To be sure, this is a movie about a samurai, or more specifically a stinging critique of the bushido tradition underlying much of the samurai’s historical culture. And, yes, it was shot in and at certain art houses in the U.S. will play in 3D.
The 3D, at least in the print and projection system where I saw the film at the Downtown Independent Theatre in L.A., adds absolutely nothing to this period drama. In fact, given the low light levels used by cinematographer Nobuyasu Kita and the drab impoverished 1630 interiors where much of the story takes place, the diminished visual quality caused by 3D glasses may actually take away from the film’s visual design.
There is a splendid fight sequence in the final 20 minutes but otherwise Miike’s film is a slow, meditative period piece aimed for the most part at older Japanese audiences. The closest film to its style — and one infinitely better in my judgment — is Yoji Yamada’s 2002 “Twilight Samurai,” which examined the culture and code of honor of this ancient warrior class through a character who was in fact a bureaucrat.
This story takes place in a time of peace so there’s little need for the action heroics Westerners tend to associate with samurai movies. It is also a time of political upheavals that can lead to an entire clan being disbanded. So masterless samurai unable to find work often turn to the ghastly practice of ritualistic suicide or seppuku (disembowelment).
Against this backdrop, Miike’s film, a remake of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 film of the same name, tells an almost Dickensian tale of utter poverty and ill heath in a family of two masterless samurai. It’s a sad tale that leans heavy on sentimentality over a dying baby and even a dead cat.
Actor Ebizo Ichikawa puts his Kabuki training to good use as the proud and nearly broken widower struggling to do his best for a daughter whom he has married off to an adapted son. Popular Japanese actor Eita plays the younger man with considerable sympathy while Hikari Mitsushima does her best with the cliché of a sickly young woman.
The opening section is unusually flat but things pick up with a grim seppuku where the samurai uses the equivalent of a dull knife — a bamboo blade. Then the movie enters into a lengthy flashback which explains away the dire circumstances of the main characters.
This may play differently in its native country but Yank audiences can be forgiven for finding this all a bit tedious and obvious. The tragedy Miike aims for somehow eludes him within these under-lit interiors and shooting often through netting that blurs facial expressions.
The final confrontation between Ichikawa’s character and a feudal lord (Koji Yakusho) and his retinue is highly charged, not to mention a relief from the static compositions of the middle section. But by this time one’s emotional involvement has mostly drained away.
Takashi Miike, a director associated by stylized violence and dark humor, appears to be trying on a new mantle here, perhaps one belonging to Mizoguchi. Meanwhile, why he bothered to film in 3D is simply a puzzle.
Opens July 27, 2012 Los Angeles, New York (Tribeca Film in partnership with American Express)
Production companies: OLM, Sedic International, Recorded Picture Company, Shochiku
Cast: Ebizo Ichikawa, Eita, Hikari Mitsushima, Koji Yakusho, Munetaka Aoki Director: Takashi Miike
Screenwriter: Kikumi Yamagishi
Based on a story by: Yasuhiko Takibuchi
Producers: Toshiaki Nakazawa, Jeremy Thomas
Director of photography: Nobuyasu Kita
Production designer: Yuji Hayashida
Music: Ryuichi Sakamoto
Costume designer: Kazuko Kurosawa
Editor: Kenji Shibazaki
No rating, 127 minutes