JPaul S. Manzanilla
Haruo tells a story of a man deserting a crime syndicate but finds himself inescapably bound up with it. From Manila to Tokyo and back again, Haruo’s plight represents inimitable connections of violence and crime, trauma and memory, sacrifice and salvation, all in a sublimated rendition of a man’s personal quest for expiation.
Tadano Hayoshi recruited Monica, a pretty street vendor, for work in Japan. Forced to become a sex entertainer, Monica refused the sexual advances of Tadano’s yakuza fellows but was raped after Tadano’s unsuccessful defense of her. Tadano and Monica escaped and went back to the Philippines. One day, Tadano returned to their residence and found Monica murdered, doubtless by his yakuza fellows. He put her in a drum, covered her with sand, and disposed of the body.
Tadano, now Haruo, lives a normal and unobtrusive life as an itinerant food vendor. He rarely talks to people but is very kind and even gives free meals to a child and a beggar. We now have an unlikely immigrant: poor, plain, and too quiet as to be almost mute. Living in one of the ancient districts of Manila, Tadano is embedded in a milieu of remarkable people. The prostitute Edna, delicately portrayed by Rosanna Roces, gets attracted to the silent and mysterious Haruo, who is distracted by his past. Aling Lydia, who lives with her two grandchildren, is presumably suffering from mental illness. Popoy persistently sells various goods (rubber shoes, denim jeans, longanisa, luxury watch) of dubious provenance. The house in which Haruo rents a room is an old, big, and previously grand abode now with partitioned spaces for numerous occupants. The raid of illegal drug pushers conducted in the house demonstrates the kind of people who inhabit the place: impoverished inhabitants of the city, petty criminals, like Popoy who seems to source his goods from theft, and migrants seeking temporary refuge and anonymity. The last set includes our protagonist.
Just as Haruo is trying to live a peaceful life in obscurity, the world of crime seems to catch up with him. He falls in love with Michelle, who suspiciously lives with her cousin in one of the big house’s rooms. One time, a group of men tries to abduct Michelle and Haruo comes in to rescue and thrashes (albeit in awkward, still-to-be-improved fight scenes) all of them in martial arts fashion. The encounter inevitably reveals his tattoos of yakuza vintage. Haruo is now being hounded by the media. And so Michelle has to leave the place because she’s a star witness of a top-level graft and corruption case hiding from powerful people out to take her life; the man who pretends to be her cousin is a police protector whom she accuses of being in cahoots with the criminals. Haruo rescues a woman for the second time around and flees a criminal syndicate once again; he identifies himself as Tadano Hayashi and recounts his past to Michelle. But his yakuza brothers found him, after being tipped off by Popoy who, all along, is spying on Haruo. The yakuza persuades him to return the money he has taken and to reunite with the group. When he refuses, they kill Michelle. Enraged, Haruo fights back and kills them. He is stabbed by Popoy, disclosing complicity, only to kill him in return.
The film’s excellent cinematography captures our character’s movement away from the world of crime only to be pulled back into it. There is a scene where the old railways of Manila are shown as Haruo is traveling to another side of the city. This moment of pure movement, when nothing yet is definitive concerning Haruo’s (literal and lifelong) direction, deftly mesmerizes one’s vision. In another, a stunning view of two characters on a bridge crossing the Pasig River submits the misery of abandonment as Edna cries while Haruo diffidently commiserates with her. This is the time when Edna’s nephew, who has almost become her son, is probably taken back by her sister. Edna and Haruo, then, share the same plight; both are penitent characters who are unfairly deprived of loved ones with whom they could amend their fate.
Conceivably the cause of Haruo’s silence is the unspeakable crime he was complicit with when he brought Monica to Tokyo resulting in prostitution and murder upon return to Manila, and his sealing of Monica’s dead body in a drum. This sin haunts Haruo and precludes the possibility of a normal life. Every time, he atones for his crime by being kind to the poor and helping a victim of robbery. His fatal attraction to young women coupled with a desire to salvage them from a life of destitution and danger only leads to a life of more danger. Haruo’s existence is a never-ending story of menace and the impossibility of escape: from crime, from reforming one’s character, from unrequited love, from responsibility. In one telling incident, the policeman interviewing the thief whom Haruo has apprehended and brought to authorities asks “Ilang taon…?” (How many years…) referring not to the age of the criminal but to how many years he, the thief, has been involved in crime. The question could also be asked of Haruo. The man he helped warned him that he should be cautious as it is foreigners like him who are targets of criminals. This points out his situation as an alien, that is, indubitably marked and Monica’s situation as an alien in Japan who had become target of the sex industry.
