Reviews Short Narrative

Haru (2021) – 4 stars

Director: Primo Wolf

Writer: Primo Wolf

Cast: Tarik Moree, Poal Cairo, Bob van der Houven, Matsen Montsma

Running time: 12mins

A hugely popular meme from the past year has been one which compares ‘My parents at age X’ with ‘Me at age X’. Some of the many, many variations of the image have focused on just how quickly the economic opportunities open to young people have evaporated over the space of a single generation – but more have hinged on that tired myth that young people these days are dumber than their forebears, or have their priorities back-to-front.

The logic follows that if previous generations had a mortgage, a spouse, and a baby before 30, you are stuck in some kind of perpetual infancy if you do not achieve the same feat. But the fact of the matter is, while they might have seemed like all-knowing gods to you in your childhood – they had probably not ‘worked everything out’ as these memes so often imply. Why do so many of them lurch into a mid-life crisis the moment the nest is showing signs of emptying? Some don’t even make it that far…

Why do I say all this? Well, these themes lie at the heart of Haru – a gloriously silly entry into the coming-of-age genre from writer-director Primo Wolf. Coming-of-age stories are often a wonderful antidote to the arbitrary notion that to be an adult is to be sensible and always do the right thing. As children move through adolescence in these narratives, they often learn their grown parents are every bit as scared of the world as they are – while the reflexive decisions they make in response to their surroundings can, on occasion, be stupid, obnoxious, or even dangerous.

In the case of Haru, our titular character starts the film by embarking on a quest for self-discovery. In the Netherlands, many kids his age from a higher income bracket tend to jet off to Bali for that sort of thing, but not Haru. On the cusp of adulthood, decides that he would be better prepared for life’s challenges by instead becoming a samurai.

Our lead, Tarik Moree, serves up an impeccably-judged performance as Haru – earnest and determined enough to believably undertake this strange task; but in touch with reality enough to on occasion flag up the nonsense he encounters as a samurai in 21st century Amsterdamse Bos. Wandering into the landscape park between Amsterdam and Amstelveen.

Dressed in traditional Hitatare clothing, he wanders through the greenery, while reciting a letter to his mother. It concludes that while his phone is turned off, he will reply to texts “as soon as possible.” Well, you can take the boy out of the 21st century, but you know the rest… He also pauses for a second by a stream, having seen a bunch of other people his age frolicking in the nearby canals (which I am assured contain less raw sewage than British waterways). For a second, the inexplicable oddity of his choice seems to catch up with him – but it does not derail his unspoken quest…

Things reach peak-weird when night falls. After a day of travel, Haru retires to the bough of a tree to read before sleeping. It is there that a bothersome rat – or rat-like creature – begins speaking to him. Tamatsukuri, or Kuri for short, is a rough-and-ready puppet, thrown together from assorted lightweight materials. It can only be assumed that he has no lower half, as it is always just out of shot; lurking the kind of place where his puppeteer’s hand likely resided. It is a decision that would not work at all if it were taken seriously, but thankfully Wolf’s approach seems to be making a tongue-in-cheek reference to the sassy animal sidekick present in so many coming-of-age cartoons.

This idea is backed up by the fact the production pulled off the casting coup of having Kuri’s lines delivered by Dutch actor and voice-artist Bob van der Houven. His irritating-creature-sidekick credentials are strong indeed, as among other roles, Van der Houven has been Stitch, in the Nederlands dub of Lilo and Stitch, and Dobby in the dub of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. In this role, he doesn’t disappoint either, either irking or unnerving Haru at various moments.

Again, a baffled Moree brings his real-world sensibilities to the scenario as Haru, rather than just behaving like everything is normal. If anything, he finds Kuri a little creepy – particularly when the creature begins muttering aloud to himself. We might not think anything of it, because we’re used to tropes like this being served up to spell things out for our convenience as viewers; but if we were to see it unfold before us in our daily life, we might also note that it was “weird”.

Like it or not, though, Kuri is along for the ride now. Indeed, he plays an integral part in bringing Haru into contact with another samurai; and this, it emerges, was our protagonist’s intent all along.

Flashbacks reveal the identity of this older warrior, standing alone by the river. It is a man whom Haru knows; who he counted on to be wise, and caring; but who departed to chase his own pathetic and absurd dreams. Far from whatever high-minded justification he gave to young Haru when he abandoned him, this is not an honour-bound warrior, engaging in mortal combat with some great evil. He is a grown man playing dress-up, alone, in the woods, and Haru wants no part in a similar future.

The real journey of discovery here has been Haru becoming aware that older is not always wiser, and perhaps his decision to leave was not based around any kind of higher intelligence, but was instead part of a perpetual infancy. Haru knows that now, because he has lived the ridiculous life of his father first-hand.

The coming-of-age is not that he should follow in his father’s footsteps, but the realisation that he will not find any higher essence of adulthood by doing do. Going his own way, trusting his own judgement, is far more likely to take him somewhere worth going. That is a deeply meaningful conclusion to pull together in the conclusion of a film that is in so many other ways utterly bonkers. What a remarkable juggling act.

It’s a disarmingly absurd coming-of-age tale, which manages to imbue its story with an emotional core that takes it beyond just a farcical comedy. Primo Wolf has created a film which is engrossing in its weirdness, but which also credibly shows the character arc of a young man confronting the stupidity of his absentee father – and refusing to be defined by it.

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