Monday, 12 December 2011
Ichimei - Death of a Samurai
At last I made it to the cinema to see Ichimei - I had been meaning to go ever since it was released. After 13 Assassins, I was expecting good things from Miike, the director. This was another remake of a film from the 60s, and one which, like 13 Assassins, contained an overt political element in its criticism of the arbitrary powers of the feudal system, an obvious reference to Japanese society at the time the films were made. Much has changed since then, not least, the abandonment of overt political activism, but there is still an acknowledgement of the power of circumstances to lay low the honest, hardworking everyman, and this is the theme that Miike chose to expand upon.
Visually, it was very impressive - particularly the set dressing. Part of this must have been calculated to maximise the effect of the 3d filming, although I only saw the standard version. The acting was uniformly good - Ebizo, a well-known kabuki actor, who took the lead role (played by Nakadai Tatsuya in the 60s version) often shows a tendency towards the melodramatic, but he managed to keep it largely under control in this film.
Had I not seen the original, I might not have noticed what was missing - but I had, and so I was a little dissappointed at the route Miike took to differentiate his work from its predecessor. He chose to emphasise the powerlessness of the characters and the corresponding pain of their situations, rather than the evil of the system or the power of Hanshiro to control events as he orchestrates the final showdown, both aspects which were given far more play in the original.
As far as I was concerned, the core of the original was the give and take of the confrontation in the courtyard. The way in which Hanshiro gradually maneuvers his opponents, the vignettes involving the three principle villains, and the climactic battle itself, all show the skills of a man pitting himself to the extent of his powers against the monolith of authority - although he is destined to lose the unequal fight, the spirit of his challenge reaffirms our sense of human courage and dignity. In Miike's version, though Hanshiro also displays these attributes, he is not striving for victory, or even revenge, but merely to have his story told. Although this may, ultimately, be the more humane course, he seems somehow diminished compared to Nakadai's portrayal, as if he has already accepted his defeat, and nothing more remains than to see things through to the end.
I would have preferred him to 'Rage, rage against the dying of the light' - and perhaps this is, in itself, more a reflection of the times: although we may dislike aspects of 'The System', the alternative has been revealed to us as something worse. Perhaps, in fact, there is comfort in not wrecking the major institutions of society, but just demanding some recognition of our human place in the drama. In Japan, this is much more visible - the spirit of the sixties was largely quashed, and people got back to the task of finding their place in the society as it existed, rather than seeking to change it. Success stories of rebels are far less common here than in Britain or the USA - Ebizo's Hanshiro has no thought of fighting the clan - he is just expressing his grievances, and the only people who should suffer are the ones directly involved. Nakadai's Hanshiro, in contrast, had declared war - the only question was how far he could go.
For all that, Ichimei - Death of a Samurai - is certainly worth seeing, but its not half as satisfying as 13 Assassins.