Kore-eda Hirokazu’s fifth fiction feature finds him writing and directing what first appears to be a genre film for the major studio Shochiku. Is this going to be a chanbara, a swordfight film, often termed a ‘samurai film’ in the West? It was shot in Kyoto, the traditional home of studios specialising in jedaigeki or ‘period films’. This is, I think, the only time Kore-eda has ventured into historical drama so far. But having established that, the film seems to develop rather differently than might be expected although it does haves something in common with Killing (Japan 2018), the recent chanbara from genre master Tsukamoto Shin’ya.
The setting is a street of hovels on the edge of Edo (later Tokyo) in 1702. Soza (Okada Jun’ichi) is a young and inexperienced samurai who has been charged by his clan with avenging his father, killed in a dispute during a game of Go. But Soza is not an aggressive young man and doesn’t consider himself a skilled warrior. He lives a relatively quiet life in the slums, running an impromptu school in which he attempts to teach young people the rudiments of writing. He is also developing a relationship with Osae (Miyazawa Rie) a woman who appears to have been abandoned by her husband and who is bringing up her small son. It’s already apparent that there is a new potential family here, a recurring narrative element across Kore-eda’s films. There is also a larger ‘communal family’ with a wide range of characters. This group makes fun of Soza but also in its own way takes care of him.
The ‘difference’ in Hana is that Kore-eda provides a parallel narrative in the background. This is introduced by title cards which set the exact date of events as 1702, one year after a dispute in Edo castle in which a court official was killed by a lord who was then forced to commit seppuku. The lord’s lands were taken by the Shogun and his retinue, including his samurai were dispersed. The now ‘masterless’ samurai or ronin stayed grouped together and determined to avenge their late master. These were the ’47 ronin‘ whose story would become legendary in Japan. The many fictionalised versions of the story use the title Chūshingura and it has become one of the best known stories across all forms of Japanese theatre, literature and art. A 1941 film version was directed by Mizoguchi Kenji in two parts in 1941/2. In Kore-eda’s film a small group of the ronin are hiding close to Soza’s dwelling and working on the plan. Kore-reda wrote the script himself and he makes a number of cross-references between Soza’s actions and those of the ronin. The references to the story of the 47 ronin would be well-known to Japanese audiences but outside Japan may lead to bafflement. Because of my struggles to watch a Spanish Blu-ray of the film with downloaded English subs I didn’t fully appreciate the opening titles and I had to rewatch parts of the film. All this perhaps explains why the film itself struggled to obtain a wide international release.
What kinds of audience response was Kore-eda hoping for? The film opened in Japan on 178 screens and crept into the Top Ten in June 2006 making over $400,000 in its first weekend but then seemingly disappearing. Spain seems to be the only other market in which the cinema film was released. Predictably the American fans of Japanese action films who came across the DVD generally didn’t like it. Given that there is no swordplay in a film featuring samurai these fans felt short-changed. However, those who knew Kore-eda and his films were generally appreciative. The film offers many pleasures. Okada Jun’ichi was known in Japan mainly as a pop star in 2006. He has continued to have a film career and has been used to voice characters in anime hits such as From Up on Poppy Hill (Japan 2011). Ironically his bio suggests he is also a martial arts instructor. Hana looks great with the authentic looking settlement of suitably grimy hovels on the outskirts of the city and close to the river and the woods. There is plenty of humour in the daily goings-on of the street (especially around the communal toilet and use of ‘night soil’) and in the local celebrations of festival days. By creating an implied contrast between Soza’s reluctance to carry out the revenge attack decreed by his clan and the plotting by the 47 ronin, Kore-eda appears to be inviting the audience to consider what the ‘samurai code’ means at a time of peace. He may also be making a comment about masculinity in Japan more broadly, given that one of his familiar concerns is to explore social issues in contemporary Japanese life.
The film was shot by Yamazaki Yutaka who was Kore-eda’s regular DoP at the time (he shot six of Kore-eda’s films). The look of the film is also attributable to costume design by Kurosawa Kazuko, daughter of the master of jedai-geki and also to production designers Baba Masao and Isomi Toshihiro. I really enjoyed the music in the film. It seems that Kore-eda decided he wanted something ‘completely different’ so he put together a group of European musicians playing 18th century instruments and asked them to improvise. It works very well (see the clip below).
One dissenting voice that I saw in a review compares Hana to Twilight Samurai (Japan 2002) a film by the genre master Yamada Yoji with some similar plot details but set in the 19th century when the samurai life is coming to a climactic point with the approaching opening up of the country during the Meiji Restoration. I think this writer has a point but it doesn’t negate what Kore-eda is doing here. Shochiku also funded Twilight Samurai which was a huge commercial success in Japan (and a relatively big budget film) and a critical success internationally, getting an Academy Award nomination.
