Hana is subtitled “The Tale of a Reluctant Samurai,” though “reluctant” doesn’t even begin to describe Soza, the samurai of the subtitle. “Incompetent” is nearer the mark. But don’t let Soza’s thumb-fumbled way with a katana put you off this charming feature from Hirokazu Koreeda. Hana won’t be to the taste of those who like hard-core action, but it is a mild, cheerful, and funny film set in Edo in the waning days of the samurai class.
Most of the action takes place in a slum—a row of shanty houses—where Soza, a member of a samurai clan, has come to find the man who murdered his father. Not that Soza’s father was probably much better with a sword than his kid; he was killed when an argument over a game of go spun out of control. It also appears that his father left little to Soza except a talent for that game and the charge that he take revenge on his murderer. Other characters remark that Soza is remarkably lucky in this regard: if he can kill the man, he’ll get a reward from the shogun, which is more than a lot of other newly out-of-work retainers can hope to get from the use of their swords. Soza himself seems more ambivalent about his duty, especially after he gets the snot beaten out of him by another slum dweller. When he does find his target, who is now hiding out and working as a laborer, he can do little but spy on the man from around corners while gulping nervously.
So this classic situation—a samurai on a personal mission—becomes little more than a hook on which to hang a character comedy. The slum is populated by vivid personalities: rag-pickers, peddlers, con artists, and retards, all of them deeply behind in the rent they owe their bemused landlord. Soza, for his part, makes a small living—or maybe he is just passing the time—teaching writing and abacus to the slum kids and any adults with the ambition to learn how to pen their names. The community, meanwhile, derives what income it can by selling for fertilizer the stuff that people drop in its outhouse, and some of its members betray a rather unseemly, but very funny, interest in encouraging patrons to make big deposits. They also make money by staging amateur revenge plays during a festival, and the film hits one of its comic highlights when Soza, in the role of a killer who’s been cornered by a widow and her son, is suddenly confronted by three other samurai who don’t realize they have interrupted a fake fight. Later, misunderstandings proliferate when Soza’s uncle visits and happily concludes on bad evidence that “shy little Soza” has been neglecting his filial duty because he’s been too busy fathering children.
But though there is plenty of comedy, you shouldn’t go in expecting a laugh riot. The story is a subversion of the samurai mythos, and a strong current of melancholy runs through it. Its Japan is a society in upheaval, with its warriors and others questioning their social roles. Soza is supposed to be a dealer in death, but he proves more capable as a comforter and nurturer of life, whether it is in his quiet encouragement of a pretty young widow and her child (who pretend to each other that they believe her husband is still alive, only away on business for six years) or in the tender care he takes of two birds. Ultimately, the story is about the courage of its characters as they muddle through life without knowing what they are supposed to be doing.
As Soza, Junichi Okada is quiet, thoughtful and sensitive; without ever mugging, he is very good at getting across with only a look or a gesture his character’s diffidence and preference for procrastination. He is ably supported by a large cast of characters who are themselves sharply etched with small but powerful details.
Hana is a minor film, but it is pervaded by a warm and gentle whimsy that is never cloying or mannered. It may not linger strongly in the memory, but for two hours it will transport you to a pre-modern world that is at once highly exotic and as intimate and familiar as your own street.