Hana Yori mo Naho Review

Every samurai film geek worth his salt should be familiar with the legend of the 47 ronin. The story of how a Damyo was ordered to commit seppuku for taking arms inside Edo castle to attack an offensive official, only for 47 of his disbanded retainers to attain revenge for their master by killing said official a year later is arguably the most infamous tale of loyalty, courage, and duty in Japanese history. The story was the subject of the play Chushingura, which has since been adapted into film numerous times. When the Japanese military needed to boost morale for their WW2 campaign it was Chushingura that they turned to, asking Kenji Mizoguchi to produce a new film adaptation, he accepted, but didn’t deliver the big rallying war cry the military wanted (that’s another story). Mizoguchi’s film wasn’t shown outside of Japan for decades though, so to date the most famous film adaptation of Chushingura internationally is probably Hiroshi Inagaki’s 1962 film. I have included the full story of the 47 ronin in the spoiler box below, those who wish to skip this short summation can simply read on:


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In 1701 the Damyo of Akou, Asano Naganori was ordered by the Shogunate to attend a special reception at Edo Castle. During his lengthy stay there, Asano bore the brunt of particularly nasty verbal insults from an obnoxious official named Kira Yoshinaka. At first, Asano ignored the snipes, but in time his patience eventually broke and the Damyo drew his sword against Kira, but only succeeded in wounding the victim before the castle’s guards subdued him. Although the highly ranked Kira was a notoriously arrogant and offensive person, there were very strict rules about even drawing a sword inside the castle - let alone attacking a high-ranked official - and Asano was ordered to commit seppuku. After his death, Asano’s land was confiscated and all 300+ of his retainers were made ronin.

What happened next would go down in history as one of the most remarkable acts of loyalty to a Damyo that samurai have ever commited. You see, there wasn’t much work for the ronin of a shamed Damyo, so the vast majority of Asano’s men ended up eeking out a humble living as tradesmen, but roughly 50 or so had secretly made a pact with Asano’s chief retainer: Oishi Kuroanosuke to avenge their master’s death and put pay to Kira once and for all. This wasn’t an easy task, Kira suspected that some of Asano’s men would plot to kill him and fortified his compound then sent numerous spies out to keep tabs on as many ronin as he could. Oishi and his men were patient though, and in order to alleviate Kira’s qualms they all put on an act of broken down, drunken paupers – to such an extent that even Oishi himself became a local laughing stock. During this time they were secretly gathering information on Kira’s residence in order to overcome the security. Eventually their waiting game paid off, and in time Kira accepted that Asano’s retainers were broken men who were incapable of seeking revenge.

Kira’s complacency became his downfall in December of 1702, when 47 of the original 50 or so ronin gathered together at a secret location in Edo then marched through a snowy night towards Kira’s residence with the intention of avenging their master. However, although the story is well known as the 47 ronin, Oishi purportedly ordered one young member of the group to travel back to Akou and inform their people that their revenge was a success. If they failed on that night, that youngster would’ve had no news to tell, but Oishi and the rest of the 46 ronin defeated Kira’s guards, and killed the official when he refused to take his own life honourably by committing hara-kiri with the very blade Asano used to commit seppuku. Instead, Oishi’s men pinned Kira down while Oishi cut off Kira’s head with the blade, with their revenge complete, the ronin quickly marched towards the place that Asano was buried and placed Kira’s head on his grave alongside the blade used to kill them both.

After these events every single one of the ronin knew and were prepared for what was to come next. They each surrendered to authorities knowing a death sentence was inevitable, but swayed by an influx of protestations by the general public, the shogunate decided to let the ronin retain their honour as samurai by ordering them to commit seppuku. The 46 ronin did so with honour and were buried next to their master. The 47th ronin was later pardoned by the shogunate and buried alongside his comrades decades later when he died of natural causes.



I hope you’ll forgive me starting this review with a Japanese history lesson, but understanding the legend of the 47 ronin is important in order to get the most out of acclaimed director Hirokazu Koreeda’s latest film: Hana Yori mo Naho, which derives its title from a poem the Damyo of Akou wrote shortly before his death. Set near the end of the Genroku Era, known as the golden era of the Tokugawa Shogunate because it was a time when war was a distant memory and popular culture was flourishing; Hana Yori mo Naho tells the story of Sozaemon “Soza” Aoki (Junichi Okada), a young samurai who is hiding out in a ramshackle shanty neighbourhood while he searches for the killer of his late father. Soza is a hopeless swordsman, so in between his quest for revenge he passes the time teaching mathematics and literature to the locals and frequently meeting up with an attractive widow: Osae (Rie Miyazawa) and her young son Shinnosuke (Shohei Tanaka). Soza has also become close with other members of the neighbourhood as the cramped environment brings everyone together, but when Soza finally locates his father’s killer Jirozaemon Hirano (Tadanobu Asano) he has to make a choice between taking on a hopeless duel with a much more skilled swordsman, or giving up his duty to avenge his father as a samurai and live a humble life with his new friends.

Dipping his toes into the deep pool that is the Japanese period film (or Jidaigeki) Koreeda has chosen to focus on the conflict between ninjo (humanity) and giri (duty), which has formed the subject of so many samurai classics of yesteryear. Indeed, Hana Yori mo Naho feels like it could’ve been the work of Masaki Kobayashi sans the iconic action sequences that peppered his films, which is certainly no small compliment. Hana Yori mo Naho works so well because there’s so much going on throughout the narrative. On the surface it is a story about a conflicted young man torn between his family’s (and society’s) demands and his own personal desires and ethos, which is something any contemporary audience can relate to. Underneath the surface, the real meat of Hana Yori mo Naho lies in the interactions of the inhabitants of the shanty neighbourhood in which Soza resides. Many of his neighbours are going through similar dilemmas as Soza and most of their stories help to flesh out and underscore his own struggle. None more so than the local doctor: Onodera-sensei and his three mysterious lodgers, who are all secretly Akou ronin waiting for the order to gather and enact revenge for their late Damyo.


