During the mid-19th century, Japan was at the cusp of a new era. The traditional ways that had ruled the country for hundreds of years are fast being replaced by the modern ways of the West. Munezo Katagiri (Masatoshi Nagase) is an honest low-level samurai and a member the distant northern Unasaka clan as it is drawn into the modern western technology made available to the ruling Shogunate. But, there are other issues facing Munezo, like love, honor and loyalty in “The Hidden Blade.”
Master filmmaker Yoji Yamada creates a companion piece for his terrific “Twilight Samurai” that deals with the tumultuous change in the tradition-bound society of medieval Japan while telling a personal story of unrequited love, friendship sorely tested and loyalty to the clan. Munezo secretly loves the family maid, Kie (Takako Matsu), a love buried so deeply within the man that he doesn’t realize it himself. Meanwhile, the changes taking place in Japan, the adoption of selected Western technologies, is taking its toll on the moral code of the samurai – especially the introduction and necessary mastery of artillery, something abhorrent to the honor-bound warriors.
Munezo and his colleague and fellow samurai Samon Shimada (Hidetaka Yoshioka) are called upon to learn the mechanics of the artillery, knowing that the modern weapons will change their caste-driven society forever. Things are further complicated when their friend, and Munezo’s fellow sword master, Yaichiro Hazama (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), is implicated in a plot against the Shogunate in the country’s capital, Edo. Hazama, also of the Unasaka clan, is singled out in the plot and denied the honor of ritual suicide and shipped back north in humiliation in a “prisoner’s basket.” This dishonor to his friend, and his imprisonment in a tiny cell, does not sit well with Munezo.
On the home front, Kie has been placed in a terrible marriage with a local merchant. It’s less a marriage than it is slavery and the beautiful Kie is little more than an indentured servant. When Munezo and Kie cross paths years later, he is shocked by her thinness but she assuages his concern by telling him she is recovering from a severe cold. She fails to keep her promise to come and clean his house and, against propriety, he goes to her home. He is alarmed to find her near death and uncared for by her in-laws and carries her away, demanding that her husband divorce her. He takes her to his home to recuperate.
The political situation takes a downward turn when Hazama escapes from his tiny prison and takes an old man and his family hostage. The leaders of the Unasaka clan, suspect of Munezo’s friendship with the escaped prisoner, demand that he go to the hostage site and kill the renegade Hazama. Knowing that his friend is the better swordsman, Munezo seeks the help of his and Hazama’s old master, Toda (Min Tanaka), who has forsaken samurai life to become a simple farmer. Toda, knowing that Hazama will best Munezo in single combat, teaches his student the secret techniques to win the deadly duel.
The Hidden Blade” could have been little more than a period soap opera in the hands of a less experienced director but Yoji Yamada makes it a personal epic that satisfies on an emotional level and on a socio-political one. The unrequited romance between Munezo and Kie carries through the entire film and kept me on tenterhooks until the very end (I won’t give away the finale, which kept me hoping all the way through). The political upheavals taking place in mid-19th century Japan is woven with skill with this romance and tells of a nation that is being irrevocably drawn into the rest of the world, where its samurai code of honor will struggle with the realities of Western warfare.
Yamada and Yoshitaka Asama wrote the screenplay for this mesmerizing film and deftly combine the personal and political with Munezo and Kie at its emotional center. The story switches between the love story and the social and political upheavals taking place in Japan. The changing world of the samurai warrior is shown, oftentimes with humor, as a military representative from Edo struggles to teach his students the complex art of using artillery in battle. The ritual deference to the teacher hinders his ability to train them efficiently. When his wards should be moving with quickness and precision in handling their cannon, they pause to bow and scrape as tradition dictates. The samurai are dragged, unwillingly, into the world of modern warfare.
Yamada and his behind the camera crew do an exemplary job in recreating the medieval Japanese world that is in the throes of change to modernity. Costume and production values are beautifully rendered and the photography, by Mutsuo Naganuma, has the look and feel of the classic samurai films by Akira Kurasawa and other past masters.
Of course, the main appeal of “The Hidden Blade” is in the marvelous performances by Masatoshi Nagase and Takako Matsu as Munezo and Kie and the rest of the capable cast. The emotional appeal of the couple really invests the viewer in the film and you care what happens to them. Plus, the social and political changes that took hold of Japan in the 19th century are interesting and educational for the uninitiated to that culture. This is a film buff’s movie but also has strong appeal to those who just want to be told a darn good story.
I suggest that the interested parties get a hold of both “The Hidden Blade” and “Twilight Samurai” and make a night of it at home. Both are wonderful stories of brave men and beautiful women infused with a historical lesson of a land that, even now, is not well known.
I give “The Hidden Blade” an A-.Laura:
Munezo Katagiri (Masatoshi Nagase, "Mystery Train," "Suicide Club," "The Sea Is Watching") is a bachelor samurai living with the shame of his father's suicide over a failed bridge project, a failure he was not responsible for. His reputation sinks lower when he rescues his former maid from an abusive mother-in-law, carrying the ill woman right past her husband on his back. Gossip forces him to return the woman he secretly loves back to her farming family and then he is pulled into another intrigue which tests his honor - ordered by the clan to kill old friend Yaichiro Hazama (Yukiyoshi Ozawa, son of conductor Seiji Ozawa), he will use the technique taught to him by their old fencing master, "The Hidden Blade."
Director Yôji Yamada brings his cowriter and entire "Twilight Samurai" production crew back to create a marvelous companion piece to that earlier film. The story is similar, the look of the film and 1860's period the same, but "The Hidden Blade" has its own set of characters who are every bit as engaging in their own right. Simply put, Yamada's film is old-fashioned in the very best sense. He is a great story teller and director of actors.
Once again we have a central romance across castes involving a divorced woman, although this time, it is the lowly samurai who is of higher ranking. There is also a reversal of the sister who is married to the best friend, as here it is Munezo's friend Samon Shimada (Hidetaka Yoshioka, "The Sea Is Watching") who marries his little sister Shino (Tomoko Tabata), a pretty girl not as accomplished as Kie in skills or moral fiber. Political intrigue abounds in the conflict between the old guard who hold their traditions sacred and the new, western way of warfare (which also figured "Twilight Samurai" and which here, is occasionally depicted as borderline slapstick) and in the underground rebellion up north which Hazama is arrested for. Munezo is also horrified to learn that the Senior Retainer, Ogata (Nenji Kobayashi, "The Twilight Samurai"), has done what he would not - taken Hazama's Wife (Reiko Takashima) for his pleasure in return for a promise of clemency he does not intend to keep - and Munezo is compelled to fight for her honor just as he is sent to kill her husband. But the heart of "The Hidden Blade" is the unspoken romance between Munezo and Kie (Takako Matsu), and just as in "Twilight Samurai," they are two special characters we become invested in seeing end up together.
Yamada obviously has great sympathy for the poor and powerless, as he paints the corruption of officials, callousness of middle class merchants and imperiousness of city slicker sensei with a damning stroke and yet he acknowledges his 'bumpkins' lack of sophistication with a number of affectionately comedic scenes (trying to shoot a canon or trying to catch a chicken, the latter scene eerily reflected in Hazama's prisoner's basket). "The Hidden Blade" is slightly lacking in some of its supporting players, the friendship between Munezo and Samon not as complex or noteworthy as Seibei's with Iinuma. Hazama's background is never deeply felt, but when he escapes his prison, Yamada captures his intensity like Kurosawa's Lear, Lord Hidetora Ichimonji.
Once again, cinematographer Mutsuo Naganuma shoots an epic tale in 1:85:1 aspect ratio, but his intimate moments - Kie lying sick in the dark, Munezo moving a brazier towards Hazama's wife, kneeling outside - are beautiful as are his frequent cherry blossom cutaways.
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