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Another Decade with Takashi Miike: Learning to Adapt in 2011

"Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai" and "Ninja Kids!!!" exemplify the sincerity and diversity of Takashi Miike's 2010s films.
Ben Sachs
Another Decade with Takashi Miike is a series of essays on the 2010s films of the Japanese maverick, following Notebook's earlier survey of Miike's first decade of the 21st century.
In mid-2011, Takashi Miike unveiled two films in characteristically quick succession. Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, a remake of Masaki Kobayashi’s seminal Harakiri (1962), premiered in May at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was the first 3-D movie ever to screen in competition. Two months later at the New York Asian Film Festival came Ninja Kids!!!, a live-action adaptation of the long-running anime series Nintama Rantarō (itself an adaptation of the manga series Rakudai Ninja Rantarō). These two films are plainly different from one another: Hara-Kiri is a grim movie intended for grown-up audiences, while Ninja Kids!!! is a bright, goofy film aimed principally at young children. At the same time, the movies have a surprising amount in common, more than can usually be found between one Miike release and the next. Hara-Kiri and Ninja Kids!!! are both patient films with plenty of underpopulated widescreen compositions and an unwaveringly sincere tone. The films, in fact, are among the most sincere in Miike’s extensive body of work, suggesting that the director, famous for his prankish humor, found something worth honoring in the source material of each.
You could even say that Hara-Kiri finds Miike bowing in homage to Kobayashi (1916-1996), a writer-director who expressed a critical view of Japanese society in a variety of popular genres. Kobayashi’s films of the 1950s and 60s remain bracing in their cynicism and expressionistic style, to say nothing of their ambition and rich storytelling. The three-part, ten-hour adaptation of Junpei Gomikawa’s The Human Condition (1959-61) is Kobayashi’s grandest achievement, advancing a panoramic worldview and issuing critiques of militarism and conformism that engrave themselves onto one’s memory. Yet Harakiri also feels definitive in its attack on Japanese notions of honor, especially as they’ve been communicated through samurai films. Kobayashi’s subversion of the samurai genre extends even to plot structure, which proceeds largely through flashbacks that cast a sense of futility over the present-tense narrative, about a masterless samurai who takes revenge on the feudal estate that forced his son-in-law to commit suicide.
Miike has never been a social critic in the Kobayashi tradition, but he’s always displayed a destructive impulse (whether to tear apart narrative logic, conventional montage, or social taboos) that would suggest a certain affinity with him. With Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, Miike forges a link between Kobayashi’s cinema of social protest and his own cinema of defiance, finding common ground in a mutual respect for old-school craftsmanship and a mutual distrust of authority figures. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that the film should take such a reverential stance towards its model. Miike’s remake runs about as long as the original, but it feels longer, the steady, somber tone inviting one to meditate on the moral questions Kobayashi raised. The absence of non-sequitur humor and unusual camera setups (both staples of Miike’s films) makes Hara-Kiri feel even more serious than Izo (2004), probably the gravest thing he made before this.
The story is essentially unchanged from Kobayashi’s version. Set in the 1630s, it centers on Tsugumo, a ronin who appears at the fortress of a feudal clan and announces he intends to commit ritual suicide there. The lord’s servants warn him against this, as another ronin came to fortress not long ago with the intention of committing harakiri in the lord’s presence. Many masterless samurai had been doing this in recent years (a time of peace in which many samurai have found themselves unemployed) with the aim of being given a few coins and then quickly dismissed; but the Iyi clan decided to make an example of their last guest and forced this man to honor the samurai code and kill himself. In flashbacks, Tsugumo reveals to his audience that this previous guest had been his son-in-law and that the younger man had hoped to extort money from the Iyi clan in hope of bringing medical attention to his sick wife and child. The son-in-law's death, beyond being unnecessary, indirectly caused the deaths of two others as well. Tsugumo holds the clan responsible for the loss of his family; his visit to their estate is in fact part of his plan to exact revenge on them.
