Even more than flowers
With every new film, Koreeda Hirokazu (After Life, Nobody Knows) shows himself to be one of the giants of modern Japanese film. He seems to have inherited the space left behind by Itami Juzo (Tampopo, Supermarket Woman) telling Frank Capraesque tales of kindness and affection overcoming insurmountable odds, creating a world where life’s bitterness is always tempered by the sweet and simple joys that life can provide.
Koreeda is definitely a stylist, and it should come as no surprise that his take on the samurai genre, “Hana” (Japanese title “Hana yori mo naho,” or “Even more than flowers.”) has this same bittersweetness. With this film, Koreeda has taken one of Japan’s most recognizable stories, a tale told for more than two hundred years and always with a fist pounding the chest and a grim face, and turned it into a sweet love story.
The story is Chushingura, known in English as the “47 Ronin.” The real-life tale of the loyal 47 Ronin who avenge the death of their Lord Asano has been re-told and filmed countless times since the incident occurred in 1701. The title of this film is actually a reference to the event, being a snatch of a poem recited by Lord Asano before his enforced ritual suicide. “Though we may regret the scattering of the flower petals in the wind, even greater is the regret in my heart.”
Koreeda has used Chushingura as the decoration for his main story, of a samurai named Soza (Okada Junichi, who appeared in an early made-for-TV adaptation of “Chushingura”) who has been charged with the vengeance-killing of the man who slew his father. Soza’s father, a proud samurai, was killed not on the battleground but in a dispute over a game of Go, and the clan looks to Soza to reclaim his father’s honor and to prove himself as a samurai. Soza, however, is not a violent man, and has whiled away three years pretending to seek the killer while actually whiling his time away in the dire poverty of a series of row houses, and getting to know the people living there.
Life in the row houses allows for an ensemble cast, including a few of the 47 Ronin who are hiding out and plotting their revenge. Soza strikes up a friendship with a neighbor named Osae, (Miyazawa Rie, who had also appeared in a previous adaptation of “Chushingura.”) and her orphaned son, who looks on Soza as a father-figure. A three-stooges like trio of comedy relief try to figure out how they can increase their excrement, which is sold to farmers and pays for the New Year’s mochi. In a plotline straight out of The Goonies, a cruel landlord plans to evict all of the tenants of the row house unless they can come up with the back-rent all of them own. Cue the wacky plan and let the hijinks begin.
The only film I can really compare “Hana” to is Kurosawa Akira’s The Lower Depths. This is a story of love and life amongst the lower classes, and of those who face the demands of their station as opposed to the whispers of their hearts. It is a peaceful, quiet film with no action and no dramatic conclusion. And it is beautiful. The music is especially delightful. I am not sure what kind of instrument is playing but I love the sound and it fits perfectly with the tone of the film.
If you like Koreeda’s films and the message that he sends, then you will fall in love with “Hana.” I certainly did. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking that all samurai films need heavy-hitting heroes and bold drama to make for a great film experience.