Japan, early 17th century. It’s a time of peace in the country. The services of samurai are rarely needed anymore, leading to massive unemployment and poverty among them. One such samurai, Hanshirô (Ebizô Ichikawa), down to his last penny, requests to commit the traditional ritual suicide (hara-kiri) at the House of Li. This is seen as an honorable death, and the more noble the House, the more honorable the death. Kageyu (Kôji Yakusho) tries to dismiss Hanshirô’s request by recounting the story of another samurai, Motome (single-monickered Eita), who not long before also came to the House of Li with the same request. This samurai, however, tried a ploy many of the poverty-stricken samurai have resorted to in recent years, the ‘suicide bluff’: they ask for permission to commit suicide, but when push comes to shove, they demand money. This places a House in a difficult position, and not wanting to lose face, they often cave in to the bluffing samurai. This time, however, the House of Li decided to set an example, and make Motome push through with the suicide (no pun intended). Since Motome had long since sold his sword, he was forced to split his belly with a wooden sword, making for an excruciating death. Hanshirô, horrified by this account of Motome’s death, requests that three of Kageyu’s samurai assist him, specifically the ones who assisted in the suicide of Motome. Suspiciously, these three are absent from the House. Kageyu demands an explanation why Hanshiro asks for these three men. Hanshirô then explains his connection with Motome, and unexpectedly, a bittersweet tale of family love unfolds, slowly moving towards a showdown of vengeance against the House of Li.
Workhorse director Takashi Miike (the press kit for the film credits 80 films in his 15-year career!) is a man who likes to take on a genre or two. Whether it is Yakuza Mafia film, straight-up action fluff, sensitive drama, children’s film, or even a horror musical, he tries it all. Interestingly enough though, this is Miike’s second samurai film in a row (after last year’s 13 Assassins). A remake of Harakiri, this transcends your regular swordplay flick in the humanity that Miike places at the core of the film. In fact, there is very little action in the film apart from the classic ‘one-against-many’ showdown finale, and for a Miike film there is much less bloodletting than one might expect given the genre (although Motome’s suicide is painful to watch). That is because the heart of the story is the relationship between Hanshirô, Motome, and Hanshirô’s daughter Miho (Hikari Mitsushima). Coming from a Japanese director, a country where social structures are often rigidly hierarchical and individuality is suppressed in favor of the collective (as portrayed here by the House of Li), the humanistic and on-equal-level relationship between these three characters can be seen as criticism of the importance placed on hierarchy and the collective in Japanese society. In a telling scene, Hanshirô offers his daughter half a rice cake, as poor as they are. She says she will save it for later, not wanting to eat before her father does, maybe even not wanting to take food from the mouth of her father. Hanshirô then says rice cakes are better enjoyed when eaten together, defying the traditional hierarchy. Given that the story is set in samurai times, the epitome of a society based in honor, structure and tradition, Miike’s criticism becomes even stronger. What also permeates the film is a strong feeling of sadness. This is not a happy film, and it will not have a happy end. But whatever befalls the family at the heart of the story, their love is stronger than ever.
From a technical point of view, the most important thing to note about Ichimei is of course that the film is in 3-D, a novelty for the Cannes competition. Disappointingly, Miike doesn’t make much use of the possibilities, only doing some nice composition work with it early on. Then again, in an interview the director said his approach was not different from shooting in 2-D, and he was mostly just happy to brag to other directors, “Yours is flat and level? Ours is bumpy and convexo-concave.” Other technicals are sufficient, with only production design at times really catching the eye (mainly in the scenes in the House of Li). Aside from the outstanding Ichikawa, the acting mainly serves the story, and specifically Eita can at times go a little over the top.
In all, Miike has crafted a film that goes a lot deeper than one might skim from the surface of this traditional samurai story, which is very well, if conventionally, structured. It falls apart a bit in the climactic finale, which doesn’t work as well as it should, but up until that point the film has more heart than expected, and the message rings true. Recommended for fans of the genre, and for those who want to give the genre a try.