Laughter and tears: the social critiques of Kore-eda's Hana and Yamanaka Sadao's Humanity and Paper Balloons.
This essay seeks to shed light on Kore-eda Hirokazu's Hana (Hana yori mo naho, 2006) by setting it in the context of a tradition of subversive and socially critical jidai-geki (Japanese period films) most precisely exemplified by the pre-war work of Yamanaka Sadao.
Thus, it will focus on the different approaches and ways that Kore-eda in Hana and Yamanaka in Humanity and Paper Balloons (Ninjo kamifusen, 1937) formulate critiques of dominant power structures, and what meaning this might bear in a historical context. I will also touch on similarities in story and narrative structure, as well as some of the sources from which Kore-eda has drawn inspiration.
The two directors are among the most critically acclaimed filmmakers of their respective eras. Known for his beautifully crafted and thoughtful films, Kore-eda is generally considered one of the finest directors to have appeared in Japan during the last two decades, and the austere beauty, complexity, and subtlety of his films have won him an appreciative international audience and a slew of international prizes.
Yamanaka Sadao worked in the pre-war era, directing around two dozen films between 1932 and 1937, before being conscripted and sent to China where at the age of 28, he died in a field hospital. His short career, enormous talent, and all too early death have earned him comparisons with the French director Jean Vigo. Today only three of his sound films are preserved in complete or near-complete form.
Apart from a few short fragments, his silent films are all lost.
Yamanaka worked solely within the jidai-geki genre, and Humanity and Paper Balloons, his last completed film, has come to be considered the pinnacle of his sadly curtailed career. By contrast, Hana constitutes Kore-eda's first contribution to the jidai-geki. Nevertheless, it is a member of a long-established tradition of subversive period films, of which Yamanaka's work is exemplary.
The use of the jidai-geki to mount a subversive treatment of contemporary society or prevalent norms and values dates back to the silent era. Historically, the jidai-geki has often been a means of discussing politically sensitive material while at the same time avoiding government censorship by placing a contemporary issue safely in the past.
During the 1920s and 1930s, filmmakers used the jidai-geki to produce socially conscious films. In the 1920s directors like Furumi Takuji and Futagawa Buntaro created rebellious, subversive jidai-geki infused with nihilism and anarchy, of which the clearest example is Futagawa's still extant The Serpent (Orochi, 1925).
This tradition was later upheld by directors such as Ito Daisuke and Makino Masahiro, working within the left-leaning keiko eiga, or "tendency film" genre, and yet again during the 1930s by the likes of Inagaki Hiroshi and Yamanaka, working within the jiyushugi jidai-geki, the "liberal period piece." These films delivered various forms of political and social critiques, often passing beneath the radar of the censors. (For a more detailed description of the jidai-geki during the 1920s and 1930s, see S. A. Thornton's The Japanese Period Film.)
Although the liberal Japanese society and democratic institutions of the postwar era differed greatly from that of pre-war Japan, the 1960s saw filmmakers such as Kobayashi Masaki and Imai Tadashi turning to jidai-geki as a form of critical expression. In films, such as Kobayashi's Harakiri (Seppuku, 1962) and Samurai Rebellion (Joiuchi: Hairyo tsuma shimatsu, 1967) and Imai's Cruel Tales of Bushido (Bushido zankoku monogatari, 1963), they created works of great artistic value, which at the same time incorporated social critiques of the feudal assumptions that remained prevalent in contemporary society.
The jidai-geki entered a period of decline in the late twentieth century, but recently Yamada Yoji earned both critical and commercial success with his samurai trilogy, consisting of The Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibei, 2002), The Hidden Blade (Kakushi ken oni no tsume, 2004), and Love and Honor (Bushi no ichibun, 2006), in which he shows a realistic, unglamorous samurai instead of the more dominant mythical depiction. A little earlier than this, After the Rain (Ame agaru, 1999), another jidai-geki with political and social implications, was directed by Koizumi Takashi from a script left unrealized by Kurosawa Akira. Yet another Kurosawa jidai-geki script was posthumously filmed when Kumai Kei directed The Sea Is Watching (Umi wa miteiru, 2002), also characterized by social criticism.
Although it is too early to say if these films are the beginning of a broader new trend of socially conscious jidai-geki within the modern Japanese cinema, it can be argued that Kore-eda's Hana is not unique as a modern film that uses the conventions of jidai-geki to advance meaningful social criticism.
Kore-eda and Hana
Kore-eda is a director with a wide repertoire, who is capable of moving between social and magical realism and family drama and documentary in his exploration of the human condition. Loneliness, memory, alienation, and the search for an understanding of and a meaning to life are all recurring themes in his films. Much has been said with regards to Kore-eda's ability to combine the intimacy and directness of the documentary with the aesthetic beauty of the narrative film. His wide repertoire was further broadened when in 2006 he realized Hana, his first, and so far only, attempt at directing a jidai-geki.
Kore-eda has stated that after having worked on Distance (Disutansu, 2001), which was shot in a documentary-like, improvised fashion, he felt the urge to try his hand at more traditional fiction material (Kikuo 4-5). Although Kore-eda intended his next film, Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai, 2004), to be shot as a fiction film based on a carefully written script, he found that it gradually turned into something more like a record of daily life founded in observational documentary. Wanting to challenge himself as well as wanting to make sure that his next film would be squarely placed within the tradition of narrative filmmaking, beyond everyday realism, he decided to create a jidai-geki.
The resulting period piece takes place in the year 1702 and is centered around the impoverished inhabitants of a slum-like alley. The story follows one of the alley's inhabitants, the young samurai Aoki Sozaemon (Okada Junichi), called Soza for short, who has come from Matsumoto to Edo to fulfill his father's dying wish for revenge on the man who killed him. However, three years have passed and Sozaemon has still not succeeded in tracking down and killing this man, thus restoring the honor of his family's name.
