Friday, January 8, 2010

The story of 19th-century intellectual and rebel Yoshida Shōin comes to the screen

by Chris MaGee

It seems since Yoji Yamada released his Oscar-nominated "The Twilight Samurai" in 2002 that we've seen, if not a Renaissance in jidai-geki films, then at least a greater acceptance and appreciation of samurai films that involve very little swordplay. Now former TV director Shigeru Ishihara is bringing the story of one of Japan's most important historical figures to the screen in a film that fans of Yamada's Samurai Trilogy will very much appreciate.

"Goku ( Hitoya) ni saku hana (Flower in Prison)" has been produced to commemorate the 180th anniversary of the birth of Yoshida Shōin, a samurai, child prodigy, and imprisoned intellectual who was instrumental in Japan's shift from the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate to the Meiji Restoration. Born in 1830 Shōin grew up in a society that had been closed off from the rest of the world for two centuries and he thought that this isolation and Japan's rigid caste system were strangling the future of his country. His famous quote on the total seclusion of Japan was "It is like a person in a dark room holding his breath."

When U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry's infamous Black Ships arrived in Uraga Harbour in 1853 saw his chance to let that breath out, and he and a friend snuck aboard Perry's ship in an attempt to return with him to America. When Perry's crew caught him and returned him to the mainland the ruling Shogunate put him under house arrest, a light sentence considering that the official penalty for leaving Japan was death. It was during his time of house arrest that Shōin saw the whirlwind of foreign influence that Perry's visit had initiated. To try and counteract this Shōin set up a school in his native Hagi in Yamaguchi Prefecture where he taught traditional Japanese values, military strategy and a redefinition of bushido, the samurai code. This school, the Shoka Sonjuku produced some of the leading revolutionaries who would bring about the downfall of the Shogunate.

Ishihara's film, based on a novel by Yamagushi-born author Kaoru Kogawa, captures Shōin's historical struggle with actor Michiyoshi Maeda who already tackled similar territory when he played one of the Chosyu Five, five young men who traveled to Great Britian in 1853, in Sho Igarashi's 2006 film of the same name. It definitely looks like Ishihara is playing up the romantic subplot between Shōin and a lower caste love interest played by actress Hana Konoe, but even with the added shmaltz this is definitely a fascinating subject for a film.

You can check out more about "Goku ( Hitoya) ni saku hana (Flower in Prison)" at its official website here, and make sure to check out the trailer below. Thanks to Cinema Today for the details on this and the above promotional still. Japanese audiences will be able to see "Goku ( Hitoya) ni saku hana (Flower in Prison)" this February.

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