It was apparently a Kennedy family motto to never get mad, but instead to get even. Mere anger was by itself not a sufficient catharsis — an affront called for retaliation in kind. I recall this little dictum from my repository of Kennedy folklore because I’ve always found it an attractive philosophy. But what shape should the revenge take? And should one repay a dastardly act with something equally dastardly? Gandhi once famously said that if everyone espoused the philosophy of an “eye for an eye” everyone in the world would be blind.
Such ruminations on what constitutes revenge and payment in kind came to mind after I left the Kabuki theater following a screening of Kore-eada’s Hana. Remember that I said I’d review it as part of my role as a member of the citizen press corps? Hana is a beautiful, slow-moving treatise on the subject of revenge and forgiveness, steeped in Japanese samurai culture, and set in a time when the samurai are pretty much extraneous. Kore-eada’s story takes place in the Edo era (old Tokyo, circa 1701) when there are no battles to be fought, and the glorious samurai of yore basically sit around unemployed as festering malcontents.
The protagonist of the movie, Soza (played by Japanese pop star Junichi Okada) is sent by his samurai clan to reside in a village in Edo to avenge his slain father. We find this out slowly, as the village where the killer supposedly resides wakes up from slumber, and each of the characters are slowly introduced.
Here we find all the evocative imagery of a rural, poor Japan, and meet all the somewhat eccentric inhabitants of the village where Soza spends his exile. There’s the scheming, crafty village elder Sadashiro, who takes Soza under his wing, claiming to have located his father’s killer. And the village simpleton, who jumps up and down with glee, often at his own facile logic. Then there’s the attractive widow Osae (Rie Miyazawa), who Soza gazes shyly at for much of the movie. The love story, like the eventual unraveling of the revenge story, moves slowly, with humor (often slapstick) and deliberation. This is not a samurai movie with dazzling swordsmanship and riveting action scenes. It is Kore-eada’s first samurai movie, and I suspect bears his imprint as an auteur.
The baby faced Soza eschews violence, is actually a pathetic swordsman for a samurai, and prefers to teach reading and writing to the women and children who attend his school. He is the classic fumbling but likable anti-hero, viewed with suspicion by the ronin who reside in the village in disguise to avenge their master (a sub plot in the story), and with outright derision by Sodesan, a dark character with an intriguing past and connection to the village (another sub plot).
Kore-eada weaves in traditional Japanese art forms and pieces of Edo history into his movie. Soza is put in the humorous situation of playing a character in a “Kabuki Revenge Play” who wants to enact revenge in front of the entire village. This irritates the restless ronin, themselves members of the historically famous “47 Ronin” who serve as a backdrop to the story of Soza. The resulting scene is one of the slapstick delights of the movie.
Despite the obvious optimism about the human spirit on parade here, the conclusion of the movie is not excessively saccharine. The actual enactment of revenge is deeply touching without bordering on the mawkish. The movie felt long (127 minutes) but I was never restless. I laughed out loud several times, and was impressed by the clever symbolism. There is one extraordinary revelation on the connection between rice cakes and manure that had my peer group chuckling well after the movie ended. The discourse is witty enough through subtitles.
Not all the subplots are elegantly brought to resolution, however, and this remains my strongest nit about a movie that I thoroughly enjoyed. The story of Sodesan, the movie’s one dark horse, is not bought to a satisfying conclusion, and I wondered what purpose his angst-ridden existence served, since he isn’t a suitable character foil to Soza. In the end, my single nit could say more about my need for catharsis and less about Kore-eada.
I’d recommend this movie. It isn’t yet available on Netflix (my service of choice), but other works in Kore-eada’s corpus are. I suspect I’m going to have another love affair with Japanese cinema, following my first one with Kurosawa.