The other residents in the slum-like alley, all vibrantly characterized, constitute the better part of the film's supporting characters. Among them are the beautiful single mother Osae, played by Miyazawa Rie, who will become the main character's romantic interest; a poor ronin; the children of the alley; and a small group of samurai hiding under false identities but in reality members of the forty-seven ronin, the historical group of loyal samurai who, after their master's death, exacted revenge on the treacherous Lord Kira, who had caused it. In Hana, these men are shown biding their time before the attack on Kira's mansion, which took place a year after their master's death.
Soza's situation is further complicated by the fact that he lacks any real martial skills or previous combat experience, and that during the time he has spent looking for his father's killer, he has grown to like his new life, the freedom it brings, and the people around him. When he finally manages to track down the man who murdered his father, he becomes unsure as to how to proceed.
Drawing inspiration from various sources, Kore-eda creates a dark comedy with a touch of sentimentality. Its theme is the follies of pride, and its characters are poor samurai, charming racketeers and other marginalized people in Edo.
Much of the film is permeated by the influence of rakugo: traditional Japanese verbal comedy, in which a lone storyteller sits on a stage and, without props except for a folding paper fan, tells long and often complicated comic stories. This influence can be clearly felt in the way the slum-like alley, a popular setting for many rakugo stories, is built up as simultaneously being a place of dirty, dilapidated houses and a place buzzing with color and vibrant life. Also, much of the wordplay in the dialogue, and some of the film's humorous misunderstandings, share the same kind of wit that is characteristic of rakugo. For instance, Magosaburo, the alley's resident idiot, in charge of the local outhouse, comes to believe through a misunderstanding that mochi, a kind of soft rice cake, comes from feces. This is very much in the rakugo tradition, as is the sequence depicting the visit of Soza's uncle, when the humor develops through a lewd play on words about the main character's "brush."
Although Kore-eda's humor is generally lighter in tone and less barbed than Yamanaka's, his use of comic elements to express a social critique nevertheless reflects the work of the pre-war director. Yamanaka effectively dismantled social conventions and hierarchical structures, and instead emphasized the characters' humanity before their background and social status. His humor is often satirical in its depiction of social structures and roles, often taking the form of an elegant and accurate irony, usually aimed at the samurai class and military values.
Although Kore-eda himself, to my knowledge, has not directly acknowledged his debt to Yamanaka, it has been pointed out by many critics such as Sekiguchi Yuko (40-46). Kore-eda has explicitly acknowledged a debt to Kurosawa, stating that he was inspired by The Lower Depths (Donzoko, 1957) as well as Dodes'ka-den (Dodesukaden, 1970), and that he wanted to recreate the threatening realism of The Lower Depths' but infuse it with the sense of wonder that is present in Dodes'ka-den (Kikuo 7). That Kore-eda picked those two Kurosawa films is not especially surprising considering that The Lower Depths' and Dodes'ka-den, although differing greatly in tone and context, are set in very similar slum milieux. In a dialogue session with Hana's costume designer Kurosawa Kazuko, who is the famed director's daughter, Kore-eda states that
This time there was something that I had decided on already from the start. Namely that in liana I would paint Akira Kurosawa's Dodes 'ka-den in the world of The Lower Depths. [...] Simply put, while painting the picture of the kind of people that are at the bottom of the social scale, I wanted to infuse it not with realism, but with a kind of Dodes 'ka-den-like fantasy. (qtd. in Mook 115)
This effect comes through in the way Kore-eda approaches the characters who dwell in the alley, especially the character of Magosaburo, who seems alienated from the realities of the world and is characterized by a sense of naive wonder not unlike the young boy in Dodes 'ka-den.
From the outset, Kore-eda wanted to create a jidai-geki that eschewed violence and the kind of glorification of martial prowess that is so common in the genre. Likewise, he wanted to avoid the archetypical samurai hero, stating that he wanted to create a film that can be seen as a counter point to the kind of bushido ideal enbodied in Hagakure (Kikuo 5). The classic compilation of practical and spiritual advice for the samurai, dictated by the samurai Yamamoto Tsunetomo during the period 1709 to 1716, is famous for asserting that bushido is the "Way of Dying," that in order to be a good samurai one must live as if already dead, in a state of willingness to die for one's lord at any moment. For Yamamoto, "the Way of the Samurai is found in death" (17).
This kind of glorification of the act of dying, or of the samurai's willingness to die, is something that Kore-eda thoroughly criticizes in Hana. And his desire to create a jidai-geki opposed to that kind of warrior ideal can be related to that of Yamanaka, who also eschewed warrior pathos for a more sensitive approach to the everyday life of the outcasts and marginalized in urban Edo.
Yamanaka and Humanity and Paper Balloons
Yamanaka has been much lauded by Western critics and scholars for his importance in the development of the jidai-geki genre, his influence on successive generations of Japanese filmmakers, and for his formal precision (Anderson and Richie 92-5, Burch 193). At the same time many modern Japanese critics have pointed out Yamanaka's cosmopolitanism, examining his borrowing from European and American films as well as praising his ability to bring the realist sensibility of the shomin-geki, with its focus on the lives of lower middle class people, to the jidai-geki (Hasumi 46-9, Sato 52-3).
Although the twentieth century history of Japan and its cinema is one marked by constant change, the changes during the 1930s, the time when Yamanaka was active, were particularly acute. The 1930s saw the film industry's gradual shift from silent to sound film, bringing with it the end of the Japanese benshi (performers of live narration for silent films), innovations within film production such as the gradual change from a production system based upon a traditional structure influenced by "feudal" values towards more modern, rationalistic corporate policies, and developments in genre such as the continuing rise of the popular shomin-geki.
At the same time the film industry suffered increasingly severe restrictions on its subject matter and expressed attitudes as a result of growing pressure from Japan's military government. These restrictions culminated in the passing of the Film Law in 1939, a law whose main clauses Peter B. High compares to "the closing of a coffin lid over creative cinema in the nation" (73). Yet despite the official advocacy of military values, there existed a strong counter current characterized by social realism and strong social criticism within Japanese film culture. Yamanaka may be said to have been a part of this trend.
