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Friday, June 9, 2006

The sword could be a little sharper

Hana Yori mo Naho

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Junichi Okada
Running time: 127 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens June 3
[See Japan Times movie listings]

When I interviewed Hirokazu Koreeda about "Dare mo Shiranai (Nobody Knows)," his award-winning 2004 drama about children abandoned by their mother, I finished with a question about his new film, "Hana Yori Mo Naho." Would it, I wondered, be anything like Yoji Yamada's "Tasogare Seibei (The Twilight Samurai)," which depicted the samurai rank-and-file with more realism than the genre standard, while satisfying the mass audience taste for flashing swords? "I want to make it as unlike Yamada's film as possible," he said.

News photo
Junichi Okada in "Hana Yori mo Naho" (c) 2005 "HANA YORI MO NAHO" FILM PARTNERS

Instead, Koreeda made it more like Akira Kurosawa's "Dodesukaden" (1970) and "Donzoko (The Lower Depths)" (1957). In other words, he removed the swashbuckling, while sympathetically, if comically, portraying the swordless lower classes of the Genroku Era (1688-1704).

Koreeda debuted in 1995 with "Maboroshi no Hikari," an elegiac film about memory and loss -- a theme he pursued in all his subsequent work, from "Wonderful Life" (1999) to "Distance" (2001) and "Dare mo Shiranai" (2004). Along the way, his films garnered rapturous reviews here and abroad, as well as armloads of festival prizes, including a Cannes Best Actor award for Yuya Yagira, the young star of "Dare mo Shiranai." He has even had his share of commercial success, particularly for "Wonderful Life," a fantasy about a way-station to the after life that is widely available on subtitled DVDs.

Accordingly, Koreeda now has the clout to make a film that violates most of the samurai genre rules, just as Kurosawa violated them in "Dodesukaden" and "Donzoko" -- and famously flopped. Will "Hana" meet the same fate? Not necessarily -- though it is one of Koreeda's rare stumbles.

Not because of the performances, which are almost uniformly excellent. Koreeda has always been good with actors and in "Hana" he has drawn performances that both stand on their own and form part of a well-balanced whole. Nearly everyone plays a shade or two bigger than life -- just as they do in countless other Japanese period films, but even the minor characters have histories and personalities, not just labels and ticks.

His staff, including cameraman Yutaka Yamazaki, who also photographed "Wonderful Life," "Distance" and "Dare mo Shiranai," and costume designer Kazuko Kurosawa, who worked with her father Akira Kurosawa on his last three films, is also first rate, creating a nagaya (tenement house) neighborhood that looks lived in, not merely populated.

More than most of the dozens of period films set in this Edo (old Tokyo) milieu, "Hana" illuminates the true conditions of the time, from the flimsiness of the houses, which with one good shake might be reduced to a giant wood pile, to the spirit of the people, with its mix of never-say-die grit and all-too-human weakness.

But for all its minor pleasures the story lacks anything major -- change, catharsis, you name it. This, Koreeda suggests, was the way the unheroic, unexceptional majority really lived. True enough, perhaps, but since Koreeda's samurai hero remains the same affable, peace-loving fellow from beginning to end, who dodges challenges instead of facing them. I found myself taking only a mild interest in his doings. Yamada may have been guilty of using that chestnut -- the big, character-testing showdown -- as the climax of "Tasogare Seibei," but he also made his audience feel the anger of one man, the fear of another and the desperation of both.

Koreeda's hero is Sozaemon (Junichi Okada), a samurai who has come from Matsumoto to Edo to take his revenge against his father's killer. If he succeeds, he will not only fulfill his duty as a son, samurai and successor to his father's sword school, but receive 100 ryo from his clan.

He takes up residence in a nagaya and teaches the neighborhood children to supplement his meager funds -- meager mainly because he spends so much on eating, drinking, bathing and other dissipations with his pleasure-loving buddy Sadajiro (Arata Furuta). He is also friends -- and something more -- with the lovely widow Osae (Rie Miyazawa) and her young son.

One day Sozaemon's skill with the sword -- or rather wooden staff -- is tested in a street fight with an unarmed tough. Sozaemon comes out the battered loser, with half the neighborhood, including the boy, looking on. Not long after, he is challenged by real samurai swordsmen, who are plotting their own revenge and suspect him of being a spy. This time, Sozaemon doesn't even put up a bumbling fight, but beats a hasty retreat instead. So he is not only a lousy swordsman, but a coward to boot. Finally, he crosses paths with his father's enemy (Tadanobu Asano), a big, silent man with a terrible facial scar, who has abandoned the sword and is living a quiet life with his wife and son. Will Sozaemon redeem himself?

That, the film soon makes clear, is the wrong question. Sozaemon's true test, we see, is whether he can reject the false, inhuman values of his caste. Koreeda treats this test as something of a joke -- one that is cute, obvious and falls flat.

One fix would be to make "Hana" a straight comedy -- but then it wouldn't be a Koreeda film. Another would be to cast an actor who can play both sides of the good/bad, strong/weak divide as Sozaemon instead of boy-band singer Junichi Okada, who is too handsome and cool to be a sympathetic coward. Too bad Bill Murray isn't 20 years younger -- and Japanese.

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