A Reluctant Ronin Avenger: Koreeda’s “Hana”

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In the first decade of the 21st century there were a number of movies about low-level samurai and ronin (masterless samurai) in the last years Japan of the Pax Tokugawa (1603-1868) who maintained a warrior honor code with privileges that were no longer related to the social function of giving and taking lives during warfare. There were still factions jockeying for power and occasions for lethal swordplay, but no invasions or wars of imperial conquest. What were those of hereditary samurai descent to do, particularly those lacking a master and position within a feudal hierarchy (ronin)? Doing business was beneath them, and in addition to lacking any land to till, farming was beneath them. Peasants worked to support the lords and retainers (and priests).

In Koreeda Hirokazu’s “Hana Yori mo Naho” (or just “Hana” Flower, 2006) a young samurai, Soza (Okada Junichi from the boy band V6]) has come to Edo (now Tokyo) to find and kill the man who killed Soza’s father. Soza is not much of a swordsman and not remotely bellicose. He prefers playing go (a samurai pastime) and bathing to practicing martial arts. He has a vocation (at the personal rather than caste level) as a teacher and is a surrogate father to the son of a woman, Osae (Miyazawa Rie), who lives near his hovel in what the subtitles call “row houses.” Her husband has fled and is probably dead. De facto and in all probability, she is a widow, but Soza does not attempt to bed her.

Soza finds his father’s killer, a fearsome-looking laborer played by Asano Tadanobu (who played the young Genghis Khan in “Mongol” and the romantic lead in “Last Life in the Universe”). Soza would rather teach the man’s stepson than try to enact the vengeance that is his Mission.

Soza and others in the nagaya (tenement neighborhood), including Kimura Yuichi (star of “Tokyo Sonata,” here playing the village idiot) put on a festival drama about vengeance. This twice gives way too more serious actions (plot-spoilers avoided).

A side plot I found quite confusing involved a druggist (Terajima Susumu) with whom Soza plays go, and three disguised samurai (ronin) who are seemingly talking idly about avenging their master. The turns out to be an oblique take on a very famous Japanese story, but intersects so little with Soza’s story that I think is distraction that is not needed in a movie that runs 127 minutes. None of the characters develops over the course of the long movie, though several reveal somewhat unexpected sides.

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The movie could not be accused of celebrating bloody revenge. It even has a parody of seppuku (hara-kiri), as well as samurai who are cowards and incompetents. (The young samurais in Kurosawa Akira’s 1962 “Sanjuro” are incompetent, but not cowards; the canny older one played by Mifune Toshiro attempts to minimize bloodshed in accomplishing justice, as both Soza and the druggist do here…)

The images are soft, the conception is sentimental (some consider Koreeda the Steven Spielberg of Japan, though “Nobody Knows,” his film most focused on children does not seem sentimental to me). The music sounds Celtic (like some of “Lord of the Rings”), reputedly played on 18th-century European instruments.

Although too long and unnecessarily confusing, this movie about the urban poor works better than Kurosawa’s adaptation of “The Lower Depths” (Donzoko, 1957), and certainly much better than his disastrous “Dodesukaden” (1970). The set of a slum that looks like a village rather than a part of an already large city particularly recalls the one from “The Lower Depths” (I thought the set was the best aspect of that movie, partly because of the way much of it was shot from above).

There is a great deal (at least for American mores) of talk about producing and collecting “night soil” to be used as fertilizer. Also a comic visit from Soza’s philandering uncle who projects his womanizing onto the shy and chaste (but loving) Soza.

Okada Junichi is winsome and handsome somewhat reminiscent of Anthony Perkins from the mid-1950s (before “Psycho”). Like seemingly every leading Hong Kong actor, Okada is also a pop singer

The movie’s full Japanese title was “Hana Yori mo Naho,” which means something more than a flower, and I think indexes Soza being something more than a killing machine that dies young. Near the end he and Osae discuss the beautiful cherry blossoms falling… and that there will be more next year. For them death is not a goal.

Despite being sometimes confused by “Hana,” I mostly enjoyed it. I think, however, that the trilogy of Yamada Yoji movies about samurais who preferred ordinary life to fame as heroes — “The Twilight Samurai” (2002), “The Hidden Blade” (2004), “Love and Honor” (2006) — are more interesting and look better.

©2010, Stephen O. Murray

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