In other words, if it's all-out action you seek, stick to 13 Assassins. You won't get that until about the last 20 minutes of Hara-Kiri, but I'd argue the wait makes the clash of swords sounding all the more sweet. I'd also encourage viewers to consider them companion pieces, and to consume both.
Set in the early 17th century of feudal Japan, the film concerns the fate of a samurai who arrives at the House of Ii with a simple request: “I wish to cut open my stomach and die as befits a warrior.” Because the times are peaceful, he is without a position and, thus, dirt-poor, which brings him great shame.
The film then segues into a flashback that tells a similar story. Admittedly, this shift may prove confusing at first, especially since the characters so closely resemble one another with their oddly shaved heads and uniform dress. Pay attention and stick with it; all will be rewarded.
The advice could apply to the entire film, which, over the stretch of two hours and six minutes, contemplates a theme best summed up by this line of dialogue: "Each man has his own honor. We are nothing without it."
In Hara-Kiri, Miike has crafted a highly introspective portrait of the samurai code and culture — a story uniquely Japanese. To Americans who have no knowledge of the country's concept of “face,” the samurai's request may seem so outlandish as to be alien.
Luckily, visuals remain unaffected by such boundaries, and there is true, poetic beauty at work here. Each flake of snow seems to have been art directed; in the finale, when a line is crossed, the precipitation quietly begins, and as tension mounts, the flurries grow thicker in return.
So, too, will your enjoyment of a masterfully staged drama — one of the most unlikely suspects to be shown in 3-D. It's worth noting, however, that New Video Group's DVD release is flat, but Miike's visuals pop nonetheless. —Rod Lott
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• 13 Assassins Blu-ray review