Yamanaka's films, like practically all jidai-geki produced at the time, were of a commercial nature and filled with entertainment, but by virtue of their rich humor, minimalistic style, distinctive storytelling, and strong social messages, they often criticized the prioritization of giri (duty) over ninjo (compassion). These are key Japanese concepts: giri refers to social obligations, whereas ninjo refers to human feelings. Traditionally, these are seen to be antagonistic forces, as one will always stand in the way of the other. Yamanaka's films stood out from most of the contemporary jidai-geki. The three films that are still extant give ample evidence of a director of exceptional talent: innovative, stylistically mature, and socially conscious. Yamanaka broke new ground within the jidai-geki genre while giving voice to a highly personal sensibility.
Humanity and Paper Balloons is loosely based on a Kabuki play by the famous playwright Kawatake Mokuami. It was also Yamanaka's third collaboration with the members of the progressive theatre troupe Zenshin-za, the previous two being the still extant Kochiyama Soshun, 1936 and the earlier The Village Tattooed Man (Machi no irezumimono, 1935), now sadly lost. Mokuami's play The Tale of the Old Wet Coat (Tsuyu kosode mukashi hachijo), colloquially known as Shinza the Barber (Kamiyui Shinza), was first performed in 1873 and is a four part long kizewamono play (literally "raw life play," i.e., a play depicting the lower strata of the Edo society, its hero usually a thief, a gambler, or a prostitute). The play was seen to have been groundbreaking in terms of content and structure. Keiko I. McDonald writes that
Although a four-act play, Hairdresser Shinzo [sic!] is structured around the familiar problem-crisis-resolution axis that forms the structural base of a three-act sewamono or kizewamono play. The giri/ninjo conflict, however, a focal point in any Chikamatsu play, does not serve as the propelling force for the thematic progression here. Rather, the characters are more or less ninjo-oriented, and thus the well-patterned causal chains advance the drama, which unfolds as ninjo-driven characters' actions create obstacles that will be removed one by one. (53)
The play is rich in unexpected plot twists and also contains numerous dramatic developments such as several suicides, murder attempts, and a rape scene. McDonald, however, contends that what really distinguishes the play is Mokuami's "faithful portrayal of the manners and atmosphere of 'downtown' Edo. Many critics agree that no other Mokuami play creates such a plausibly vivid impression of everyday life in that time and place" (54).
Yamanaka's film version shares the play's sensitivity for the lives and daily experiences of the ordinary person while at the same time showing a pessimism and disillusionment that the play lacks. In Yamanaka's hands, the story takes place in one of Edo's slum quarters, and the film's rich and colorful gallery of characters consists largely of the people living in it. Several of the key characters from Mokuami's play are present in the film, for instance Shinza, one of the two main characters, and the greedy landlord Chobei, but the characters and their roles have been further developed.
The story focuses first and foremost on the characters of Shinza, played by Nakamura Kanemon, and the masterless samurai Unno Matajuro, played by Kawarazaki Chojaro, and how each in his own way fights against his hopeless situation and poverty. Their destinies are initially not connected but are depicted in two separate narrative threads until the film's second half when they become intertwined.
The character of Shinza is portrayed in the film as something of a hero: quick-witted, enterprising, and generous, he is liked by everyone in the alley. During the night time, he runs a small-scale gambling den, which incurs the local yakuza boss's wrath and results in the conflict that towards the end of the film will claim his life. The masterless samurai Unno Matajuro and his wife share the apartment next to Shinza's. Unno is portrayed throughout the film as weak, both physically and mentally, and unable to change the situation he is in. He spends his days trying to hand over a letter of introduction to the wealthy samurai Mori, who owes a debt of gratitude to his deceased father. His hopes of gaining employment as a retainer are, however, shattered, as Mori ignores both him and the debt of gratitude.
The destinies of Shinza and Unno are woven together when Shinza, in an attempt to get back at the local yakuza boss at whose hands he previously was humiliated, kidnaps the daughter of a local pawnshop that makes use of the yakuza's services; Unno involves himself by helping Shinza hide the daughter. The scheme is successful in the sense that Shinza causes the yakuza boss to lose face; however, in the end it costs him his life. The consequences become equally dire for Unno, whose wife finds out about her husband's involvement.
Unable to bear the shame of her husband's actions and aware of their impossible situation, she decides to end their lives.
Yamanaka expresses through these characters a social critique that, considering the times, must be seen as trenchant, even revolutionary. Freda Freiberg writes that
Humanity and Paper Balloons does not seek to reify Japanese artistic or spiritual traditions. On the contrary, it provides a disillusioned and somewhat bitter critique of traditional values by exposing the selfishness and greed of the privileged classes, and focusing on the trials and tribulations of the marginal and the underprivileged. (59)
With Humanity and Paper Balloons Yamanaka shows the deceitful nature of those in authority or with power, especially those personifying the militaristic ideals that the samurai class was seen to represent. He exposes these privileged classes as selfish, cold, and without compassion, readily setting aside giri as well as ninjo when it suits them. At the same time Yamanaka contrasts their hypocrisy with the solidarity, warmth, and compassion that are to be found amongst the poor and marginalized of society. These elements combine to form a beautiful, albeit tragic, portrayal of Japanese society and at the same time function as a parable for Japan around 1937, a time when nationalism and military values were officially endorsed by the Japanese state, and civil liberties were becoming ever weaker. It is in this context that Yamanaka's social critique must be understood. When Yamanaka made Humanity and Paper Balloons, dealing critically with the feudal values that were being promoted by the Japanese state could be a matter of life and death.
The same does not hold true for Kore-eda. Hana was created in a social context far removed from that in which Yamanaka was working, and the fact that the current political situation is more congenial to liberal artists and political filmmakers today than was that of the pre-war era is doubtless one of the reasons that Humanity and Paper Balloons constitutes a much bleaker film than Hana, which deals with similar material but has a more positive tone.
The Use of Milieu
The setting of the run-down, slum-like tenements, in which the majority of the two films take place, is an intrinsic part in establishing their identity. It constitutes a large part of their world and sets the stage for the stories that will unfold there, but it also plays an intricate part in shaping the viewer's relation to the characters living there, in contrast to the characters who live elsewhere.
