually obsessive relationship led to their running away together to stay at various hotels where they could explore their sexuality to its farthest limits. After several weeks Sada brought the affair to an abrupt end when she strangled her lover before severing his genitals. Sada carried her lover’s penis and testicles in her purse until she was caught by police several days after the murder.
In Oshima's formally composed film Eiko Matsuda plays Sada to Tatsuya Fuji's Ishida. Set almost strictly indoors the episodic story gains momentum through increasingly fetishistic sexual games between the lovers, often in the presence of voyeuristic geishas who arrive to entertain or bring food. Several of the geishas fall under the spell of the couple’s sexual activity to become willing or unwilling participants. Sada’s ferocious insatiability comes to dominate Ishida who accepts his place as an ardently willing slave to her sensual desires.
With its juxtaposed camera angles, bright color palate, purposeful foreshadowing, and taboo subject matter “In the Realm of the Senses” builds an inevitable type of suspense not unlike what you experience in a Hitchcock film. That graphic sexual expression is the narrative currency Oshima uses to explicate a connection between sex and death only adds to the film’s incalculable power to provoke, offend, frighten, and spellbind its audience.
Sonatine - Classic Film Pick
Takeshi "Beat" Kitano represents one of Japan's most iconic cinematic and cultural figures. Famous as a performer for his work in Japanese television programs that range from stand-up and situation comedy to playing a host for game shows and talk shows, Takeshi first broke into films as an actor in Nagisa Oshima's "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence" in 1983. By the end of the decade he would direct his first film "Violent Cop," in which he played a sociopathic detective.
In 1991 the jack-of-all-artistic-trades wrote, directed, and starred in his fourth film "Sonatine," a minimalist drama about Murakawa (played by Takeshi), a Tokyo yakuza concerned with the daily chores of overseeing loan sharking operations on his turf as part of the Nakamatsu clan. Murakawa plays by his own rules, but he's tired. He toys with the idea of retiring. His ruthlessness comes across when he orders the non-paying owner of a mahjong club submersed in the bay to see how long the man can hold his breath. The scene comes after Murakawa beats a cohort he doesn’t trust to a bloody pulp in a restaurant restroom.
Dressed in a loose fitting blue suit and open-necked white shirt, Murakawa is sent to Okinawa with his henchmen to mediate a truce between the Nakamatsu and Anan clans. But when he arrives Murakawa learns from the local Nakamatsu boss there's no need for his assistance. Nonetheless, local gangsters open fire on Murakawa and his men in a bar. Much blood is spilled, most of it by the young attackers. Murakawa and his gang hide out in a remote beach house awaiting orders. The idyllic setting inspires games of innocence and potential violence on the beach. A game of Russian roulette hints at a suicidal tendency in Murakawa, who soon enters into a romantic fling with a local girl. He's not above pleasure. “Indecent exposure is fun.”
"Sonatine" is a lyrical picture of Japan's poker face toward the outrageous violence of its mob culture. The film’s title is a musical term that refers to a sonata of modest length, however not diminished in complexity. Takeshi Kitano's deadpan expression represents a motif of his character’s methodical dispassion. Still, Murakawa is a passionate man who savors humor and beauty. Takeshi’s work as a poet and painter comes through in “Sonatine.” There’s a directness to his flat compositions that reflect a matter-of-factness about life and its fleeting nature. No discussion of modern Japanese cinema would be complete without acknowledging Takeshi Kitano’s colorful influence.