A penniless ronin by the name of Tsukumo, requests permission to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) in the grounds of a local lord. Before he is granted permission to do so by the Lord of the House of Li, he is told of the last ronin that made the same request. The previous ronin had made the request as a bluff to elicit a donation and had no intention to kill himself. However the samurai of the House of Li forced him to go through with the painful death. After Tsukumo hears the story he insists that he still wishes to commit seppuku, however his final request and story of why he is at the House of Li leads into a tale of loss and revenge.

It is worthing noting early, that Hara-Kiri involves very little sword play. Those looking for action may be disappointed with this rather romantic and bitter tale of love and loss. Hara-Kiri focuses on a few central characters over a number of years to explore themes and concepts of family, love, social standing and truth. The main thrust of the story itself is a foray down the well trodden path of a poor but brave hero seeking revenge for wrongs perpetrated against him by an honourless rich person. However, Miike manages to make Hara-Kiri much more than this by examining the emotional responses.

The cinematography and art direction of Hara-Kiri manage to walk the line of managing to look beautiful while not romanticising the poverty that the protagonists live in. The snow and rain are framed wonderfully against the dull colours of the slum that Tsukumo and his family live, which manages to look alluring and yet convey a sense of threat. The dilapidated houses that Tsukumo and his neighbours live in are quite a departure from the near mythic way in which samurai are often portrayed in films.

Though there is very little visceral violence shown on screen (please note that’s little violence for a Miike film), parts of the movie remain hard to watch especially the attempt at suicide with a wooden sword. For most Western audiences Miike will be best known for his hyper-violent films such as Ichi The Killer and Audition. Hari-Kiri does not compare to these films when it comes to chucking the blood around.

Hara-Kiri is a touching film, managing to elicit genuine sympathy for Tsukumo as he loses his place in society, his family and purpose. The actors could have been forgiven for descending into melodrama with such a taut and emotive story but with the exception of Tsukumo’s son in law, Motome, all characters are played with subtlety and pathos. Despite the warm and likeable characters, Hara-Kiri is probabley one of Miike’s nihilistic films to date. Characters are not rewarded for good actions and the film constantly reinforces the message that one’s life is not under their own control and nothing changes no matter what one tries. At the end of the film despite Tsukumo’s valiant efforts nothing has changed apart from his bloodline ending in obscurity.

An excellent film that delivers great drama for those that are willing to take the slow paced journey with Miike. Perhaps the thematic elements would have been better served with a more original story and some may find the pacing laborious, others annoyed by the lack of action but this film reward those that are willing to put into it.