You could be forgiven for believing that feudal Japan had only three classes: warlords, samurai and the peasantry. In reality, quite a few different roles went into propping up the Japanese economy and pleasing its rulers. Flower and Sword is the story of one such specialty: the ikenobo, who practised the art of flower arranging in order to praise Buddha and amuse the regents.
In the later half of the 16th century, enthusiastic flower monk Senko (Mansai Nomura) has a singular way of arranging flowers that brings joy to many in Kyoto. Senko has little interest in politics, but he strikes a firm friendship with tea master Rikyu (Koichi Sato), and attracts the interest of controversial and temperamental regent Hideyoshi Toyotomi (Ennosuke Ichikawa). Senko has to figure out how to balance his passion for ikebana with the demands of a man who has the power to kill him and his friends on a whim.
Based on a novel with the literal title Flower Battle, Flower and Sword covers more than a decade in the lives of Senko and his comrades. This means that some characters are introduced and then put on the back-burner until they’re needed; the sole significant female cast member, Ren (Aoi Morikawa), is largely an afterthought outside of the key scenes that sell certain plot points. Senko, however, is in nearly every scene, and Nomura inhabits the character. Nomura is a man with an incredibly expressive face, and he almost negates Flower and Sword’s need for dialogue at all. He would make an excellent silent film star but, more than that, he is able to communicate both the passion that Senko feels for his work and the depth of emotion that he needs to convey to stand up (or bow down) to Hideyoshi.
Given the span of the film and the capriciousness of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, Flower and Sword has an awkward balance to it that one of Senko’s creations would probably never suffer. There is a long sequence towards the end where a series of miseries are piled on top of one another in a soul-crushing fashion. It is needed, but not necessarily appreciated. Director Tetsuo Shinohara tries not to lay it on too thick, but it is difficult to escape. Elsewhere the film takes the time to appreciate the beauty of Senko’s job and the tenderness of his connection with his friends and villagers; the balance tips on the side of righteousness, but it’s delicate for a while.
Flower and Sword is a film that dares to suggest that a tyrant can be reasoned with, not through bloodshed, but an appeal to reason and beauty. We may be watching this at a five-hundred-year remove, but it is important to remember that not all of Japanese historical filmmaking need to be told through the prism of the sword.
Flower and Sword is screening in Australia as part of the Japanese Film Festival, which tours the country between October 13 and December 3, 2017.
Directed by: Tetsuo Shinohara.
Starring: Mansai Nomura, Koichi Sato, Ennosuke Ichikawa and Aoi Morikawa.