Hidden Blade, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/16/06 15:18:00

"Even better than Twilight."
5 stars (Awesome)

I was fond of "The Twilight Samurai", more than enough to eagerly anticipate Yoji Yamada's follow-up, but also a little fearful: "Twilight" was obviously a very personal work for Yamada, whose excellent film after dozens of franchise installments parallelled the samurai being more than he appeared despite a lifetime of anonymous, menial service. What do you do after that? In Yamada's case, you make another samurai romance - one which is even better.

The Hidden Blade opens with Munezo Katagiri (Masatoshi Nagase) and Samon Shimada (Hidetaka Yoshioka) bidding farewell to their friend and fellow samurai Yaichiro Hazama (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), who has been called to serve in the capital. Katagiri and Shimada joke that it's dangerous for him to leave a beautiful wife behind, but Mrs. Hazama (Reiko Takashima) is in little danger from them - Shimada is betrothed to marry Katagiri's sister Shino (Tomoko Tabata), and Katagiri's own strong sense of duty and loyalty won't let him consider it. Indeed, when the story picks up a few years later and he finds out that his family's former servant, Kie (Takako Matsu) is being treated poorly by her husband, he all but kidnaps her so she can be divorced and nursed back to health. People start to talk, and that's before Hazama returns in a most ignominious fashion.

Above all else, The Hidden Blade is the story of Munezo's and Kie's chaste romance. That they love each other is obvious almost from the moment we see them, although initially it appears to be the affection of siblings. Kie realizes there's more first, of course, although part of what makes them so well-suited toward each other is that neither can conceive of committing the kind of break in propriety that would allow them to declare their feelings to one another. Takako Matsu manages to convey that sort of grace and calm acceptance of the way things are without coming across as servile or weak. There is never any doubt that Kie is worthy of affection and respect, but we still share her disappointment when it starts to become clear that staying with "the master" must be a temporary situation. Some of her best scenes are opposite the actress playing Kie's younger sister, who is willing to openly ask why the caste system exists or appear afraid of samurai, even Katagiri.

Not that she'd ever have any reason to be afraid of Nagase's Katagiri. Munezo Katagiri is good and loyal to a fault, liked and respected by all until he rescues Kie. The movie is about Katagiri continually dealing with the boundary between what is right and what is considered right, and Nagase always strikes just the right chord. His outrage at Kie's treatment by her husband is powerful enough for him to defy convention and take her from her new home, and even as his friend is warning him that doing so will cause trouble, the audience immediately shares his certainty that this is what he must do. When it becomes clear that Katagiri must distance himself from Kie to salvage his family's reputation (his father committed hara-kiri), Nagase communicates the character's anguish clearly and painfully without any unnecessary hand-wringing. Through the entire movie, Katagiri is the story's standard of morality, and he is punished for it. Both his certainty of what is right and his pain at not being able to follow that are exquisite.

And those characters' final scene together... One of my favorite scenes of the year. Just perfect.

There's plenty going on besides that romance, though - the story is set at a time of transition; the shogun whom Katagiri serves is attempting to modernize, and there's a great deal of comic relief to be mined from the samurai trying to learn western weapons and tactics; they even have to learn how to move their arms as they run. They act almost like kids in high school making fun of the teacher. There's also a dark side, as Hazama has fallen in with rebels, and the shogun seems like a guy worth rebelling against. Hazama's story is laced with shades of gray; when Katagiri confronts his old friend, it's not quite certain where his loyalty should lie.

The rest of the cast gives them leads good support to make the story compelling. We only see Yukiyoshi Ozawa for a few minutes as Hazama at the beginning, but the contrast of the crazed man we see later is impressive. We get to see Hidetaka Yoshioka's Shimada grow and mature, and Tomoko Tabata is a pleasure to watch as Shino, Katagiri's younger sister. Kunie Tanaka has a brief but memorable appearance as the retired master who trained all three samurai.

Yoji Yamada picks up where he left off with Twilight, delivering a story that doesn't have as much action as one might expect from a samurai film. Still, his quiet moments are full of import, and he trusts his cast to grab the audience's interest. The two or three action scenes are clear and entertaining, and the scenery is beautiful (both exteriors and production design).

It's probably too late in his career for Yamada to amass enough great samurai films to be ranked with the all-time masters, but he's doing well. He's currently shooting his third, and I hope it doesn't take a couple years to cross the Pacific as his previous films have.

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