Comparisons to Yoji Yamada’s 2002 smash hit: Twilight Samurai are inevitable, both tell the story of a Samurai living in abject squalor who are called upon to perform their duty and both feature Rie Miyazawa as the romantic lead, but whereas Yamada’s film is stirring and sentimental, Koreeda’s film feels a lot more “real” and cynical, in this film we’re never aware whether the protagonist is doing the right thing or not, and Koreeda ensures that both sides of his conflict are treated the same. The fundamental difference between the two films though is that with Twilight Samurai Yoji Yamada draws strong parallels between contemporary Japanese salarymen and the samurai of yesteryear, and tries to boost viewer morale by showing that a life of servitude is a valiant one if it is not a lucrative or thankful one. With Hana Yori mo Naho though, Koreeda weaves a more complex narrative that attempts to debunk romantic notions of the samurai ethos. For instance setting the story of the 47 ronin in the background of Soza’s story means it not only forms a spiritual partnership with the central story, with the two helping to flesh out each other, but it also allows Koreeda the opportunity show the reality of perhaps the most romantic historical story of them all. The “heroic” conclusion to the 47 ronin tale is shown how it really was: a sneak attack on an unarmed official and the deaths of many men who could’ve gone on to do great things.

While Hana Yori mo Naho’s themes are serious ones, Koreeda approaches this microcosm of Genroku society with a great deal of warmth and humour, with the narrative comprising mostly of comedy vignettes involving the day to day interactions of the inhabitants. To convey the complexities of these characters the director has gathered together rising young stars and a fine ensemble supporting cast. Boyband pop star Okada Junichi has been improving with each new acting role he attains and he adequately portrays the regret and confusion that fuels the film’s protagonist. With this and the successful 2nd Kisarazu Cat’s Eye film hitting Japanese cinemas this year, 2006 has been a great year for Okada. Tadanobu Asano turns up as the target of Soza’s vengeance, but his appearances are few and his lines minimal so he barely makes an impression in the film at all. The other major name attached to the project, actress Rie Miyazawa brings Soza’s love interest: Osae elegantly to life. The supporting cast steal the film though; it’s great to see Arata Furuta given a big role at last as the local scrounger Sadashiro. He’s been stealing scenes in films and TV dramas for years now, so it’s about time. Other familiar faces like Susumu Terajima and Kenichi Ando as members of the 47 ronin provide memorable turns as well. Renji Ishibashi is particularly amusing as Soza’s randy but warm-hearted uncle.


Hirokazu Koreeda started out as a documentary filmmaker, and to date his feature films have all been character and social dramas shot with a gritty pseudo-documentary realism. As mentioned earlier Hana Yori mo Naho is his first stab at period filmmaking and as such eschews his previous attempts at capturing reality within a scripted genre. However, many of the directors recurring themes are present and this film features just as much social commentary as his previous ones - both historically and contemporary. The film is set in a time of peace when swordfighting simply wasn’t necessary anymore and most people had given up practicing Kendo. The Samurai in this time were like Salarymen in the bubble economy, many of whom at the time were left unemployed with a seemingly bleak chance of attaining further employment within their previous social class. Today’s salarymen will surely remember those times and relate them to this film, likewise the various issues that affect Soza and company can be applied to contemporary Japanese society. Hana Yori mo Naho may be his most clichéd and scripted film to date, but it deserves its place alongside his other works. Fully recommended.

Presentation

Presented anamorphically at roughly 1.85:1 this is a nice natural transfer. The print used is pristine, the image is detailed although not exactly pin sharp, and both brightness and contrast levels are excellent, with strong shadow detail. There are no compression artefacts and Edge Enhancements are minimal. The only real negative I can say is that, while there is no ghosting, combing is evident throughout.


Bandai have a provided a choice of either Japanese DD5.1 or DD2.0, both of which are more than adequate to handle this dialogue driven film. Of the two the DD5.1 naturally has much more punch and clarity with good mixing across the 6 channels – even if the rears are only properly used for ambient sound effects and rarely is there any discrete rear action. Dialogue is audible and clean throughout, bass is strong and the film’s vibrant score is brought vividly to life. The DD2.0 has slightly fuzzier bass and is much quieter but again the dialogue is audible and clean and the score is handled well.

Optional English subtitles are provided, with no spelling or grammatical errors that I can recall.

Extras

Not a lot to write about here; aside from a couple of film trailers and TV Teasers the only real extra feature on this disc is a short featurette on the film’s 6th February premier. This is basically just footage from the pre-showing Q&A session which was attended by director Hirokazu Koreeda and an impressive amount of actors: Junichi Okada, Rie Miyazawa, Tadanobu Asano, Yoshio Harada, Susumu Terajima, Arata Furuta, Yuichi Kimura, Tomoko Tabata, Seiji Chihara, Shohei Tanaka, and Ryuhei Ueshima.

Overall

Hana Yori mo Naho represents a radical departure for filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda, but it’s every bit as worthy as his previous features. Koreeda’s film is a cracking character drama, features a healthy amount of social commentary and it has plenty of comedy to boot. It’s a shame that the r2j DVD is devoid of worthwhile extra features, but the presentation of the film is pleasant enough.


Film
8 out of 10
Video
8 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
3 out of 10
Overall

8

out of 10

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