If you can find Hana (US DVD and Spanish Blu-ray) I think it works very well and shows both Kore-eda’s adaptability and his commitment to humanist values.
These notes were written in 2006 for an evening class. I’m publishing them now in relation to the screening of Hana (2006) by Kore-eda Hirokazu at HOME in Manchester.
Twilight Samurai was a major commercial success in Japan and a critical success abroad. It was part of a revival in the jedai-geki or ‘period’ film in Japan and for audiences overseas it represented a ‘quality’ period film with similar status to the earlier films of Kurosawa, Ichikawa and Mizoguchi. (Kurosawa’s daughter, born in 1954 just as he completed Seven Samurai, was the costume designer on Twilight Samurai.)
Notable features of the production include the participation of television production interests in what was, by Japanese standards, a big budget film and the backgrounds of director Yamada and star Sanada Hiroyuki. Yamada Yôji is a veteran of Japanese ‘genre films’. Now over 70, he is best known as the director of a staggering 46 films in the popular comedy series Tora-san, comedy-dramas focusing on an ‘ordinary man’, for Shochiku, the major studio that distributed Twilight Samurai. Yamada also directed other genre films, but he managed to squeeze out some more personal films and Twilight Samurai represented his long-held ambition to make a ‘realistic’ film about a samurai in the 19th century at the end of the long Tokugawa era. Yamada recognises the qualities of Seven Samurai, but he thinks that it helped to revive a particular type of ‘swordfight’/’samurai’ film in the 1960s and 1970s. These films had very little basis in historical fact (much like their counterparts, the Hollywood Westerns). Yamada wanted to show how samurai behaved at home and what fighting really meant in terms of crude attacks and messy deaths, not the clinical choreography of the genre film. The whole history of the chanbara (swordfight) and the later samurai films in Japanese cinema is worth exploring in terms of how samurai warriors are represented.
The film was written by Yamada and Asama Yoshitaka and based on a short story by Fujisawa Shuhei (Yamada made two other films based on Fujisawa stories). Cinematography is by Naganuma Mutsuo and music by Tomita Isao. Miyazawa Rie is the female lead as Tomoe and she also appears in a not dissimilar role in Hana.
Seibei Iguchi is a widower and is forced to work in a lowly job as an inventory clerk in a grain warehouse belonging to his clan. His colleagues mock him as ‘Twilight’. He needs the job to pay for his wife’s funeral and the upkeep of his daughters. His mother has dementia and all in all he is a not the conventional figure of a warrior. But when Tomoe, his childhood love, is abused by her husband and leaves him to live with her brother Michinojo Iinuma’s family, Seibei reconnects with her. When the deserted husband challenges the brother, Seibei takes up the challenge – and this contravenes many rules about samurai behaviour.
In the press pack for Twilight Samurai Yamada discusses the historical setting at the end of the long Edo/Tokugawa period – when the traditional samurai warriors had to move into a more ‘modern’ social structure. He was clearly concerned to shape the story so that it had resonances for modern audiences:
I tried to include plot elements that present-day Japanese could relate to. When you’re ordered to do something by the boss, you have to do it. Or it might be the end of your job. That’s something everyone can understand – and that’s the kind of situation the hero faces. Some people buckle under the pressure and commit suicide. In Japan, nearly 30,000 people kill themselves every year – a lot of men in their 40s and 50s. Some of them have been fired, some have been told to fire others. The hero deals with his situation differently, of course – but the pressure is similar. (Press Pack)
The position of Tomoe, who leaves her abusive husband, is perhaps anachronistic since the later Edo and early Meiji periods were very bad for women, who were generally excluded from society and expected to be passive. This representation, Yamada concedes, may be a critique of the feudal system rather than a ‘realistic’ commentary, but again it helps to involve a modern audience in a period story. He also indicates that the film was successful because older audiences went to see it and then persuaded their children and grandchildren to see it. This is an important observation, since the shrunken Japanese cinema industry generally shows Hollywood films to younger audiences, with television serving the needs of the older audience. A revival of jidai-geki could help to change the fortunes of Japanese cinemas.
Part of the film’s success (it won 12 awards in the Japanese equivalent of the Oscars) certainly derives from the performance of Sanada Hiroyuki, one of the few Japanese actors to maintain a career in the cinema and to gain international recognition, partly through his role in martial arts films. After Twilight Samurai he appeared in the Hollywood film, The Last Samurai and earlier he featured in the worldwide horror film success The Ring (1998).
