Hana yori mo naho (2006)
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The screenplay is understated and loosely plotted. relying for the most part on light comedy to given texture to its potentially tragic subject matter. The story of the 47 Ronin has been told too often without offering any background on the common people hidden in the background. Sometimes ignoble, it's the people who rise above the violence who seem to have achieved something great - like the failed samurai who ignores his father's dying request to kill a rival.
The film's visuals are dusty and dirty, but always arresting,helping to make for a realistic but appealing narrative. All in all, HANA YORI MO NAHO is a much needed corrective on an oft- told story.
Set in the slums of 1702 Edo (now Tokyo), the cinematography and attention to period detail were excellent. The story itself is fairly lame. A young samurai, incompetent with a sword seeks revenge for his father's death, but finds himself unable to carry out the act.
There's no doubting the competence of the director and the film's visuals are a joy to behold. It's not something that particularly engages me, but is the sort of film I would love to take my six year old son to. The blend of humour and almost slapstick action would certainly be enjoyed by him. Mind you, this is not really a children's film, even though it has the appeal of a Japanese version of a Disney film. Many adults would enjoy it, but it's not my thing.
It may be that Koreeda, whose films have created a unique mood, means for 'Hana' to make us uncomfortable, and the colorful characters and rude toilet jokes are an intentional effort to put us off our guard. Certainly when the moment first comes when Soza is beaten up by a local punk in pink, Sodekichi (Ryo Kase), it's horrifying and demoralizing because Soza up to then has been not only immensely simpatico, but a guy with a worthwhile function in the tenement house (nagaya) village -- which Koreeda has departed from film tradition in making realistically rickety. Soza says he's in the shabby place because (as introductory titles have told us) samurais are frequently undercover in such locations at the moment. When he learns his revenge-object, Kanazawa Jubei, is living nearby, it turns out one of his informants and café-pals knew it all along and the latter advises him to say nothing. "This samurai revenge thing is out of style," he adds. Besides, "with your skills" (i.e., the lack of them), "you're doomed." 'Hana' makes this sort of point too bluntly and repetitiously.
The setting, which compares (as Shilling notes) to that of Kurosawa's memorable flop 'Do-des-ka-den,' is a lively but pathetic community where people live selling scraps -- and their own excrement, sold for fertilizer to a landowner, is worth more than the fruit of their labors. It's a world where indignity is a constant, in which Soza's humiliations seem almost normal.
The interest of 'Hana,' despite its not being Koreeda at his best, is that it reflects contemporary Japanese demoralization -- a deep sense of the loss of traditional values as well as an equally strong sense of personal uncertainty in the old areas of machismo that once were strong. And it does this in a deceptively traditional-looking framework that shows how seductive and unavoidable Japanese tradition still remains. In that way, the director has been able to manufacture the same troubling unease that made his more powerful 'Nobody Knows' so riveting and disturbing. This still feels like a distinct misstep for the filmmaker -- but he has seemed capable of doing something completely different almost every time -- and no doubt what comes next will be a surprise, perhaps a more exciting one.
Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007.
The 47 Ronin subplot is not a distraction. It's a mirror of Soza's choosing life over revenge. Susumu Terajima hits just the right note as the surviving Ronin. If you don't know Japanese history and myth-making, it might seem like a distraction, but it is the point of the whole story, that a slavish devotion to the ideals of Bushido is in conflict with living an authentically human life.
Besides, Rie Miyazawa is a total hoot in the play within a play. It is a pleasant surprise that Kore-Eda can do comedy and still keep it real. I was beginning to think that he was only good at grimness, but I was reminded of the small comic touches in "Nobody Knows" and "Afterlife." I can't remember if there was anything funny in "Mabarosi." I just remember how depressing it was.
The simply main plot depicts how a young samurai called Suza (Odaka Junichi), financed by family fortune, come to a poverty-stricken village in search of an "adversary" (that's what the local sub-title says) to revenge his father's death. While it does not go to anti-hero proportions, it soon becomes evident that Suza's interest is not in traditional samurai values of bushido and revenge, but in trying to help the local kids (and adults) to become literate. Like "7 samurai", "Twilight samurai" and "Hidden sword and devil's claw" and "Shinobi", Hana depicts the dying world of samurai. Unlike any of these, however, it takes the lighter side.
