Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Hidden Blade (2004)

(Image from IMDB)

The Hidden Blade (2004)

Yoji Yamada's follow up to The Twilight Samurai is similar in many many ways, but still offers enough that is new, and perhaps more importantly, enough in the way of quality, to make it worth watching. As with its spiritual predecessor, 'The Hidden Blade' is a Samurai drama that takes place in 19th century Japan. It tells the story of a low ranking 'working class' Samurai, Katagiri (Masatoshi Nagase), who following the death of his mother, the marriage of his sister, and the departure of the servant girl Kie (Takako Matsu), lives alone in his family house. It is a time of social change; the Japanese are embracing Western warfare techniques, and the Samurai of Katagiri's town are forced to learn the way of the rifle. There is also unrest, and Katagiri's loyalty is put to the test when an old friend is caught rebelling. Offsetting his troubles is Kie, whom he rescues from an abusive family and once again employs as his servant. Despite enjoying her company and having strong affections for her, their relationship is tinged with hopelessness because their caste differences will never allow them to be together.

I recall someone calling these Yamada films "Samurai stories as Jane Austen might have written them". Whoever said it wasn't far off the mark! There is one terrific fight sequence in this, and an interesting scene where we learn why the film is titled as it is, but by and large it's purely a drama about social norms and people struggling to cope with the rapid changes occurring to their once immutable, rigid world. Katagiri makes for a compelling, heroic character who tries to live decently and with honour while remaining true to the spirit of his code, even as many around him merely regurgitate hollow rhetoric. The conflict within him to choose between friendship and loyalty to his clan, and to sacrifice his own personal happiness to conform to societal expectations take their toll on him, leading to two conclusions that make the story both tragic and uplifting at the same time.

The film is deliberately paced but is never boring, and the characterization is excellent, with well rounded protagonists. As with 'Twilight', the film evokes a believable sense of place and manages to demythologize Samurai culture by showing them as ordinary folks who had to deal with ordinary family and domestic problems same as everyone else. Not that there's anything wrong with the conventional Samurai film - indeed, many of them do touch on these elements as well - but it's always interesting to see things from a different and unique perspective. While fairly small scale the film is quite appealing visually, with many of the domestic scenes in particular evoking a sense of warmth and homeliness. It's all rounded out with a fine sedate and unobtrusive score. The actors manage to be expressive while still behaving within the emotional constraints of their characters' places in the class structure. The two leads, Masatoshi Nagase and Takako Matsu, are terrific; Nagase's portrayal is infused with dignity despite his low position and circumstances, while Matsu is immensely endearing as the sweet natured, devoted, but somewhat damaged servant girl. The rest of the cast are supporting, but they're all effective in their roles, particularly Yukiyoshi Ozawa as Katagiri's deranged friend Hazama.

'The Hidden Blade' may surprise many people who watch it expecting something more action packed, and based on comments I've read it doesn't seem to appeal to a lot of people, but I think it's a wonderful film. It is narratively and stylistically incredibly similar to 'The Twilight Samurai' but there are enough thematic and character differences to make this feel like it's own thing. Though I can certainly understand the viewpoint that there is often a strong feeling of deja vu if you've watched 'Twilight'. I think 'Twilight' is ultimately a better film, but this is also definitely worth watching.

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