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Cannes 2011: Director Takashi Miike Speaks About Samurai Ritual Suicide

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Takashi Miike's new film Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai -- in three D -- starts with an intriguing (although unbearably long) ritual scene of hara kiri, where a man keeps twisting a dull bamboo sword in his gut, to no avail, while samurai stand in formation, until a sword-man finally swipes off his head. Then it continues as a flashback to show why this poor man got to this point.

After the screening, I asked a Japanese hostess in the Cannes palace: "What is this with the samurai tradition -- finished in the 19th century -- in today's Japan? Are the samurai still something you talk about?"

She explained that, in fact, both girls and boys grow up watching samurai shows on TV.

Director Takashi Miike said the same thing.

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"The samurai that we talk about are different from the samurai historically. Our samurai are fictional images, a matter of perception. As a child, a samurai teledrama was on TV everyday. Within that context, I began creating this image of the samurai in my own films. The image of the samurai is born out of film. "

Takashi, relaxing and looking very very tired (after a long day of interviews) in his chair on the Majestic pier -- dressed very cool in black leather pants, bright yellow jacket, tinted glasses and blonde-streaked grey hair -- went on to explain the significance of hari kiri.

"It is not suicide, in the sense of losing your life. It is not your own life you are giving away, it is the lord's life, as your life belongs to the lord, so the subordinates will follow their lord to the next world, as proof of their loyalty. A samurai is nothing without his lord. Over time, that changed and became an act where a person would commit ritual suicide to show their innocence. Showing your guts was a way to show that there is nothing bad inside you, that you are pure. Recently, for example, the author Mishima killed himself with hari kiri, and his act was, I think, to prove his strength -- and purity too."

Some had protested that the initial hari kiri scene was too long -- hence difficult to watch as opposed to the second half of the film, the backflash, which becomes an intense emotional family drama, filmed beautifully in a forest hut, behind dense green foliage (the only time, incidentally, that the 3-D actually works rather than distracts).

"Well it is a bamboo sword," Miike responded. "So it is not easy to kill one-self. Moreover, to share his pain with the audience required that amount of time. But I did not show the wounds, did you not notice? By not showing the violence explicitly, it became more horrific, because people use their imagination. If I had shown more, the audience will avert their eyes."

Asked if he was tired of his reputation for violence, Miike responded: "I know there is an audience out there who expects violence in my films, but I am not going to put a lid on violence. Also it depends on the film I am working on. If my character commits violent acts, it becomes violent. Hari kiri for a samurai is not violent, it is their way of life."

He laughed: "To have blood, all one has to do is slit the arm of an actor."

But in his next film, there will be very "little blood": "It is a very light comedy that I am filming now, a court drama, based on a video game, the Nintendo game DS."

Did Miike find himself personally in any of his samurai?

"Perhaps I would identify with Hanshiro [the father of the boy who commits hari kiri, estranged yet committed to the samurai tradition]. Maybe because I am a freelance director, and on the periphery of the film industry in Japan."