Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest work, and his first foray into the period piece, is one of those films that before you see it, you find yourself wondering: what on earth could a semi-realist director best known for emotionally honest documentary style films do with the samurai genre? How will his organic style show through? How will he achieve the unexpected charm and humour that is such a strong characteristic in all his films to date no matter what the content?
But then you see it, and likely the first thing that will come to mind will be three words and they’ll probably be; Oh. Of course.
Because Hana (known in full as Hana Yori mo Naho) is in so many ways exactly what you would have anticipated had you any idea of what to expect. Light, sweet, surprisingly colourful with an utterly delightful camera and just the right amount of meaning to balance it all out, this is not a Kore-eda tour de force; this is Kore-eda stopping to smell the flowers and contemplate life.
Soza (a decent, understated performance by V6 poster boy Junichi Okada) is the son of a samurai father who, murdered over a game of Go, tells him on his deathbed three years before the start of the story that his death must be avenged. Soza knows his duty, and sets out to do just that, but he’s apparently never really been prime samurai material and his story starts in a slummy tenement in Edo, where he is subsisting on the allowance sent by his mother and dreaming of vengeance. But this is the post Samurai period, and it’s less of an issue that Soza is living in such a place than it is his keeping such a low profile. None of his peasant neighbours really think or care that he will ever find this samurai he is obligated to confront, and their way of life (along with a little help from beautiful widow Rie Miyazawa) eventually drags him out of his revenge limbo and into living.
Soza’s choices at this point are all about what his old family expects of him versus the basic freedoms his new family seems to be offering. This is intensified by the discovery of the man whom he is required to exact vengeance on, Jubei Kanazawa (Tadanobu Asano), living quietly and happily with his own adopted family, and its here that Kore-eda’s themes really come into focus. Kanazawa has, like Soza, left his place in Edo’s feudal society; but not only that, he has gone one step further, a step that Soza perhaps longs to take, and abandoned his identity as a samurai as well. The parallels between the two men are completely deliberate, and the moral dilemma obvious – how can Soza take revenge on a man who is trying his best to be happy with what he now has? How can his family’s honour, his father’s last wish and the code of a class that is fading into history in front of his eyes be more important than the happiness of others?
If Soza were any other man, the story likely would have been very different, and if Kore-eda were another director, this film wouldn’t have been populated along the way with wonderful characters, precious, gorgeous moments and a gently self-critical and ultimately liberating touch of humour. Despite the period setting, the director’s themes are firmly rooted in the now – identity versus expectation, freedom versus obligation, and the unending challenge of making the kinds of choices that don’t lead to dead ends. True honour lies in living on; the kind that leads to glory – particularly of the postmortem kind – is better off the stuff of stories.