The setting of the film focuses on a range of ‘end of an era’ issues (and a concern about “what will happen next?”). This has clear parallels with the American Western, set in roughly the same period, and the two meet to some extent in The Last Samurai, which might be compared to Yamada’s film.
This short feature (80 mins) sees the Japanese auteur of ‘cyberpunk cinema’, Tsukamoto Shin’ya, exploring what he can do with the chanbara or swordfight film. This follows on from his previous film, Fires on the Plain (2014), a remake of Ichikawa Kon’s classic anti-war film from 1959. There is certainly a possible connection between this new film and its predecessor.
The film opens with the forging of a katana, the classic samurai sword, shown in close-up. We then meet the central character, a young ronin or ‘masterless samurai’, Mokunoshin (Itematsu Sosuke). He appears to be working for a farmer in his rice paddy and in his free moments sparring with the farmer’s adolescent son, with both using wooden staffs rather than swords. They are being watched by the boy’s sister Yu (Aoi Yu) when a pair of older samurai enter the village, engaged in some kind of duel. The victorious samurai is Sawamura (played by the director himself). Tsukamoto often appears in his own films but although I recognised him it wasn’t until later that I realised that he played a secondary role in Martin Scorsese’s remake of The Silence (US-Mexico-Japan 2016).
In the first section of the film I found myself wondering when the film was meant to be set. As far as I could see there were no markers of the era and no dialogue exchanges that suggested when. Kurosawa Akira’s jidaigeki or ‘period films’ included some, like Seven Samurai (1954) set in the late 16th century or early 17th century, but most of the ‘samurai films’, as they are known in the West were far more conventional and formulaic and tended to be set in the latter days of the 250 year Tokugawa shogunate, the so-called Edo period. All the reviews of Killing from Venice and Toronto suggest that it is indeed an early 19th century setting. Presumably this info was in the Press Notes. The Glasgow programme suggests that Tsukamoto was ‘inspired by Kurosawa’. Hmm!
Sawamura tells Mokunoshin that he is on his way to Edo and that he is trying to recruit samurai to fight for the Shogun against rebels in Kyoto. He offers the young samurai the chance to join him and Mokunoshin agrees. The farmer’s son also wants to join and Sawamura agrees to take him as a reserve, convinced by watching the sparring between the two young men. The second ‘inciting incident’ is the arrival on the edge of the village of a group of bandits. This heavily-armed and gruesome-looking group are probably not samurai but rather ruffians with plenty of experience of fighting. Do we anticipate a battle with three against many? I won’t spoil the narrative as the film looks set for a UK release via Third Window Films, but what underpins the final section is a philosophical question posed by Sawamura and aimed at Mokunoshin. A samurai sword is intended for killing. Can a man really be a samurai if he has not used his sword to kill? Mokunoshin is a young man beset by several problems, questions of honour and gratitude towards the farmer’s family, the raging hormones of a young man living close to an attractive woman and strong feelings about how to fight.
The action in the last section of the film is shot in almost expressionistic style with flashing blades, hand-held photography and the action itself something of a blur. A set piece fight under a natural bridge on a muddy path is contrasted with a chase up a hillside in the long grass and bracken and beneath the trees (the vivid greens of the forest clearings and paddy fields define the background while the samurai are presented in more mute colours). The film screened at both Venice and Toronto last year. It seemed to please critics but some raised questions about whether it would please fans of the director or fans of the genre. It’s a low-budget film made quickly but with verve and a music soundtrack by Ishikawa Chu (his last film before he died). I enjoyed the film and it’s good that there can still be new takes on the chanbara. I think I still prefer Kurosawa and the other filmmakers of the 1950s and 1960s. Tsukamoto is reported as saying his inspiration was partly Ichikawa Kon’s 1973 film The Wanderers, a film I saw on its release in the UK back in 1973. Perhaps I’ll try to find it and watch it again.
Miike Takashi seems almost to define what a cult director of genre pictures should be. In his extended review of 13 Assassins in Sight & Sound (June 2011), Christopher Huber tells us that Miike has directed 40 films in 20 years, that he is not the ‘Asia Extreme’ director that everyone believes him to be but a misunderstood auteur and a great humanist. Those are quite some claims and I’m not really in a position to evaluate them. I’m not sure that I’d ever seen a Miike film in its entirety before this one. Fate decided to save me from the second half of Audition when a projector failed at the Hyde Park in Leeds and we got our money back. Other than that I think I’ve only seen extracts screened by lecturer-fans.