This samurai-turned-teacher also develops an honourable attachment to a beautiful widow (Miyazawa Rie) and her bright 8-year-old son, becoming something akin to the surrogate head of the family. When the "adversary" (Asano Tadanobu) appears on the scene, with his own family that include a 7-year-old son, the score is not settled by the expected duel-to-death, but unexpectedly through the friendship of the two little boys.
But this is not all, far from it. True to the Kurosawa tradition, to which great tributes have obviously been paid, this movie portrays an ensemble of common, simple, "little" people, at least a dozen of them, probably more. Simply but honestly told, some of these stories are familiar such as a parted young couple ended up with the girl marrying a rich man, or two lonely old folks finding love and comfort with each other. More adventurous is a rather daring spoof of the much revered legend of the "47 ronins". You'll find even a trace of Shakespeare (Midsummer night's dream) in the rehearsal of a play in the movie. However, without the usual commercial elements, this movie may bore uninformed audience seeking a thrill, despite the fact that it is crisply shot, contains some funny moments and sustains by lively music that sounds almost Scottish.
Okada Junichi, not generally known even to regular followers of the Japanese movie scene, does justice to the character of the gentle, troubled young samurai. Miyazawa Rie, in her beguiling beauty that is all at once both fragile and strong, creates a different but equally memorable character as the abandoned wife in "Twilight samurai". Asano Tadanobu's fans may be disappointed because what he has in fact amount to almost cameo role (although not an unimportant one).
In conclusion I can do no better that quoting the introductory literature in the Toronto International File Festival: "Vivacious and strewn with humour, HANA speaks the language of today and conveys a message of hope and serenity that crosses the boundaries of its temporal setting. Without imposing heavy moral judgments, it asserts a clear ethic and renders a colourful portrait of human weaknesses and strengths - its rich narrative texture is variegated as the precious fabric of a regal kimono."
Set in Edo (modern day Tokyo), Hana takes us back to the year 1702 where Soza (Okada Junichi), a young Samurai has come to the village to fulfill his father's dying wish and seek revenge against his killer, Jubei Kanazawa (Tadanobu Asano). Illuminating the conditions of the times, Soza lives in a dilapidated building that he shares with other impoverished residents: garbage collectors, fish peddlers, and debtors hiding out from collectors. Though he wants to restore honor to his family and collect the 100 Ryo reward from his clan to help his impoverished family, Soza lacks even the basic skills of a swordsman.
This becomes painfully evident when he is roughed up by Sodekichi (Ryo Kase), a local resident who resents the Samurai. A friend, Sadoshiro (Arata Furuta) also exploits the trusting Soza, claiming many times in restaurants that he has seen Kanazawa in order to have Soza buy his food. While seeking the man who killed his father, Soza establishes himself in the community, teaching the boys and girls in the village to read and write and finding much in common with Osae (Rie Miyazawa), a married woman who, with her eight-year old son, is waiting for husband to return. A satirical subplot questioning the legend of the 47 Ronin and the warrior spirit the story represents, complicates things as a group of samurai on their own mission of revenge, hide in the town disguised as professional people.
They distrust Soza, thinking that he is a spy and assign a fellow ronin to watch his every move. When the young Samurai finally crosses paths with his father's attacker, now a family man living with a widow and her child, he questions the Samurai code of honor and the ethics of revenge. Soza, sensitively portrayed by Okada - a band singer turned actor, is a good-hearted man who recognizes the need to better his society, yet Koreeda portrays him as a weakling and a coward, a role that undermines the film's anti-violence message. While Koreeda is to be congratulated for attempting a major stylistic departure and for condemning the endless cycle of violence, Hana falls short of his best efforts.
There are many characters, and it is a period piece, and is described as "A samurai movie without sword fight" by the director himself at TIFF.
In fact, compared to his other movies, there are so many things going on I was ill-prepared. But the script is well thought out, there is reference to the solution early on in the film. But there is a sub-plot which I do not understand except maybe to convey regret -- that is what the hero of the film is so serious of finding how not to have in his future, when looking back at this time in his life ..later on???? There is so much comedic relief that you could say this is a comedy. But I think it is drama through and through. And a well executed one at that.
It's a celebration of human values over the way of the samurai, especially as it has been presented in Japanese and Western popular culture in the past few decades. A joy to watch visually, too. I thought it might be Koreeda-san's best film so far, although some viewers may find it a bit more conventional/Westernized than, say, Nobody Knows or Maboroshi (which is not at all bad).
I will deliberately leave it at that, to avoid revealing any of the plot, which often overturns expectations.
It was the second film out of 17 I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it still remains a highlight for me.