The masterful performance by legendary actor Tatsuya Nakadai is the most obvious central attraction of Haru’s Journey, the latest film by Masahiro Kobayashi. Nakadai plays Tadao, an ornery, cantankerous character close to the end of his life, who despite his age is as impulsive, foolish, and self-centered as any typical adolescent, a fact that is remarked on by other characters in the film. In the nearly wordless opening sequence, Tadao is furiously leaving his home, followed closely on his heels by his granddaughter Haru (Eri Tokunaga), who tries to keep him from leaving. Taking great offense to Haru’s expression of dissatisfaction with their home life – she has been taking care of Tadao by herself in the years following her mother’s suicide – Tadao sets out to look for his long lost siblings, in the hopes that one of them will take him in. Tadao, as portrayed by Nakadai, is a complex character: a man with many faults, a selfish man who has hurt nearly everyone around him, yet is not entirely unsympathetic. Nakadai brilliantly portrays the multifaceted nature of Tadao – the charm and humor that attracts others to him, as well as the many negative qualities that just as strongly repel them.
Haru’s Journey is essentially a road movie, one that begins in Hokkaido (the usual setting of Kobayashi’s films), and winds its way through the towns of Japan’s northern region, as Tadao and Haru visit his siblings, and are summarily rejected by them for various reasons, mostly dealing with the long family history that is gradually revealed in the course of their trip. Kobayashi recasts Ozu’s Tokyo Story in a sense; his film similarly involves a search for familial shelter on the part of its protagonist. But while Tokyo Story concerned itself with intergenerational conflict, Haru’s Journey is more about conflicts within the same generation; Tadao’s siblings are still very angry with Tadao because of the selfish ways they were treated by him in the past and, in some cases, are bitterly gleeful over his now humbled status as an impoverished supplicant.
Significantly, even though Tadao is the character we initially focus on, the film is not titled Tadao’s Journey. This is because the true evolution of character occurs within Tadao’s granddaughter Haru, who comes to learn more about him during their trip, and also because she is the catalyst for all that happens. A quietly wrenching scene occurs late in the film, when Haru confronts her estranged father (Teruyuki Kagawa) and demands answers to why he left her mother, an act Haru believes precipitated her mother’s suicide.
On the surface, Haru’s Journey seems to be much more conventional than Kobayashi’s previous austere, formally rigorous works such as Bashing and The Rebirth. However, his new film represents an intriguing marriage of potentially sentimental and melodramatic material with an aesthetic style that pulls back from overheated emotion. Kobayashi makes frequent use of long shots showing the forbidding landscapes he places his characters in, creating a distancing effect that is penetratingly observational. His detached stance toward the characters and events serve to make the more emotional and conventionally dramatic scenes stronger than they would be without the countervailing elements he places around them. Kobayashi makes full use of the talents of Tatsuya Nakadai, as well as the iconic presence he brings to this film, along with Nakadai’s associations with such Japanese masters as Akira Kurosawa, Mikio Naruse, Kon Ichikawa, Masaki Kobayashi (no relation to Masahiro), Hideo Gosha, and others. Kobayashi, however, doesn’t allow Nakadai’s legendary status to overwhelm his film, and allows generous space for visual schemes and fruitful interactions with the other characters. Nakadai, with the aid of Kobayashi’s sharp, tough screenplay, never plays to audience sympathies, retaining his character’s hard edges and uncompromising stubbornness. Eri Tokunaga is a subtly powerful presence as Nakadai’s foil, and while she may initially seem to be overshadowed by her veteran co-star, her steadfast and steady presence, as well as the emotional journey her character takes, makes an ever greater impression as the film progresses.
Deeply humanistic yet unsentimental, harshly rendered yet beautiful, Haru’s Journey both draws inspiration from and subtly critiques the sentiments of classic Japanese cinema, and proves, once again, that Masahiro Kobayashi is more than worthy to stand alongside the master filmmakers who created those earlier works. Haru’s Journey, which deals with loss and survival among its themes, gains rather tragic resonance by events outside the film; it was shot in some areas that were devastated by the March 11th earthquake and tsunami. Appropriately, 50% of the ticket sales from its screening at Japan Society will be donated to the Japan Earthquake Relief Fund.
Haru’s Journey screens Wednesday, July 20 at 7pm at the Japan Society as part of Japan Cuts 2011: The New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema. Director Masahiro Kobayashi and producer Naoko Kobayashi will introduce the screening and have a Q&A afterward. For tickets, visit Japan Society’s website. For tickets, click here.