Huber also describes 13 Assassins as ‘audience friendly’ and tells us that a longer ‘director’s cut’ is available in Japan. Hmm! I found several of the scenes almost too much to stomach (literally in the first hari-kiri scene) and I thought that the final long battle at 45 minutes was just too long. But perhaps if I knew more about chanbara (swordfight films) and had seen more Miike films I would be able to make a more informed commentary. All I can do really is to respond like the typical specialised cinema audience member I am to an ‘international production’ (Jeremy Thomas pops up as an executive producer and Hanway Films are on board with Toho).
Plot outline (no spoilers – but the narrative follows conventions meticulously)
Japan in 1844. The Tokugawa Shogun’s half brother Lord Naritsugu has been adopted by the Akashi clan and is set to become the Senior Advisor to the Shogun and therefore untouchable. He is arrogant and unstable and likely to wreak havoc in public life – having already murdered a young married couple on a whim. The ritual suicide of a samurai who has been shamed alerts the authorities and a senior civil servant selects another of the Shogun’s samurai, Shimada Shinzaemon, to assassinate the rogue half brother before he can do further damage. Shimada recruits a dozen more samurai and sets out to trap Lord Naritsugu and his army.
The first point to make is that this is a genre film – a remake of a 1963 chanbara by Kudo Eiichi. It’s very good as a 2010 re-working of the story and the visuals are excellent. I particularly like the mountain scenes as the samurai climb through thick forests. The ‘very long shots’ of tiny figures with large round hats climbing in single file up a hillside are reminiscent of Hiroshige woodblock prints.
In a Guardian interview Miike says that he was careful not to make a chanbara with insertions of ‘modern ideas’ such as romances. This seems a good point but I do like the jidaigeki of recent years by the veteran director Yamada Yoji (e.g. The Twilight Samurai) which feature more domestic scenes and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (which Miike clearly admires) includes at least one sequence in which the youngest samurai has a tryst with a beautiful village girl – something which at one point Miike looks like repeating. The reference to Kurosawa is one of the ways into an analysis of 13 Assassins. In some ways, the plot is similar to Seven Samurai – the thirteen samurai here are the equivalent of the seven and several of them seem to be ‘doubles’. Miike has a peasant who wants to be a samurai, a young man in awe of his masters, a ‘super swordsman, a jolly samurai etc. – all of whom are characters in Kurosawa’s film. The fortification of a village is similar and the traps for samurai on horseback. Yet the actual situation and the time period refer more to Kurosawa’s later films about ronin (masterless samurai) such as Yojimbo and Sanjuro. It may be that we need to discuss Japanese history.
The setting of 13 Assassins is 23 years before the end of the Edo period and the restoration of the Meiji Emperor. It is also just 9 years before US Commodore Perry’s appearance in Tokyo Bay – the historical moment marking Japan’s entry into the ‘modern’ (i.e. ‘Western’) world. Yet the long battle that ends 13 Assassins features less use of firearms than Kurosawa’s film set in the 17th century (even if it does feature several explosions). I think that I need to retreat to my history books. Japan was certainly ‘behind’ the West in 1844, but surely not as much as this film implies? Edo (Tokyo) had a population of over 1 million by the 18th century and by the 19th century there was both a thriving urban culture and a detailed pursuit of aspects of Western technological knowledge. Only in the representation of a gaming house does 13 Assassins attempt to portray this world. Once outside the Shogun’s domain in Edo, the narrative refers to nothing that would suggest that this is the 19th (rather than the 16th) century. In noting this I don’t mean to criticise the film. My point is simply that it is a genre convention that chanbara often take place in a highly stylised fictional world – just like the Hollywood Western. By contrast, Kurosawa researched his period dramas very carefully so that they matched historical descriptions. Miike seems to follow the Kurosawa of Seven Samurai in some ways (building his own village to destroy in a ‘real’ location) but not in others.
13 Assassins doesn’t seem to have done as well in the UK as I would have expected. I’m probably more squeamish than most action fans as I’ve indicated, but I can recognise when a director knows what he is doing. Considering that most of the actors had not previously appeared in chanbara they put up a very impressive display. The film is to my mind much more exciting than most Hollywood action fare. The CGI is very carefully integrated with the real swordplay and other action to produce a certain level of realism. On the other hand, I would have to watch the film again but there seems to be at least one ‘magical’ incident in which a character seemingly comes back from the dead. Either way, this is a story in which 13 men take on a much larger force of 200 and give more than they get. If action films are your bag, this is way better than most.
Here’s a flavour of the action in a subtitled trailer: