After wowing the art house circuit with such festival favorites as "After Life" and "Nobody Knows," writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda makes an abrupt turn with "Hana yori mo naho," released Stateside simply as "Hana" (and given the subtitle "The Tale of a Reluctant Samurai" for the new DVD cover). The film, a period piece set in feudal Japan, is a far cry from the modern dramas we're used to seeing from him, but while its production design looks splendid, "Hana" suffers from a sluggish pace that drags the simple story beyond its welcome.
Soza (Okada Junichi) is a samurai on a mission: he's spent the last three years tracking down the man who killed his father. But Soza is a lousy samurai, terrible with a sword and worse with hand-to-hand combat, although that's just fine with him, since he hates violence and finds the concept of revenge to be a waste of one's life. And so we pick up the story as Soza has more or less given up on his mission, preferring to teach reading and writing to the peasants of the slum where his travels have taken him.
This, of course, riles the clan who demands Soza honor his duty, and it leaves Soza as the laughing stock of the village, especially since the man Soza has been hunting lives rather close by. And it's more than just a matter of pride vs. personal ethics; the revenge killing would bring a hefty cash reward from the clan, and that money could help Soza's new neighbors. But is the violence worth it?
All of this adds up to an intriguing twist on the samurai genre, which promotes vengeance and honor. Here, Koreeda questions these themes, wondering why violence should be celebrated. Or, in the words on one character, is a quest for revenge really the best gift a dying father could leave his son? With its light comedy and crowded supporting cast of colorful locals, "Hana" has fun suggesting another option, that the better gift would be one of peace and happiness.
On top of all this, Koreeda places a romance, between Soza and a young widow (Rie Miyazawa) who understands his need to escape the cycle of violence. This works quite well, with Miyazawa and Junichi sharing a warm chemistry between them, giving a sweet buoyancy to their scenes together.
But there's even more. The screenplay also tosses in references to the "47 Ronin" legend, as the story takes place during that long waiting period where the ronin planned their vengeance - and maybe one of those ronin is hiding out here, in the slums. While it's obvious where Koreeda is aiming such a subplot; the tale of the 47 Ronin is a vital legend in Japan, often celebrated in plays and on film, and Koreeda is anxious to ask his nation to step back and reconsider. (After the ronin strike in the film's third act, the filmmaker is not afraid to add in charges that their attack was cowardly.)
It's a bold move, but ultimately, it only serves to clutter up an already overloaded story. "Hana" is bogged down in multiple characters (all those quirky villagers, running in and out of the plot), while its excessive running time (128 minutes) stretches the filmmaker's ideas to the point of redundancy. Despite a whimsical approach to the material, Koreeda allows too many scenes to drag and too many themes to repeat, and what should be a wonderful charmer of a morality play winds up a soggy, overburdened ramble.
"Hana" makes its Region 1 debut courtesy Funimation.
Video & Audio
While it's nothing overly distracting, there's plenty of softness and a pinch of grain in the anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer, and colors are slightly muted. The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack keeps most of the action up front, with rear speakers brought occasionally into use for a nice impact. A decent English stereo dub is also included, as are optional English subtitles.
"Opening Day Stage Greeting" (3:14) is brief video footage from the film's premiere, with the usual pleasantries that go with such an event. Presented in 1.33:1 full frame, in Japanese with optional English subtitles.
The only other supplemental material regarding the film is the original Japanese trailer (1:28, 1.85:1 anamorphic) and a batch of TV spots (1:46 total, 1.85:1 flat letterbox).
Trailers for other Funimation releases are also included. A separate batch of previews plays as the disc loads.
Although Koreeda stumbles with his ideas, there's enough subversive fun here to interest fans of Japanese cinema. Considering the lack of extras and only so-so transfer, I suggest those of you who are interested in the title to just Rent It.