Hirokazu Kore-eda's latest film, HANA, may have all of the usual trappings that one associates with the samurai genre, and yet it thoroughly, and enjoyably, subverts them time and again. Set in the 18th century, a time of relative peace that saw the samurai's role in society beginning to fade, HANA centers on a young samurai named Soza (Junichi Okada) who has arrived in the city of Edo while tracking down the man who killed his father.
Unfortunately, for all of his training and upbringing, Soza isn't much of a samurai. He's barely capable as a swordsman, nor is he much of a tracker; it's been three years, and he's still no closer to finding his father's killer. He spends most of his time hanging out in the slum where he rents a barely-standing hovel, surrounded by an array of neighbors that are colorful, to say the least. They bicker and fight, are incredibly crude and vulgar, and barely make ends meet -- and yet they live lives that are far more colorful and passionate than what Soza was used to back at his family's estate.
Over time, he begins questioning many of the assumptions he had about the samurai lifestyle. In the beginning, all he wanted was vengeance and an honorable death, statutes drilled into him by the rigid codes of the samurai. But in the real world, far away from the high-minded philosophies espoused by his brother, who has taken leadership of his family's dojo, they seem as empty and hollow as Soza's swordfighting style. But even Soza's desire for revenge grows increasingly diluted, his family puts increased pressure on him to do the deed, if only because vengeance would net them a tidy sum in these peaceful times.
Like other acclaimed samurai dramas that have come out in recent times, such as Yoji Yamada's The Twilight Samurai, HANA is possessed with an elegiac tone. But unlike those movies, which might have found at least something to celebrate within the samurai lifestyle, HANA seems to reject it almost entirely. However, it's done in such a light, warm-hearted, and humorous manner, that you might not even notice the bite in Kore-eda's film. But make no mistake, it is there.
Paralleling Soza's story throughout the film is Kore-eda's take on the 47 Ronin, the subjects of arguably one of the greatest samurai stories of all time -- indeed, what some might consider to be the samurai story. After their master is forced to commit seppuku, these now masterless samurai ("ronin") begin plotting an elaborate scheme to avenge his death, abandoning their samurai status to take up menial jobs even as they lie in wait for the perfect time to strike. Several of these samurai live in Soza's neighborhood, and his apparent reluctance to carry out vengeance is a source of alarm; not only does his presence draw attention to their plans, but his reluctance and lack of fortitude gives samurai everywhere a bad name.
But while they sit around, bickering over the best way to ascertain their enemy's strength, Soza opens up a free school for the neighborhood's children. And while they complain that their enemy is making it too difficult to get revenge, and pontificate about the all-importance of dying honorably, Soza slowly finds himself drawn into a community, albeit one that's very ragtag. Soon enough, he becomes drawn into the joys, and trials, of these "ordinary" folks that should be beneath him, and even finds himself falling for one of them, a young widow named Osae (Rie Miyazawa).
As with his previous films, Afterlife and Nobody Knows, Kore-eda brings an amazing amount of human warmth and sympathy to HANA (and perhaps even moreso as HANA is considerably more commercial than the aforementioned titles). HANA is full of amazing characters, and we're given glimpses into all of their lives. At times, this is something of a weakness; there are so many delightful characters, and Kore-eda is so intent on introducing all of them to us, that the film meanders quite a bit from Soza's central storyline. But it also allows for a number of enjoyable scenes throughout the entire movie. And it certainly doesn't hurt that Kore-eda has assembled a wonderful cast, including Miyazawa, Jun Kunimura, Susumu Terajima, Yoshio Harada, and of course, the always-great Tadonabu Asano as Soza's intended target -- a man who turns out to be something quite unlike what Soza was expecting.
Those who go into HANA expecting the same sword-clashing period pieces that have made the samurai genre as exciting and breathtaking as it is might be disappointed. However, they might find something else entirely: a thoroughly moral story that states Kore-eda's non-violent message loud and clear without being preachy or too black and white (Kore-eda introduces some intriguing moral ambiguities in the film's final half hour or so). If nothing else, the film's technical merits -- costuming, set design, cinematography -- are outstanding, and the soundtrack, which owes more to 18th century European music than it does traditional Japanese music, adds an offbeat but welcome energy to the film.
It certainly meanders a bit too much, and there is a fair amount of sappy melodrama, but ultimately, HANA is warm, lively, deeply human, laugh-out-loud hilarious, and intensely enjoyable.