A smoldering question in the film is how Haruo – literally “spring time man” – works out his trauma, both as victim and perpetrator, in the violent death of the woman he loved. Dominick LaCapra, in commenting on recent study of perpetrators of profoundly traumatic events, says that “[i]t is also important to recognize both that the perpetrator may be traumatized by extreme acts and that he or she may transfigure trauma into the sublime, the regenerative, or the sacred” (78). The sublime gains paramount importance here. It is a thing which cannot be represented in strictly concrete forms, albeit often assuming aesthetic manner. Haruo’s pain is deeply felt, but unspoken. Silence keeps him from disclosing himself but also prevents him from relating significantly to other people. Our main character, therefore, is in a bind and, owing to a sacrificial disposition, he inevitably exposes himself and reinstates his criminal past. Forever struggling to renew himself, Haruo realizes that there is no spring time in his life. This fact is subtly signified by a petal that falls from a flower, when he is on the verge of redeeming another woman. It is autumn, once again. Haikus by the renowned poet Matsuo Basho suggest intuition of time and nature’s struggles within it. The last one is very telling: “The winds of autumn/Blow: yet still green/The chestnut husks.” Even in the fall, Haruo, like a chestnut, husks so that his essential goodness may come into fruition.
Such sublime efforts lead us to a burdened viewing, one that probes Tadano’s moral predicament. Analyzing the political uses of the sublime in late nineteenth to twentieth century Japan through its figuration in the aesthetic, Alan Tansman argues on its actual implications that go beyond the aesthetic: “While the sublime moment is aesthetically constructed, it contains existential force, for it depicts a moment when the self is broken down and infused with a higher form of consciousness” (135). This “higher form of consciousness” is palpably social because “[w]hat we feel links us with society” (135). Tansman studied evocations of the sublime through novels and political tracts at various historical moments in Japan: national identity in modernizing Japan of the 1880s and 1890s, fascism in the imperial 1930s, and the antinuclear campaign of the post-war era (144-145). In Haruo’s example, the sublime may intimate the individual’s fraught relation to others by means of working through his trauma. Only a retelling of his crime and a painstaking examination of it can deliver closure and set him free and ensure that he does not commit the same mistake once again. Tadano’s mere leaving the yakuza could only imperil his rescue of another being who, like him, is running away from the law and its dialectical opposite – crime. The kind of social de-linking that Haruo begets because of his unutterable sins is quintessentially sublime, according to Kant: “we have to note the fact that isolation from all society is looked upon as something sublime, provided it rests upon ideas which disregard all sensible interest. To be self-sufficing, and so not to stand in need of society, yet without being unsociable, i.e. without shunning it is something approaching the sublime—a remark applicable to all superiority to wants” (129).
There are matters that are instructive for readers who would want to delve into questions of heroism and renewal in this film. Scenes that flash back and forward into Haruo’s present arbitrate the repeated—because imprisoned—nature not only of his crime, but his character. Ikebana, the Japanese art of floral arrangement, serves not as a display in the unadorned room of the protagonist, but as embodiment of the temperance which he struggles to achieve for himself. In that small, suffocating quarter, Haruo regenerates for a new life. Aestheticization of violence raises its moral import. While scenes of fighting the villains may glorify righteous retribution, the sight of a brutally murdered Monica and the equally brutal killing of Michelle may tend to eulogize the women’s contained agency. Could salvation be attained through an individual act of escape and/or speaking truth to wicked power, or through a rescue by a man actively involved in the crime that precisely enslaves the two women? In such case, Haruo’s struggle is credible: only one who is deeply embedded in sin has the redemptive potential to atone for it.
Haruo’s final act commands respect and all the more makes him all-too human, because he chose to risk life over the steady course of death. Perhaps, this is the most sublime undertaking of all.
 “The sublime may be described in this way: It is an object (of nature) the representation of which determines the mind to regard the elevation of nature beyond our reach as equivalent to a presentation of ideas.” Kant, Immanuel. “Critique of Aesthetic Judgement.” The Critique of Judgement. Trans. James Creed Meredith. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1952. 119.
Kant, Immanuel. “Critique of Aesthetic Judgement.” The Critique of Judgement. Trans. James
Creed Meredith. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952 . 41-246.
LaCapra, Dominick. “’Traumatropisms’: From Trauma via Witnessing to the Sublime?” History and Its Limits: Human, Animal, Violence. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2009. 59-89.
Tansman, Alan. “Saburaimu/Sublime: A Japanese Word and Its Political Afterlife” Words in Motion: Toward a Global Lexicon. Eds. Carol Gluck and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009. 129-147.