Miike never attempts to make his Hara-Kiri more intense than Kobayashi’s film, save for during the scene of the son-in-law’s suicide, which transpires in more gruesome detail than Kobayashi likely would have imagined. The remake is a more subdued affair overall; the performances aren’t as expressive as in the 1962 version, and there are few of the expressionistic camera angles that Kobayashi used to heighten the drama. Miike still creates a sense of dynamism through his use of deep-focus, 3-D cinematography, making viewers keenly aware of the distance between the impoverished ronin and their wealthy audience at the fortress. Yet he makes this space seem open-ended—that is, it doesn’t seem to reflect any historical insight, but rather an eternal separation between the world’s haves and have-nots. The film’s constant tone makes this separation seem unchanging as well as eternal. Tsugumo’s climactic attack on the guards in Hara-Kiri isn’t the cathartic breakthrough that it is in Kobayashi’s film, since Miike keeps even this scene from altering the funereal mood.
The conclusion of Ninja Kids!!! feels anticlimactic as well, though in this case it’s because the film never makes narrative development feel all that pressing. The lack of urgency seems fitting, given that the movie was designed to capitalize on a popular TV series that had been on the air for almost 20 years at the time of filming. Ninja Kids!!! plays up those aspects of a TV show that bring viewers back over long periods of time, like character, situation, and sensibility; incident and suspense, while given their due, don’t factor as heavily into the movie’s effectiveness as entertainment. One leaves Ninja Kids!!! with the comforting feeling that we can return to the world it presents any time we’d like—the sort of feeling of stability that all kids want.
The film reflects an understanding of children in other ways. Rantaro, the hero of Ninja Kids!!!, is about six years old, and without centralizing it in a Spirit of the Beehive kind of way, the film seriously considers how people that age experience the world. Miike’s sparse mise en scène and relatively long takes (both carry-overs from Hara-Kiri) transform the cinematic environment into a welcoming playground where viewers can explore the frames and acclimate themselves to the fictional world. The spaces are open, not empty; Miike knows that children don’t need that much visual information to be entertained, and if they require more detail, they can easily imagine it. His aesthetic, moreover, feels refreshing when compared to that of so many other contemporary children’s films (specifically computer-animated ones from the U.S.), which overwhelm spectators with visual detail and a near-constant sense of movement. Those movies foster short attention spans; Ninja Kids!!!, on the other hand, builds visual literacy.
It’s worth noting that the child actors in Ninja Kids!!! seldom mug for the camera as we expect kids to do in family comedies. Miike elicits relatively understated performances from children here, resulting in depictions of kids as sincere individuals who are trying their best to figure life out. The film’s broadest performances come from the adults who play instructors at the ninja academy and the rivals of those instructors. Impossible to take seriously, the villains are a bunch of no-goodniks after the fashion of Hanna-Barbera cartoons. They pick fights with the heroes for no good reason and—to precipitate a climax for the film, if nothing else—challenge the ninja academy students to a race up a mountain. Miike presents the adult characters as alternately ridiculous and noble; the school principal/ninja master sometimes seems to be both at once, as when he lands in two piles of dog shit after acrobatically dodging a series of projectiles.
Maybe only the youngest viewers of Ninja Kids!!! will fail to guess that the children will win that climactic race, but the sequence still warrants consideration. Rantaro, coming to the mountaintop where the race ends, thinks he won’t arrive in time to ring a bell first to win the race. Little does he know that his classmate Torakawa can still shoot the bell with his bow and arrow from a nearby peak. And so, the ninja kids win, and not because of the ostensible hero, but because of a team effort by his class. This development imparts a lovely moral to children: we never have to face our struggles alone if we don't want to. It also marks an inversion of the theme of Hara-Kiri (i.e., that social systems don’t value the needs of individuals). Yet like the other film, Ninja Kids!!! rewards a spirit of curiosity, providing viewers with the space and time to immerse themselves in the settings. This creative strategy feels appropriate to the art of cinematic adaptation, as it suggests that the filmmaker, working with existing material, wants to explore that terrain along with audience.

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