Using muted colours and dark emotions, Miike takes a remarkably restrained approach in this 3D remake of the 1962 samurai classic. It's a slow-burning 17th century Shakespearian tragedy with an astonishing attention to detail and a huge emotional kick.
Aimless without a master to serve, the ronin Hanshiro (Ichikawa) turns up in the courtyard of a great house asking to commit ritual suicide and die with honour. Before granting permission, the house prefect Kageyu (Yakusho) recounts the story of the similarly penniless Motome (Eita), who made the same request in the hopes of receiving a compassionate payout and pardon from the nobleman.
But Kageyu called Motome's bluff, leading to a horrific seppuku with Motome's bamboo blade. What Kageyu doesn't know is that Hanshiro knew Motome.
The story is revealed through extended flashbacks that depict Motome's fall from grace and the connection he has with Hanshiro. Each scene is a vital piece of an increasingly twisty story that sharply explores the issue of honour in Japanese society. It also, of course, is a strikingly timely story of a world caught in economic troubles as people's lives are ruined by unemployment and class inequality. And as we begin to understand exactly what's at stake for both men, the film grabs hold of us.
Miike uses the 3D to give the sets an intriguing depth, never indulging in samurai-sword gimmickry, which is perhaps a little frustrating, especially as the glasses leave the film looking rather murky. But then, that's rather appropriate for a story like this, which hinges on finely tuned performances from actors who hold the screen with their steely stillness and betray their characters' feelings with the tiniest movements.
As the plot thickens, we slowly begin to understand a much bigger story.
There's very little action until the final scenes, which are a shocking collision of tragedy and violence. And because of all the painstaking work in the film's earlier acts, it resolves into a deeply moving story of love and revenge. Not only is this an engaging, fascinating exploration of the Japanese caste system, but it's also a resonant exploration of what's happening in today's equally desperate times.