Both films are set in the poor districts of the city--in Yamanaka's case a run-down tenement alley, in Kore-eda's, another tenement alley, but one that is situated in what rather resembles a very large dirt pit and is on a lower level than the surrounding houses.
In Humanity and Paper Balloons Yamanaka uses setting and space in a highly self-conscious way. Many academics and critics have paid special attention to the film's remarkable opening sequence. In it, the side road and tenement alley where so much of the story is set is established, along with most of the main characters who live there. In almost every shot, Yamanaka stages the action so that things are happening simultaneously at several different distances from the camera. The effect of this staging is a sense of movement and dynamism in the frame, as well as a sense of depth. A critical review of the sequence leaves an eclectic impression: dynamic movement and deep focus composition prevail, while at the same time the cutting stresses a more shallow, even flat, tableau-like quality. The camera moves up and down the alley, exploring the characters and their actions as they go about their morning business.
The opening sequence also lays the foundation for the film's realism. One of the reasons that Humanity and Paper Balloons manages to create such a tangible realism is Yamanaka's meticulous attention to detail when it comes to creating believable environments. Donald Richie rightly argues that this opening sequence manages to create "a complete and literal duplication of the alley" and that "[o]nce we have been along it we 'know' it. We believe in its space and consequently in it" ("Humanity and Paper Balloons" 55).
Richie also convincingly argues that Yamanaka in Humanity and Paper Balloons "presents a contrast of two areas of space. [...] The one is the world inside the gates and the other is the world outside." This binary structure, he asserts, runs throughout the film. Elaborating on this idea, he points out that
Uchi (inside) and soto (outside) are considered much more defining, and limiting, than they are in the West. There is also a Japanese assumption that the former is safe and the latter is not. The assumption therefore fittingly delineates a story where the outside is a repressive governmental area distinguished by its lack of ninjo, the quality of human feeling so touchingly depicted inside the tenement, the closed quarter. (A Hundred Years of Japanese Film 75-76)
The opening sequence thus becomes for Richie the first part of the setting up of this bipolar structure, and he argues that with this sequence Yamanaka manages to create "a precise rendering of the street [...], a believable accounting of its space, a logical introduction of the characters, and the setting up of half of the spatial metaphor" (A Hundred Years' of Japanese Film 76).
Although it is true, as Richie argues, that the outside is portrayed as lacking in ninjo I somewhat differ from Richie's assessment of the tenement. It is true that there are touching displays of human affection and camaraderie present, but it is also true that there is a somewhat dark and sinister undertone to much of what happens in the alley. The inhabitants are frequently shown to be willing to steal or take advantage of each other if they think they can get away with it. For instance, one of the inhabitants repeatedly tries to take advantage of the alley's blind resident, stealing his pipe or snatching food from his plate when he thinks that he does not notice. Although this is depicted in a humorous way and the blind man usually gets the upper hand in the end, it still carries a harsh undercurrent, stressing the duplicity present in this community.
Thus, it is perhaps not so much a case that the tenement alley is a shining example of ninjo as that it looks good partly because it is being compared with the harsh, cold city outside. Consequently, there is a kind of binary structure: the inside being equated, at least to an extent, with safety and the outside with danger. This structure continues to be built up throughout the film.
The dialogue of the sequence is also worth paying special attention to, as it sets the tone for the film as well as constituting a lucid example of Yamanaka's sardonic outlook and his subversive political position. The dialogue revolves around the samurai who the previous night committed suicide by hanging himself. Someone complains that if he had to kill himself he could at least have done so while it was still raining; someone else questions why he did not kill himself in a more samurai-like manner by cutting his belly open. In response, we learn that he had already sold his sword. The ones he was carrying around were only bamboo substitutes.
The dialogue works in several ways: it sets the tone of life for the tenement alley and its inhabitants, giving the impression that suicide, death, and poverty are nothing new but more like an annoying fact of life that keeps getting in the way of one's everyday doings. Death is something to crack jokes about, as long as it happens to someone else, preferably someone higher up on the social ladder.
At the same time the dialogue constitutes a critique of the samurai class and the kind of warrior ideal that it often became associated with, especially during the 1930s. Yamanaka shows in the sequence that the idealized samurai is a person just like everyone else, and that the ideals and values that the samurai was seen to represent were nothing more than empty words. The samurai who committed suicide has after all sold his sword, the symbol of his warrior soul, and when he killed himself, he did so by hanging. Considering that Yamanaka created Humanity and Paper Balloons during the late 1930s, his critique stands out as all the more subversive.
Kore-eda, like Yamanaka, has the opening sequence of his film take place in the tenement alley in the early morning as the residents start to wake up. The camera shows a close up of a crooked and somewhat broken wooden door with a "To Let" sign posted on it. The door slides open and the unkempt and slightly vacant face of Magosaburo comes into view. As he proceeds to run up and down the alley, shouting that morning has arrived, the inhabitants one by one start to leave their homes and get ready for the day's work. The mood is brisk and upbeat, a tone both mirrored and enhanced by the music.
In contrast to the somewhat bitter depiction of the alleyway in Yamanaka's film, Kore-eda portrays the alley in Hana in a positive way, bustling with life and activity, populated with good-natured people. Although his formal treatment is perhaps not as refined as its predecessor in Humanity and Paper Balloons, Hana's tenement alley comes to play a similar role. The largest difference between the two films is that the binary structure in which the alley is contrasted against the outside is not present in Hana to the same extent. The fact that the world in Hana outside the tenement alley is not depicted as being as dark and dangerous as the one in Humanity and Paper Balloons can perhaps be attested to the fact that modern Japan is a very different place from the Japan that Yamanaka was living in. Modern Japan is a relatively safe, stable, and prosperous nation, and its general lack of poverty is what makes it possible for Kore-eda to romanticize the tenement alley.
