09 June 2011

Chonmage purin

I recently had the opportunity to watch a charming Japanese film called Chonmage purin (2010). The film does not seem to have an actual film distribution agreement with any English-speaking companies, so there is no official translation of the name yet. The subtitles that my wife and I saw gave the title A Boy and his Samurai, but the original Japanese title actually just means "Chonmage pudding." Chonmage is a hairstyle commonly worn by samurai during the Edo period and worn today (though without the top of the head shaved) only by sumo wrestlers.

The film is a romantic comedy with the emphasis on comedy. The crux of the plot is this: Yasube, a samurai from the Edo period, is "spirited away" to the present, where he ends up finding shelter with a divorced mother Hiroko and her 5 year old son Tomoya. The film is pretty light and humorous, focusing a lot on the classic premise the immense culture shock experienced by a time traveller from the past.

However, the film does have it's share of dramatic moments as well. Afterall, what romantic comedy would be complete without it? This largely revolves around Hiroko's desire to be working woman. In fact, her previous marriage ended upon her request when her ex-husband continually expected her to take on all the household duties. Of course, the old-fashioned Yasube should be most misogynistic of all, and indeed is incredulous that she wants to work, wanted the divorce, and so forth. However, Hiroko explains that this is Tokyo now, not Edo, and that things work differently here. As such, Yasube decides to repay her for her hospitality by tending to the household duties so that she can devote herself entirely to her job. It's through this that Yasube discovers his passion and skill in making desserts such as puddings and cakes.

Eventually, Yasube enters a Father-Son Cake Baking Contest with the under-prepared Tomoya, which they win through determination and ingenuity. In fact, Yasube performs so well that he receives a job offer from a famous baker to come work in his kitchen. Yasube is, at first, hesitant, as he feels bound by his duties to the household, but Hiroko and Tomoya tell him to go for it. However, they are unprepared for how much he devotes himself to his new career and, ultimately, reverts back to his old patriarchal mindset. Although Hiroko had begun to fall for Yasube, she now feels like she's back with her old husband and asks Yasube to leave and find his own apartment now that he is able. The two proceed to avoid each other until Tomoya goes missing while they are both at work. They take off and join forces to try to find him again.

A brief history of the samurai
It should be obvious from the above synopsis that this film seems to be concerned with the idea of gender roles in modern Japan. The time-travelling samurai from Edo period (1603-1868) obviously has symbolic references to the patriarchal traditions that Japan was built upon for many, many centuries.

At this time, I will point out that the Edo period was sort of the last stand of the samurai, during which they experienced a great amount of power, freedom, and status. Towards the end of the Edo period,  In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry forced Japan to open itself to Western trade, which quickly led to the modernization of the samurai and Japan as a whole. The last major conflict that prominently featured samurai was in 1877. The following year was the Meiji Restoration and the beginning of the Meiji era. Under the new government, the samurai class was dissolved. As such, Yasube's historical origins not only suggest an older, patriarchal way of thinking, but also one that is nearing its decline. There is a certain fatality to Yasube in that we know the fate of the samurai. Likewise, his decision to take on the duties of the household suggest the dissolution of the samurai class.

Gender issues
All in all, there are a lot of subtleties in the historical references that, at the very least, were not lost on me. Of course, this all looks like this film must, therefore, be a very rousing, intellectual, and insightful exploration of gender issues in Japan. Let me therefore assure you that it is, still, a comedy first-and-foremost. So while I think this film could find a welcome home in a class on, say, feminism in cinema, I think someone looking for a truly great commentary on these issues will be sorely disappointed. It deals with these issues in the same way that Juno deals with teenage pregnancy. That is, it's used more for the plot's conflict than for in depth analysis and discussion. And maybe that's for the best. After all, it's a romantic comedy. It's main function is to entertain, and it does that quite well.

Still, the film does still have something interesting to say when all is said and done. The message was not one that I would call particularly feminist or anti-feminist in the strongest sense of those words. Rather, the point seems to be that we need to find a balance in our lives between work and family. The film fully acknowledges that work can be a great creative outlet and that everyone should be able to experience of doing something with their time and energy that they can be proud of. However, it also addresses both the joys and responsibilities of family, and that we need to decide what is really most precious and important to us. The film seems to say that we (both men and women) should put family over career, and I think this is a fine message, especially for a country as notoriously workaholic as Japan.

I laughed
But enough with all the analytical stuff. Really, that's not what this film is about. It's supposed to entertain, and that it most certainly did. And honestly, I think it was an excellent film for my wife and me to watch together. There was all the pastry chef stuff for her, and the samurai stuff for me.

And trust me, if you are interested in samurai and chanbara, you will find plenty to enjoy in Chonmage purin. Just seeing the proper mannerisms so characteristic of chanbara completely displaced in the modern setting was already quite amusing to see.

At any rate, I would certainly recommend this to anyone should they ever get a chance to actually see it. Who knows, maybe it will get a distribution agreement here, although I certainly wouldn't hold my breath.