'Flower and Sword' ('Hana Ikusa'): Film Review | Shanghai 2017

FLOWER AND SWORD -Still 1- Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of Shanghai Film Festival
The ultimate ikebana film, this smart, humorous charmer with a mystical touch will win over Asian film fans as well as gardeners.

Director Tetsuo Shinohara ('Stakeout,' 'Terminal') champions art and nature over despotism in a 16th century Japanese tale of monks and shoguns.

Judging from the poster and trailer that came out in Japan last month, Tetsuo Shinohara's Flower and Sword (Hana Ikusa) should be some kind of bright-colored slapstick comedy. Nothing could be more misrepresentative of this gentle historical-philosophical rumination on the effectiveness of non-violence against tyranny. Shinohara, who has rarely strayed far from genre over the course of his directing career, leaps out of his comfort zone with an offbeat crossover that stages a "flower battle" (the film's original title) between blade-happy shoguns and Buddhist monks who fight injustice with their profound understanding of nature and art. Guess who wins.

If rebranded as a festival curiosity item (and kudos to the Shanghai Film Festival for being the first to notice), the pic could find art house patrons able to appreciate its deeper points and its unusual cast of Kabuki artists.  

It is true that this is a cross-genre hybrid, however, surprising the viewer with its childish good humor amid some pretty horrible historical facts. Far from edgy narrative, it takes its own quiet road through the plains rather than the shortcut over the mountains. Viewers willing to adjust their expectations will find much to like here.

Tadashi Onitsuka’s story Flower War, about the clash between faith and ambition in an age of "poverty and simplicity, power and domination," is the basis of Yoshiko Morishita's screenplay set in 16th century Kyoto, where the Ikenobo school of flower arrangement got its start a millennium earlier. The talented but forgetful young Buddhist monk Senko (Mansai Nomura) is hunting flowers in the meadows when we meet him, and his liquid eyes and clown-like face recall the actor's origins in traditional Japanese comic theater.

The head monk dispatches him to Gifu Castle, the abode of the powerful Lord Oda Nobunaga (Kiichi Nakai), who has asked the temple for a flower arrangement. Senko naively jumps at the chance, before being warned that Oda has already beheaded several ceremonial tea masters who weren't up to snuff. His final presentation is an impressive if precarious pine tree arrangement dubbed "The Rising Dragon" that serves as an intro to the court and its obnoxious samurai. The noble tea master Sen no Rikyu, another real historical figure, is played with haughty dignity by Koichi Sato, who was last seen in Shinohara's cloying May-December love story Terminal. Fierce as he is, Lord Oda at least shows some culture when he remarks, "A warrior trains his human heart with flowers and the tea ceremony."

The editing has some awkward gaps as it is forced to make great leaps forward in time, leaving historical titles to explain what has been going on. By 1585, Oda is dead and his liege Hideyoshi (played with comical menace by the well-known Kabuki actor Ennosuke Ichikawa IV) is in power and busy unifying Japan. (A footnote for fans of Martin Scorsese’s Silence: This is the shogun who began crucifying Catholics, so comical up to a point; here he orders children to be beheaded.) Senko has been appointed the head monk at his temple, but it saddens him that his duties cut into his quality time arranging flowers.

Characters make their entrances and exits. Ren, a wild girl Senko has rescued on the beach (played by rising star Aoi Morikawa), demonstrates an innate talent for painting flowers. When she asks Senko if it’s okay to paint poisonous flowers, he replies that flowers are without sin. Another running subplot involves the effete tea master Rikyu, who has his hands full pleasing uncultivated Lord Hideyoshi; he comes to Senko to complain that the shogun doesn't understand the beauty of simplicity or how "tea lives in the moment."

The film's two-hour running time cries for some trimming, especially in the uncertain second half, which describes the fiasco of Hideyoshi's project to personally serve tea to his subjects in an overblown grand tea ceremony that unfavorably recalls the Mad Hatter's in Alice in Wonderland. The wobbling story gets back on track with Hideyoshi's lethal challenge to Rikyu that he subjugate his tea knowledge to power, or else. Many heads will roll before the Zen-like Senko picks up his flowers to do battle. The ending brings all the themes together quite beautifully as it triumphantly shows "the power to return a drawn sword to its sheath."

It's an achievement to handle these themes so lightly and with a bittersweet comic touch. Mansai Nomura, whose screen credits include playing Godzilla in last year's Shin Godzilla, as well as the good magician in Onmyoji — The Yin Yang Master, has the simple-hearted spontaneity and facial expressiveness of a Japanese Chaplin. (He has also voiced the Miyazaki animation classics The Wind Rises and Howl's Moving Castle.)

Apart from its narrative pleasures, Flower and Sword is a stirring ode to the art form of ikebana. Hiroshi Teshigahara's classic 1957 doc Ikebana aside, films extolling the exquisite art of Japanese flower arrangement are few and far between. Without forcing, Shinohara captures the symbolic nature of the ancient discipline and the implied meaning lurking in each arrangement. Comparing ikebana to the intricate tea ceremony and the more freewheeling world of painting, it brings to mind the spiritual origins of art.

Production company: Destiny
Cast: Mansai Nomura, Kamejiro Ichikawa, Kiichi Nakai, Kuranosuke Sasaki, Koichi Sato, Katsumi Takahashi, Aoi Morikawa, Masato Wada, Takaya Yamauchi, Keiko Takeshita, Eisaku Yoshida
Director: Tetsuo Shinohara
Screenwriter: Yoshiko Morishita, based on a story by Tadashi Onitsuka
Producer: Shohei Kotaki
Production designer: Tomoko Kurata
Music: Joe Hisaishi

Editor: Hirohide Abe
Sales: Toei Co.
Venue: Shanghai Film Festival

127 minutes