Like the inhabitants in Humanity and Paper Balloons, those in Hana's alley are certainly poor, but they share a resilient attitude towards life, and a communal atmosphere mostly permeates the scenes that take place there. In fact, while life in the alley might be hard for its inhabitants, who are struggling with poverty and unemployment, they all somehow manage to get along. Kore-eda shows them putting on a revenge-themed street performance, working and singing together when it is time for the annual New Year cleaning of the well, and always gossiping good naturedly about each other or other news when there is a chance.
Admittedly, Kore-eda's portrayal of their poverty is somewhat romantic. Whereas in Humanity and Paper Balloons poverty often leads characters to rash actions that become one of the main reasons for their downfall, the characters in Hana seem to accept their poverty with a happier attitude. Perhaps what makes Kore-eda's romanticizing of this matter possible is the fact that absolute poverty, and the desperation that comes with it, is not widespread in modern Japan.
In relationship to Soza, Kore-eda builds up the alley in such a way that it eventually comes to represent a form of escapism, a freedom from his obligations as a samurai. There he has the opportunity to live his life in a freer fashion. Several times he is confronted with the opportunity to change his status, to leave the alley, but in each case, unable to let go, he delays so that he can stay there a little longer.
After the landlord has declared that the tenement houses will be torn down during the next year and that its present inhabitants will have to find a new place to stay, he tells Soza that he is welcome to come and stay in the new houses. Soza, however, not wanting the present situation to change, asks the landlord if it wouldn't be possible to keep things as they are, to let everyone live together just a little bit longer. The landlord admonishes Soza, telling him that he is living in a dream, and that he shouldn't make impossible requests when he has never worked a day in his life.
It becomes clear that things will change, regardless of whether Soza wants them to or not. In fact, his desire for things to stay the same is directly related to his reluctance to carry out his filial duty by avenging his father. In that sense liana displays a clear giri-ninjo conflict. He is bound by obligation, giri, to avenge his father, but his personal feelings, ninjo, lead him elsewhere. It is the way in which Kore-eda resolves the conflict in favor of ninjo that accounts primarily for the subversive charge of the film.
The Subversion of Feudal Values
In both Hana and Humanity and Paper Balloons there is a skillfully crafted subversion of feudal values at work. Both directors deftly deploy plot twists, character development, dialogue, and mise-en-scene in such a way as to undermine the contemporary society's prevalent norms and dominant power structures.
In Humanity and Paper Balloons, this process of subversion amounts to a strong critique of the growing militarization of Japan and the fascist tendencies of the then current political climate. Yamanaka delivers much of this social critique by means of the main plot, which revolves around the two characters Shinza and Unno, both residents in the tenement alley.
Unno constitutes a subversive image of a samurai: he seems unable to take any real action and is physically inadequate when it comes to fighting. Like Soza, he is a far cry from the kind of heroic samurai warriors commonly depicted in jidai-geki. Also subversive as a portrayal of a samurai is the character of Mori, the samurai Unno repeatedly tries to petition. He is depicted as cold and indifferent, showing neither giri nor ninjo in his dealings with Unno, when he casts a blind eye on the obligation he has towards him. For it was Unno's father who helped him attain his present position, an act that obligates him to help Unno, who is in a harsh, desperate state.
Mori's lack of sympathetic character traits stands in stark contrast to that of Shinza, who is shown to have more honor and decency than those above him in the social hierarchy. Shinza is represented as smart, rhetorically endowed, and enterprising; he is the hero of the tenement alley. However, outside the tenement alley, Shinza finds himself at cross purposes with the local yakuza and ends up in a threatening situation that neither quick thinking nor rhetorical acrobatics can disarm. The only option left to him is to swallow his pride and humiliate himself in front of the yakuza gang. However, his strong sense of pride makes him hatch a kidnapping scheme to get back at the yakuza boss, which he does at the price of his own life.
Yamanaka paints a pessimistic picture: Unno fails miserably at changing his situation and ends up helping Shinza in his kidnapping scheme, which eventually causes his shamed wife to take both of their lives. Shinza's attempts to improve his lot in life misfires, and his wounded pride eventually results in his death. Yamanaka seems to be saying that there is no real hope for improvement in their marginalized situation and that pride will lead to a fall. The only real option open for the marginalized is to try to enjoy the small sources of joy to be found in their everyday lives, for as long as they may last.
In Hana, most of the social critique is delivered through the revenge theme, which amounts to a study of the dangers of pride and an indictment of the glorification of violence and the kind of Confucian value system that obliges Soza to seek revenge for his father, even though it is against his own nature and better judgment. Despite the relative liberalization of modern Japanese society, this critique retains its relevance as the feudal value system, to a certain extent, persists in the hierarchical structure of modern Japanese society.
The subversive qualities of Hana are intensified by the way in which Kore-eda skillfully fixes the unorthodox story of Soza's vendetta against the background of the all-time classic of Japanese revenge stories, Chushingura, the fictionalized account of the historical revenge exacted by the forty-seven ronin. The conventional samurai vendetta story most often involves a highly skilled swordsman who either carefully plots his revenge on those who have wronged him before dispatching his foes one by one, as for instance in Kobayashi's Harakiri, or who by brute force vanquishes his opponents, as in the many incarnations of the Lone Wolf and Cub series. In both cases the end result is usually the same: the hero, greatly outnumbered, dies, but only after first having cut down most of his opponents. Hana adopts a similar premise: in order to fulfill his father's dying wish to be avenged, Soza is sent by his clan to Edo in search of his father's killer. However, the treatment of this revenge story is very different.
In the first place, Soza has been ordered to carry out the vendetta, even though he has no skill when it comes to fighting. In an early scene Soza's naive, idealistic thought regarding how he will carry out his vendetta is highlighted when he is tauntingly asked by Sodekichi, a street smart rascal living in the alley, if he has actually ever killed someone or even used his sword to cut another man. Soza freezes up, unwilling to admit his embarrassing lack of experience.
When Sodekichi further asks how Soza then can think that he will be successful in avenging his father, all Soza can do is repeat what his father taught him, saying that "I will strike him with all my might, and if that is not sufficient, I'11 take my life gracefully just like the cherry blossoms. That is the warrior's death. This my father taught me."
Soza's citation of cherry blossoms, of course, appeals to traditional Japanese iconography, in which cherry blossoms are seen as an enduring metaphor for the fleeting nature of life. The transience of the blossoms, their sudden flowering, their beauty, and their equally sudden and beautiful death, have caused them to be associated with mortality and acts of sacrifice. So well known is the Japanese use of cherry blossoms as a metaphor for death that even western filmmakers have drawn on the convention, as in Edward Zwick's The Last Samurai (2003), where the character Katsumoto both recites a poem with allusions to cherry blossoms and sees cherry blossoms blowing in the wind when he dies.
In the case of liana, it soon becomes clear that Soza's quest to avenge his father is in all likelihood a suicide mission, something that Soza himself seems very much aware of. But in a later scene Kore-eda deconstructs the classical interpretation of falling cherry blossoms as a metaphor for mortality and sacrifice. The scene just before the alley residents put on their street performance finds them all sitting beneath a big cherry tree, admiring the falling petals. After the ronin Hirano Jirozaemon exclaims that when the time comes for a samurai to die, one hopes that it will be as graceful as the cherry blossoms, Magosaburo comments that falling blossoms probably only fall gracefully because they know that they will bloom again the following spring; otherwise they would surely not give up so easily. Thus, the metaphor is called into question, and the gravity of death is reinforced.
If Soza's naive idealism regarding how he aims to carry out his vengeance becomes obvious in this scene described, then his lack of martial skills is forcefully driven home when, somewhat later in the film, he gets into a fight with Sodekichi in front of the alley's residents. His feeble attempts at striking Sodekichi are to no avail, and after getting knocked around, Soza suffers the humiliation of being thrown head first into the alley's outhouse. The rest of the alley looks on, partly in amusement, partly in shock, at Soza's lack of skill. Interestingly, this fight comes about because Osae's son wants to learn how to fight so that he can defend himself against bullies. Sodekichi, by defeating Soza, has made his point: fighting fair, in a manner befitting a samurai, gets you nowhere. If you want to win, then you must fight by whatever means possible.
After Soza's fight with Sodekichi, his wounded pride brings forth one of the film's points of crisis and resolution. Soza now feels that the only road open to him in order to restore his honor is to execute his revenge. Perhaps as a consequence of his humiliating defeat by Sodekichi, the approach he takes to executing his revenge smacks of a distinctively un-samurai-like behavior. Having found his father's killer, he lies in wait for him, hiding in the shadows, with a fistful of sand ready to throw in his eyes. This, of course, is not the way a true, chivalrous samurai ought to handle his revenge; rather, Soza's methods are more appropriate for a street fight. However, Soza bungles his plan after a young boy who was in the alley suddenly shouts, "Dad, you're home!" sending Soza tripping over himself to get away and hide behind the comer of a nearby house. It turns out that his father's killer is now a family man, living together with a woman and her young boy. Moreover, the woman is pregnant with another child.
His revenge thwarted, Soza returns home. Once he is back, he slumps down against a wall. Utterly defeated, he contemplates suicide and starts to draw his sword when he hears a moaning coming from the room next door. When he investigates, he finds that Hirano, the ronin next door, has tried to commit seppuku. His initial shock is somewhat dimmed by the arrival of Sadashiro, another resident of the alley and likewise Soza's friend, who laconically comments that this is the third time Hirano has tried to commit seppuku, that he does this every year come spring. However, since he only has a bamboo sword, he never manages to go through with it. For Soza, the sight of the bloodied Hirano, who now wails about how much pain he is in, drives away any thought he might previously have had of suicide.
Both Kore-eda and Yamanaka make use of the suicide trope in their respective films; however, their methods vary. In both films the agent who tries to end his life is a ronin who has sold his swords and replaced his blade with bamboo. In Humanity and Paper Balloons the ronin hangs himself during a rainy night and in the morning is the topic of much derision and amusement, having already shamed himself by the selling of his swords. In the case of liana, Hirano decides to try to commit seppuku, which, of course, is impossible with a bamboo blade.
The end result is that he continues to live, but his behavior further calls into question the kind of prideful behavior that is usually associated with the samurai caste. Furthermore, the fact that the samurai dies in Humanity and Paper Balloons while his counterpart lives in Hana suggests the two films' difference in tone.
The day after Hirano's failed suicide attempt, Soza sits in a tea house with Sadashiro and confesses that he has found the man he was looking for. Sadashiro asks if he has told anyone else this bit of information and then advises him to keep it to himself for the present since Soza would surely die if he tried to go through with his vendetta.
Soza, of course, knowing this to be true, remains silent. Soza's vendetta becomes the source for his giri-ninjo dichotomy; he is bound by filial duty, girl, to revenge his father's death, but his heart, ninjo, tells him otherwise. He does not want to end the life he is currently living, either by his own death or by succeeding in his mission and being summoned home by his clan. Furthermore, it becomes clear that Soza's resolution to avenge his father weakens even further after he realizes that the man who killed his father now has a family and is about to become a father himself. Soza feels compassion, ninjo for the man, which once again goes against his duty, giri.
At the heart of Soza's problem lies his relationship with his father. Soza states in a conversation with Osae, the woman he loves, that the only thing his father left him was his duty to avenge him. One gets the impression that because this "inheritance" is the only thing his father left him, Soza is all the more unwilling to let go of it, since he would then lose his bond to his father. Osae, however, questions Soza's assertion that the duty to avenge was all he inherited from his father. The realization that he actually inherited something else from his father--his father taught him how to play the game of Go--enables Soza finally and completely to give up on the idea of fulfilling his vengeance.
When Soza finally confronts the man who killed his father, instead of bringing up the past, Soza simply asks him to send his son to the writing school that he has started in the alley. Thus Soza stops the spiral of violence and vengeance, choosing ninjo over giri. Education becomes the symbol of this change. It is worth noting that Soza's father was a fencing instructor, with his own fencing school. Soza, upon starting his school in the alley, teaches writing and the abacus, indicating another difference from his father and the values that his father has come to represent. Kore-eda reinforces this message of education as a means for change in the very last shots of the film when the son of his father's killer appears in the alley, writing brush and paper in hand, and asks Soza if he knows whether there is supposed to be a writing school nearby. We then cut to Soza's face, which breaks into a warm smile. The film's faith in the power of education expresses its liberal humanist outlook and Kore-eda's as well.
Soza's decision not to seek revenge can be contrasted with that of another protagonist in a recent period film: Iguchi Seibei, the hero of Yamada's The Twilight Samurai. Seibei finds himself forced into a situation where he must take action on his clan's behalf and does so. There is in a certain sense of fatalism involved in Yamada's film; Seibei does not want to fight, but when forced, he does so. When later civil unrest breaks out towards the end of the nineteenth century, he finds himself again having to fight on behalf of his clan, and this time it costs him his life. In Kore-eda's Hana, Soza chooses not to fight, and by breaking with what is considered to be his duty, he lives. Both films are subversive, but in opposite ways: The Twilight Samurai shows the tragic consequences of conformity, while Hana shows the positive consequences of the rejection of feudal codes.
If Soza's vendetta is associated with death, then on the opposite side of the spectrum stands his life in the tenement alley and his budding affection for Osae. Soza's interest in the beautiful Osae is obvious from the earliest scenes when he lies in his room, peeping out through the slightly ajar door to try to see her as she leaves for the day. Their relationship is gently depicted, developing naturally into something more than friendship. No less well depicted throughout the film is his relationship with Osae's eight-year-old boy. Early on, they are shown walking together to the local temple to offer their prayers. Soza quickly bonds with the boy, who looks up to him almost as a surrogate father. In a touching scene after a cat has killed Soza's bird, the two of them walk along the river bank searching for rocks for its grave. Later, the boy asks Soza what happens after death, and finally they pray together that the boy's father is somewhere warm and nice. In the scene where Soza realizes that his father left him with the memory of being taught Go by him as a young boy, his first reaction is great relief and joy, after which he says that he must pass the knowledge on to Osae's son next time they meet. In Soza's heart the son has now become his own.
When Soza briefly returns home for the ceremony that is held three years after his father's death, it becomes clear that he has changed, probably in large part due to his relationship with Osae and her son. Whereas his mother and younger brother wake up early in the morning to go out into the garden, enacting their revenge against a straw dummy who stands in for his father's murderer, Soza sleepily looks on. Later he is chastised by his brother for showing signs of compassion when he hears that the mother of his father's killer died shortly after her son fled.
The family's show of "correct behavior" is at the same time shown by Kore-eda to be only superficial. When Soza is criticized by the current head of the clan for not yet having succeeded in his revenge, he is also informed that the monthly stipend that the clan has sent him is not inconsiderable. Soza in fact has not seen any such money and casts an eye on his mother, who averts her eyes. In fact, throughout the film, Kore-eda shows the deceitfulness of those who claim to be righteous, suggesting that if you scratch the surface, they turn out to be just as egoistical as anyone else. During this same visit home, Soza is given advice by his uncle, who points out that there are other ways to show one's devotion to one's parents than by enacting revenge. The uncle not so subtly implies that if Soza does not seize the chance he has with Osae, then surely the gods will punish him.
The other inhabitants in the alley are, of course, not oblivious to the blossoming relationship between Soza and Osae. Sadashiro, for example, comments to Soza that there may be another reason why he does not want to carry out his vendetta and go home to the clan, namely that he has fallen for the beautiful widow. Soza does not deny it.
The ultimate solution to Soza's dilemma comes towards the end of the film. Soza decides to stage the successful vendetta as a play. Together with his friends in the alley, they put on a show for the local magistrate, complete with pigs' blood and entrails--the dead body of Soza's enemy played by a sleeping Magosaburo, the wife and child of his defeated foe played by Osae and her son. In the middle of the night Soza and the other residents from the alley storm into the magistrate's office, Soza brandishing his bloody sword, claiming victory, and the others all acting their parts. The magistrate believes their story, and Soza has now executed his duty and "saved" his own and his family's honor. It is as if Kore-eda is trying to show that the resolution to the problem is as false as the pride and obligation that was the reason for it.
Kore-eda adds another dimension to his vengeance-driven story by placing Soza's uncertainty and struggles with regards to his vendetta against the backdrop of Chushingura, the fictional account of the historical revenge in 1703 by the forty-seven ronin of the death of their master, Lord Asano. The ronin avenged their master's honor after planning their revenge carefully and waiting patiently for over a year to kill Kira Yoshinaka. After having stormed Kira's mansion and exacted their revenge, they surrendered themselves to the officials, who sentenced them to death by ordering them to commit seppuku.
The story was quickly popularized in Japanese culture as emblematic of samurai loyalty, sacrifice, persistence, and honor, something that all people should strive for in their lives. This much-embellished story now ranks among the most familiar of all stories in Japan and through the years has garnered countless reincarnations in kabuki, bunraku, stage plays, films, TV, novels, and comics.
Kore-eda has four of the forty-seven ronin take up residence in the alley and shows others coming and going. He depicts most of these ronin as jittery, impatient, and unsure of themselves, often bickering about whether they did the right thing to wait, why they didn't attack at once, and how much longer they must remain in hiding. Meanwhile, they are ridiculed by the common man on the street for their cowardice in not having avenged their master.
In several scenes they also are portrayed as petty minded and easily offended, as, for instance, when they happen to see the residents rehearsing their vengeance-themed street performance. Muttering that the residents are making a mockery of the warrior's sacred code, they decide that they cannot let them get away with it. And so when the street performance is finally put on, the three offended ronin, in disguise, step into the show, declare themselves to be samurai who just happened to pass by, and hearing about the revenge taking place, volunteer their services. The street performance ends in chaos as Soza runs away with the three samurai hot on his heels.
Kore-eda's portrayal of the members of the forty-seven ronin is subversive, to say the least. He portrays them as bickering, having prickly egos, and in general being a far cry from the kind of stoical warriors that they are usually made out to be. Furthermore,
his juxtaposition of Soza's indecisiveness with regard to his vendetta against that of the grand narrative of Chushingura adds another dimension to both the main story arc of Soza's revenge and to the Chushingura subplot, affecting how the viewer sees the actions of the loyal samurai. Soza's initial indecisiveness, and later his willingness to abandon the vengeance that honor dictates he must perform result in his embracing life and choosing a future together with Osae and her son. As such, he stands in stark contrast to the forty-seven samurai, who finally devote themselves to avenging their lord and end up committing seppuku. In comparison with Soza's choice, their actions, dying for an abstract ideal, seem wasteful.
However, one of the forty-seven ronin who has taken up residency in the tenement alley is given a different treatment. Terasaka Kichiemon, the former farmer- turned-foot soldier, now disguised as a medicine seller, is consistently portrayed in a sympathetic manner and becomes a friend of Soza. In real life Kichiemon did not turn himself in to the authorities but was ordered to travel back to Ako, their fief, to report that their revenge had been successful.
Kore-eda skillfully uses this historical fact to his advantage, in the end letting Soza's influence on Kichiemon result in his choosing not to go through with the revenge but instead returning to his house.
Three days later, Kichiemon describes to the other residents in the tenement alley, now famous as one of the sites where members of the loyal forty-seven ronin had been in hiding, why he did not go through with the revenge plot. He tells them that when he was putting on his armor, getting ready to take revenge, he suddenly remembered Soza saying how his father had taught him how to play Go. This memory made him realize that he still had not taught his son back home how to make straw sandals, which impelled him to go back. Only later, at the suggestion of one of the residents of the alley, does he change his story, claiming that he was sent away by the others to spread the news of their success.
Kichiemon's decision not to go through with the vendetta and his reasons for that choice are important, and must be seen in the light of a previous scene in which Kichiemon and Soza have an intimate talk over a game of Go. During the conversation, Kichiemon, confesses that he is actually a samurai, although a low ranking one, having previously been a peasant. He tells Soza that because of his humble background all he can think of is to die a samurai's death,
proving himself to be a "real" samurai. Unable to leave his son land or money, at least he would be making sure that his son would be able to live as a true samurai's son. However, because of Soza's intervention, Kichiemon actually changes his mind, deciding that it is more important to live and be a part of his son's life than to ensure his son's credentials as a bona fide samurai.
Hope and Despair The endings of Hana and Humanity and Paper Balloons are very different in tone, something that affects their overall impact.
Whereas the ending of Humanity and Paper Balloons concludes on a dark note, with both of the main characters dying, liana in contrast ends with the spiral of violence broken and the main character facing what will hopefully be a bright future.
The darkness of the final sequence of Humanity and Paper Balloons was not originally present in Mimura Shintaro's original script, but something that Yamanaka introduced. In the original script, the film's darker tones were mitigated by a more easygoing ending, in which the inhabitants of the tenement alley throw a party with the money that they had managed to acquire through Shinza's kidnapping scheme. Furthermore, as McDonald has pointed out, this ending stresses the theme of reformation as the major characters recover their desire to live, and Unno encourages Shinza to throw off his fear of arrest (57). The kidnapped girl Okuma offers to run off with Shinza, the abductor from whom she has just been rescued, but Shinza persuades her to return home. Mimura's script ends with a shot of her leaving the tenement alley in the rain. This is without doubt a more positive ending than the one Yamanaka shot, in which Shinza goes off to face certain death and Unno's wife takes the life of her husband and then her own.
Takizawa Hajime argues that Yamanaka believed that there were too many films at the time that showed tatemae, i.e., the facade that one displays in public, when it came to the depiction of contemporary Japan. Mimura's script pointed in that direction; however, Yamanaka strived for honne, i.e., truth, and wanted to make an honest film about Japanese society, human suffering, and, indirectly, the war (1054). In this regard, Richie, in his reading of the ending, comments that the reason that Yamanaka "so humanized his scripts at the very time when there was a governmental call for heroics is that he valued ninjo rather than giri, personal rather than institutionalized feelings" (A Hundred Years' of Japanese Film 74).
It is easy, like so many other critics, to see something highly personal in the ending that Yamanaka gave his film, as if he knew where Japan was heading. And there might be a case for this view, for during the production of the film Japan invaded China, and even before the film had started its run at the cinemas, Yamanaka had been drafted and sent to the war from which he was not to return.
In conclusion, it can be said that both films share many common elements: both are set within run-down tenement alleys, both feature a somewhat downtrodden samurai in a leading role. However, whereas Yamanaka's Humanity and Paper Balloons strives for realism within its historical setting, Kore-eda's Hana feels, perhaps because of its rakugo style comedic touches and generally lighter approach, to be more fantasy-like in nature. Even so, both films formulate critiques of dominant power structures by critically portraying those in positions of power or those who make themselves out to be better than others.
Yamanaka's strength lay in his ability to create plausible characters and milieu, a talent that was strengthened by his ability to combine several intrigues into one whole and to use space and composition to render his characters in a dynamic way. Yamanaka focused on human characters and their relationships, how their emotional and psychological problems affected and reflected their personality, ethics, and morality. In his portrayal of these relationships and interactions a clear social conscience becomes apparent, often formed as a critique of the society that Yamanaka was living in.
Considering that he created his most critical films during the late 1930s, a time when Japan's militarization was making huge leaps forward and often at the cost of civil liberties, his critique seems all the stronger.
Whereas the bleak ending of Humanity and Paper Balloons leaves little or no hope for change, in Hana Kore-eda seems to say that the solution to pride and the hate and strife that it creates lies in love, education, and the bonds to be found in family. Through his subversive treatment of the jidai-geki-vengeance trope, he creates a multi-layered musing over the classic giri-ninjo conflict while levelling a sharp critique at samurai pride and honor. Although romanticized at times, Kore-eda's warm portrayal of the poor and downtrodden leaves a lasting impression of solidarity and suggests that hope and change are possible.
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|Title Annotation:||movie director Kore-eda Hirokazu|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Apr 13, 2011|
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