Film / Reviews

'Haru tono tabi (Travels with Haru)'

Frayed hopes in an unkind world

by Mark Schilling

Masahiro Kobayashi is a unique figure in the Japanese film business. His knotty, idiosyncratic films, starting with the 1996 film “Closing Time,” have never made much at the box office in Japan, though they have become favorites of foreign festival programmers. Four have screened at Cannes, including “Bashing” (2005), a grim drama of alienation and exclusion that was selected for the competition.

That’s four more invitations than most Japanese directors — including those higher up on the local critical pecking order — get in a lifetime, stirring up insinuations that Kobayashi, whose long association with France includes study of the language, must have an “in.”

Meanwhile, many foreign Asian cinephiles — from fans of zany pop entertainment to appreciators of quiet Ozu-esque art films — don’t quite know what to make of Kobayashi’s oeuvre, which often takes its cues from the more uncompromising European and Asian auteurs and often features blunt, even violent, confrontations and revelations, not gentle epiphanies.

Haru tono tabi (Travels with Haru)
Director Masahiro Kobayashi
Run Time 134 minutes
Language Japanese

I’m a Kobayashi fan, though I can’t say “enjoyment” is how I’d usually describe the experience of watching his films. Instead, I like his angle of vision, which can illuminate dark, secret corners of the heart with a glare fierce and strange.

In his new film, “Haru tono Tabi (Travels with Haru)” Kobayashi is attempting something in a more conventionally humanistic vein. One inspiration was the 1999 Zhang Yimou film “Ano Ko o Sagashite” (“Not One Less”) others were such Japanese classics as “Tokyo Monogatari” (“Tokyo Story” 1953) and “Narayama Bushiko” (“Ballad of Narayama” 1983). This approach is reflected in his casting of Tatsuya Nakadai, the 77-year-old icon whose work with the greats of Japanese films, including Akira Kurosawa, Mikio Naruse and Kon Ichikawa, is known worldwide.

Nakadai plays Tadao, a retired fisherman living with his granddaughter Haru (Eri Tokunaga) in an isolated Hokkaido fishing village. But Haru has lost her job in an elementary school cafeteria. Since local employment prospects are dim, she decides to go to Tokyo to find work.

Meanwhile, Tadao, disabled by a stroke, has made a decision of his own: Rather than burden Haru as she tries to restart her life, he will go to live with one of his siblings, none of whom he has seen or spoken with in years. One raw spring day, he clumps angrily out of his weathered house with a dubious Haru trailing behind.

This being a Kobayashi film, I thought I could predict what would happen from this point: brutal rejections and bitter disappointments. Tadao’s first, quixotic visit is to his rich older brother (Hideji Otaki), who cordially despises him. The brother tells him that he and his wife have been accepted into an expensive private retirement home. The impoverished Tadao need not apply. Not a brutal answer, exactly, but hardly kind either.

Next Tadao and Haru go in search of his scapegrace younger brother Yukio, to whom he feels closest. But Yukio’s common-law wife (Yuko Tanaka) tells them he has gone to prison for another man’s crime. Again, a soft letdown by Kobayashi standards.

Tadao and Haru continue their rounds, first to Tadao’s older sister (Chikage Awashima), now an elegantly kimonoed, sharp-tongued innkeeper at a hot spring bath, then to his youngest brother (Akira Emoto), now a foul-mouthed failed businessman. Their last stop is the home of Haru’s slithery father (Teruyuki Kagawa), who left home when she was little and is now the successful proprietor of a horse ranch. His wife (Naho Toda), though a stranger to both Tadao and Haru, is almost angelically decent to them ) a la Setsuko Hara’s young widow in “Tokyo Monogatari.”

Kobayashi draws a rather overly obvious contrast between Tadao and Haru, both misfits with pure spirits, and their mostly conventional relations, who have played by society’s rules and have become hardhearted as a consequence. At the same time, he has no use for the sentimentality of the usual Japanese humanist dramas that revel in teary reunions and reconciliations. The hearts of his characters are too damaged for easy repair.

Nakadai plays Tadao as a bearish man full of anger and pride who would cut off his nose — or rather his entire family — to spite his face. But his illness, as well as his five years with Haru — starting when her mother committed suicide — have worked a change in him.

Where a lesser actor would have played for audience sympathy, Nakadai refuses to make Tadao an object of pity. Instead he keeps us guessing as to his true feelings and motives. Tadao is not posing as something he no longer is or never was but is rather fumbling toward a resolution of his central dilemma: He needs the one person he must let go.

As Haru, Eri Tokunaga is a typical Kobayashi heroine: unsociable and unfashionable, but stubbornly, fiercely alive in her own person. A former model who has since branched out to TV, films and theater, she trots with an odd bow-legged gait and does all she can to erase her real-life attractiveness from the audience’s mind. (By contrast, Setsuko Hara always moved with the grace of a dancer, even when playing dutiful daughter types.)

Kobayashi may have intended “Haru to no Tabi” as a left-handed tribute to Japanese cinema’s Golden Age — but it is all Kobayashi, all the way. Or rather it’s a lot like Haru herself — ungainly, but unforgettable.