Tag Archives: ronin

A Reluctant Ronin Avenger: Koreeda’s “Hana”

Hana_movie_poster.jpg

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.

hana-yori-mo-naho-515530l.jpg

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

Advertisements

“Three Outlaw Samurai” (1964)

3.jpg

I thought that perhaps “Three Outlaw Samurai” (Sanbiki no samurai, 1964, the movie directorial debut of Gosha Hideo (Sword of the Beast) might be 3/7ths as good as “Seven Samurai.” That hope was about right. It is like “Seven Samurai” in that some ronin decide to help some peasants, though in “3” the peasants are seeking relief from an evil magistrate. (In Chinese history, low-status people have always blamed local officials and believed that “if only the emperor knew” he would rectify the abuses. In Tokugawa times, it was “if only the clan lord knew,” he’d make things right and punish the local official..)

The magistrate has refused to accept a petition from the peasants who are on the verge of starvation. Three of them have kidnapped the magistrate’s daughter (Kuwano Miyuki) and are holding her in a mill. The samurai who happens by, Shiba (the very long-faced Tanba Tetsuro), sits back to watch (like Mifune in “Yojimbo”). He provides advice to the captive and the captors, and (more Nakadai than Mifune) takes a beating to save the peasants, trusting the word of the magistrate given from one samurai to another.

Another wandering samurai, Kikyo (Hira Mikijiro, also long-faced, who would star in “Sword of the Beast”) who has been taken in (and fed by the magistrate) is offended by the magistrate’s violation of his promises. The recruitment of the other one, the earthiest one, Sakura (Nagato Isamu), is too complicated for me to try to summarize. The magistrate’s daughter is also outraged by her father’s perfidy

In tandem (all three never fight together at the same time), the honorable (therefore rebel) samurai cut down many assailants hired by the magistrate to obliterate the problem before the lord passes through. I don’t understand why superior numbers are never used to overwhelm an opponent. The skilled swordsmen cut down assailants in rapid succession, but it seems to have been unthinkable to attack from all sides at once. The good guys (that is, the outlaws, each of whom was reluctant to get involved, especially in opposing local authority) do not escape unscratched, but Shiba, who should be the most winded, still has the ability(/will) to run to the lord’s procession after the most extensive battle.

three-outlaw-samurai.jpg

Although there are extended battles, “Three Outlaw Samurai” doesn’t really seem to be an “action movie.” There are complicated relationships (more even than in “Yojimbo” or “Seven Samurai”) and in the eternal division of plot-driven vs. character-driven, this has to go in the latter category. The mixture of pragmatism, idealism, and swordsmanship of Shiba puts him in the company of the heroes of other “rebel samurai” protagonists from the mid-to-late-1960s, which for me was the golden age of samurai films with complex characters, in many ways paralleling American “adult westerns” of the 1950s and 1960s. Many of both were marked as occurring near the end of the era (the closing of the west, the decay of the Tokugawa Shogunate before it was toppled by the Meiji “Restoration” in 1868).

Tanba Tetsuro is exceedingly good in the central role. For me, the highest praise is comparing his performance to that of Nakadai Tatsuya in “Kill!,” “Seppuku,” and other rebel samurai movies.

The visual compositions are frequently striking (credit and cinematographer Sakai Tadashi, who also lensed Gosha’s “Hunter in the Dark” and “Cash Calls Hell,both of which also starred Nakadai; IMDB only lists one other non-Gosha-directed credit for Sakai). Traditional Japanese houses with their rice-paper sliding panels seem inherently photogenic to me, and ease the way for shadow displays.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Harrowing critique of samurai ethos: “Harakiri”/Seppuku”

Harakiri_poster.jpg

“Seppuku” (“Harakiri,” 1962, directed by Kobayashi Masaki), is a bit too long. It takes a while to get going, but becomes enthralling (if more than a little horrifying), and all too relevant to organizational dissembling in other times and places than Pax Tokugawa Japan ca. 1630. Like Kobayashi’s excellent and excruciating “Human Condition “trilogy, the movie’s convincingness depends on the great Nakadai Tatsuya (who also played the gunslinger in “Rashomon” and the central roles in Kurosawa’s last great historical movies, “Kagemusha” and “Ran”).Kobayashi’s “Samurai Rebellion,” in which Nakadai played an important part, but Mifune Toshiro played the central role akin to Nakadai’s in “Seppuku,” is not quite as horrifying (it is similarly withering a critique of the bushido code that the humiliated heroes live and die by). As the younger ronin Ishihama Akira (Boyhood, My Sons’ Youth,  The Rose on His Arm) is also extraordinary.

harakiri-1962-masaki-kobayashi-15.jpg

The gruesome, extremely unerotic suicides in  are motivated by parental and uxorial love (and the samurai honor code). The first suicide (with a bamboo sword, a scene that made a number of those in the audience of the film’s première at Cannes faint) stems from a desperate father (Motome portrayed by Ishihama),trying to feed his sick wife and child. This story is told in flashback by  Nakadai, as Tsugomo, a ronin who spends most of the movie immobile kneeling in the center of the same courtyard, seething with bitterness and guilt and discomfiting Iyi Clan elder, Kageyu Saito (Rentaro Mikuni).

After telling Motome’s story and his relationship(s) to Motome, Tsugomo takes many Iyi retainers with him. It is a stunningly acted and photographed film with Takemitsu Tori’s first soundtrack (a very innovative one), bravura cinematography by Kobayashi regular Miyajima Yoshio, and one of many mesmerizing performances by Nakadai.

HARAKIRI_1962_MoC_16 (Small).jpg

The alternation of Takemitsu Toru ‘s haunting, spare music and lack of any background music is very effective and the visual compositions are very impressive (as in “Samurai Rebellion” which is even more geometrical). The suppressions and explosions of emotion are very Japanese, as are the seppuku rituals, the glorification of suicide, and the rigidly frozen assemblies. Like the “Human Condition” trilogy, it is a forbidding masterpiece, but definitely a masterpiece.

There is a superbly remastered Criterion edition (Bluray and DVD), with a second disc that includes interviews with Kobayashi (interviewed by Shinoda Masahiro, and less voluble than Shinoda), Nakadai, and screenwriter Hashimoto Shinobu (the latter two are forthcoming, providing insights into their processes and the making of the movie).

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray