Kore-eda Hirokazu’s fifth fiction feature finds him writing and directing what first appears to be a genre film for the major studio Shochiku. Is this going to be a chanbara, a swordfight film, often termed a ‘samurai film’ in the West? It was shot in Kyoto, the traditional home of studios specialising in jedaigeki or ‘period films’. This is, I think, the only time Kore-eda has ventured into historical drama so far. But having established that, the film seems to develop rather differently than might be expected although it does haves something in common with Killing (Japan 2018), the recent chanbara from genre master Tsukamoto Shin’ya.
The setting is a street of hovels on the edge of Edo (later Tokyo) in 1702. Soza (Okada Jun’ichi) is a young and inexperienced samurai who has been charged by his clan with avenging his father, killed in a dispute during a game of Go. But Soza is not an aggressive young man and doesn’t consider himself a skilled warrior. He lives a relatively quiet life in the slums, running an impromptu school in which he attempts to teach young people the rudiments of writing. He is also developing a relationship with Osae (Miyazawa Rie) a woman who appears to have been abandoned by her husband and who is bringing up her small son. It’s already apparent that there is a new potential family here, a recurring narrative element across Kore-eda’s films. There is also a larger ‘communal family’ with a wide range of characters. This group makes fun of Soza but also in its own way takes care of him.
The ‘difference’ in Hana is that Kore-eda provides a parallel narrative in the background. This is introduced by title cards which set the exact date of events as 1702, one year after a dispute in Edo castle in which a court official was killed by a lord who was then forced to commit seppuku. The lord’s lands were taken by the Shogun and his retinue, including his samurai were dispersed. The now ‘masterless’ samurai or ronin stayed grouped together and determined to avenge their late master. These were the ’47 ronin‘ whose story would become legendary in Japan. The many fictionalised versions of the story use the title Chūshingura and it has become one of the best known stories across all forms of Japanese theatre, literature and art. A 1941 film version was directed by Mizoguchi Kenji in two parts in 1941/2. In Kore-eda’s film a small group of the ronin are hiding close to Soza’s dwelling and working on the plan. Kore-reda wrote the script himself and he makes a number of cross-references between Soza’s actions and those of the ronin. The references to the story of the 47 ronin would be well-known to Japanese audiences but outside Japan may lead to bafflement. Because of my struggles to watch a Spanish Blu-ray of the film with downloaded English subs I didn’t fully appreciate the opening titles and I had to rewatch parts of the film. All this perhaps explains why the film itself struggled to obtain a wide international release.
What kinds of audience response was Kore-eda hoping for? The film opened in Japan on 178 screens and crept into the Top Ten in June 2006 making over $400,000 in its first weekend but then seemingly disappearing. Spain seems to be the only other market in which the cinema film was released. Predictably the American fans of Japanese action films who came across the DVD generally didn’t like it. Given that there is no swordplay in a film featuring samurai these fans felt short-changed. However, those who knew Kore-eda and his films were generally appreciative. The film offers many pleasures. Okada Jun’ichi was known in Japan mainly as a pop star in 2006. He has continued to have a film career and has been used to voice characters in anime hits such as From Up on Poppy Hill (Japan 2011). Ironically his bio suggests he is also a martial arts instructor. Hana looks great with the authentic looking settlement of suitably grimy hovels on the outskirts of the city and close to the river and the woods. There is plenty of humour in the daily goings-on of the street (especially around the communal toilet and use of ‘night soil’) and in the local celebrations of festival days. By creating an implied contrast between Soza’s reluctance to carry out the revenge attack decreed by his clan and the plotting by the 47 ronin, Kore-eda appears to be inviting the audience to consider what the ‘samurai code’ means at a time of peace. He may also be making a comment about masculinity in Japan more broadly, given that one of his familiar concerns is to explore social issues in contemporary Japanese life.
The film was shot by Yamazaki Yutaka who was Kore-eda’s regular DoP at the time (he shot six of Kore-eda’s films). The look of the film is also attributable to costume design by Kurosawa Kazuko, daughter of the master of jedai-geki and also to production designers Baba Masao and Isomi Toshihiro. I really enjoyed the music in the film. It seems that Kore-eda decided he wanted something ‘completely different’ so he put together a group of European musicians playing 18th century instruments and asked them to improvise. It works very well (see the clip below).
One dissenting voice that I saw in a review compares Hana to Twilight Samurai (Japan 2002) a film by the genre master Yamada Yoji with some similar plot details but set in the 19th century when the samurai life is coming to a climactic point with the approaching opening up of the country during the Meiji Restoration. I think this writer has a point but it doesn’t negate what Kore-eda is doing here. Shochiku also funded Twilight Samurai which was a huge commercial success in Japan (and a relatively big budget film) and a critical success internationally, getting an Academy Award nomination.
If you can find Hana (US DVD and Spanish Blu-ray) I think it works very well and shows both Kore-eda’s adaptability and his commitment to humanist values.