Film Reviews

Hara-Kiri & The Loneliest Planet

Published March 23, 2013

Takashi Miike is the cinema’s man of a thousand faces. He is astonishingly prolific for a contemporary filmmaker, having directed more than 60 movies since his debut in 1991, as well as stage and TV productions. Miike is notorious not only for the quantity of his films but for their bewildering variety.
He is probably best known for features such as Ichi the Killer (2001), which is so violent it makes any of Quentin Tarantino’s movies look like The Sound of Music. Like Tarantino, Miike’s taste for extreme sex and gore is cartoonish and often comedic, although this doesn’t make his graphic approach any less confronting. If one keeps watching, it is because his films are so unpredictable and stylish.
As well as gangster and samurai flicks, Miike has made a “Sukiyaki western” called Django, in which Tarantino features as an actor. He also has a sideline in bizarre children’s films such as Zebraman (2004), but for sheer weirdness it is impossible to go past The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) – a musical about a family of misfit innkeepers whose guests keep dying mysteriously.
With some knowledge of Miike’s previous form, I expected Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai to be a bloodbath from start to finish. Instead it is a powerful, brooding drama, beautifully shot and, by this director’s standards, almost understated. While I’ve seen only a small part of Miike’s voluminous output, Hara-Kiri stands out for its maturity and consistency. Needless to say there is a lot of bloodshed, and some unpleasant squelching sounds, but the violence is never gratuitous.
The story, set in 1630, begins with Hanshiro (Ebizo Ichikawa), an impoverished samurai, presenting himself at the manor of Lord Iyi, and begging permission to commit ritual suicide in the courtyard. This is a death to confer honour on a life that has lost its bearings, after the defeat and disbanding of the great house where the ronin once worked.
A retainer seeks to discourage the samurai from this course by telling him about another warrior, Motome (Eita), who came with the same request. Suspecting it was only a bluff, the clansmen decided to make an example of this young man, even when it was discovered that his sword was nothing but a piece of bamboo. Obliged to disembowel himself with this flimsy blade, Matome’s death was agonising, and enforced with sadistic fervour.
Undeterred, Hanshiro maintains that he still wishes to do the deed, but when the clansmen are gathered in the courtyard as witnesses, the story takes a surprising twist. In flashback, the relationship between Hanshiro and Motome is gradually revealed, while the pride and nobility of the house of Iyi sinks into the mire.
If Hara-Kiri is a surprisingly old-fashioned samurai movie, this may be because it is a remake of a classic 1962 film by the great director, Masaki Kobayashi. The parallels are striking. In the role of Hanshiro, Ichikawa is almost a double for Tatsuya Nakadai, who starred in the earlier version. The difference is that Miike has made a film, whereas Kobayashi created an extraordinary work of art.
There is much to admire about Miike’s version, but it is not in the same class as Kobayashi’s original, which was shot in stark black-and-white, with a relentless, insistent brilliance in the way scenes were framed. The 1962 Hara-Kiri is a more visually arresting production which seems to echo the ritualistic nature of Japanese feudal society, with its hierarchies and codes of honour. Miike’s film is naturalistic in comparison, wreathed in a gloom that emphasises the murkiness of the characters’ actions and motivations.
Presumably there is a reason to reshoot a recognised masterpiece of the cinema, beyond the mountain climbers’s dictum: “Because it was there.” The entire thrust of the story is to expose the hypocrisy of the code of honour by which the house of Iyi is ruled. Under Hanshiro’s assault, one finds only pride and affectation, nurtured by a blind obedience to authority. While pursuing the outward forms, the clansmen have forgotten the meaning of the Bushido code.
In the cowardice, spite and dishonesty of the great house, we may see a comment on the way the Japanese government responded to the crisis in Fukushima. At every stage of this crisis the politicians sought to downplay the seriousness of the threat caused by the breakdown of the nuclear power plant. Now a new government has promised to reopen the country’s nuclear plants, as if everything is under control.
In Miike’s elegant remake of Hara-Kiri, there is an implicit injunction not to believe that those in positions of authority are all good and honourable. His theme is the decadence and corruption of power, and the lengths to which rulers will go to preserve their privileges. It’s a moral that may have a special resonance in Japan, but the fancy dress doesn’t conceal its universal relevance.
One emerges from The Loneliest Planet with a new appreciation of the achievements of Michelangelo Antonioni – not because Antonioni had anything to do with this production, but because he showed it was possible to make long, slow films in which nothing much happens, that can hold an audience enthralled. On the evidence of her second feature, it’s a skill Julia Loktev, has yet to acquire.
The Loneliest Planet aims at the deep interiority we find in Antonioni’s movies, but strikes a hollow core. The plot doesn’t take long to relate: Nica and Alex, young and in love, are on a hiking trip around Georgia accompanied by Dato, a local guide. In the course of this trip their relationship will be tested by an unexpected incident.
That’s Georgia in the former U.S.S.R., and the mountains are the Caucasus. To me it seems strange that anyone, of their own free will, should want to submit themselves to a long trudge over this bare, mountainous terrain for days on end. Add heavy backpacks, tents, and the unpredictable behaviour of the locals, and the attractions are further diminished.
Yet this is precisely what Nica (Hani Furstenburg) and Alex (Gael García Bernel) do, and they even seem to enjoy it. For the best part of two hours they tramp merrily along some godforsaken goat track while Nature does her thing in the background. To enhance the experience they conjugate Spanish verbs.
We are expected to find this landscape awe-inspiring. Loktev gives us the hint by holding the camera static, focused on some sweeping vista while the ant-sized hikers cross with agonising slowness from one side of the frame to the other. It may be intended as an exercise in the Romantic sublime, but instead it is sublimely boring. The scenery is shot in such a way that the characters are enclosed by the mountains, usually against a backdrop of monotonous green. The greatest point of visual contrast is with Furstenburg’s bright red hair, which features in numerous close-ups.
The film begins in startling fashion, with Nica naked in the shower. Was this intended as a way of getting viewers to keep watching? Any diehard pervs should feel suitably chastened if they last to the end of the movie. The real meaning of this scene may be to emphasise Nica’s vulnerability in this isolated place.
The Caucasus are beautiful to look at, but there is a constant undercurrent of danger, and Alex seems an unlikely protector. It is an issue that is never addressed while the trip goes smoothly, but becomes critical when the trekkers’ complacency is shattered. The real protector is the guide, Dato, played by Bidzina Gujabidze, a non-professional actor who happens to be one of Georgia’s leading mountaineers.
All Dato’s lines are in halting English so it makes little difference whether he can act or not. The contrasts between the couple and their guide, and their complete dependence on him create an underlying tension. No matter how friendly they become, we are always conscious that he is at home in this landscape while they are outsiders. To a disturbing degree he has them in his power.
This scenario has great potential, and an air of expectancy that never dissipates, but too much time is spent showing the hikers simply walking across the landscape. The dialogue is often perfunctory and sounds as if it was improvised on the spot. Most of the lines spoken by Nica and Alex don’t serve to advance the action or flesh out its significance. Dato’s bad jokes are painful to listen to, but many exchanges are merely non-descript.
Ideally a film like this should progress inexorably from light to dark, as small incidents and comments upset the equilibrium between personalities. In this stark, empty landscape the couple have nowhere to hide, and the viewer gradually becomes aware of everything that lies unspoken and unexplored. Instead, there are long sequences when the narrative meanders along, doing little more than making time. It gives the impression of a vignette expanded into a long novel, or a miniature painting blown up to panoramic dimensions. Most irritatingly it suggests a self-conscious attempt to make an arthouse movie when there was a story begging to be told.

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, Japan, rated MA 15+, 128 mins
The Loneliest Planet, USA/Germany, rated M, 113 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, March 23, 2013