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Judge Dan Mancini • Location: Tucker, GA
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Blog Review: The Hidden Blade
December 12th, 2005 12:32PM

After a long career of milking his formulaic but sort of charming Tora-San series of domestic light comedies for all it was worth, writer-director Yoji Yamada is having a bit of a career renaissance in his seventies. His latest picture, 2004's The Hidden Blade (Kakushi-ken: Oni no Tsume) is a follow-up to 2002's internationally-acclaimed, Oscar-nominated Twilight Samurai, an outstanding tale of feudal strife at the beginning of the Meiji period. Anyone who's seen even a handful of the 48 Tora-san adventures shot between 1969 and 1995 won't be surprised that The Hidden Blade bears a striking resemblance to its predecessor: Yamada's career seems to have been built on the close and repeated study of social minutiae.

In Blade, a low-level samurai named Katagiri (Masatoshi Nagase, The Sea is Watching) is unwillingly sucked into intrigue when an ambitious friend, Hazama (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), is arrested for his involvement in a reform plot. Katagiri happens to be one of his clan's most formidable swordsman because of a "hidden blade" maneuver taught him by his now pacifist mentor. Hazama, naturally, is the one samurai who might be even more deadly than Katagiri. When Hazama escapes from captivity, and holes up at the foot of a mountain range, Katagiri is manipulated into facing off against his old friend.

If all of this sounds similar to the duel in Twilight Samurai, it is. Yamada appears to have become enamored with orchestrating scenes of mirror-image samurai in sadly fateful confrontations as a metaphor for the samurai class' self-destruction -- its devouring of itself -- during the Meiji period. There's no reason he shouldn't be smitten. The metaphor nicely encapsulates the themes he's exploring, and it's dramatically compelling on a literal level, too.

In another Twilight Samurai echo, The Hidden Blade also features an understated romance between Katagiri and his family's maid, Kie (Takako Matsu). The duo's love for one another goes unexpressed for years due to their class differences and Katagiri's general reticence with regard to matters romantic and/or erotic. It plays with the same sort of will-they/won't-they dynamic one finds in an Edith Warton novel...or a daytime soap opera...or Twilight Samurai. If you enjoy that sort of thing, you'll like it here; if you find it frustrating in The Age of Innocence, Yamada's picture might not be the piece of entertainment for you.

Though The Hidden Blade is built on the same plot skeleton as Twilight Samurai, it offers variation in emphasis and tone. There's more comedy here (some of it broad); slightly less emphasis on romance, and slightly more on clan intrigue. Those who liked Twilight Samurai as a well-performed though low-key chambara, will probably find The Hidden Blade redundant -- its pace is slower and it offers little we haven't already seen. Those interested in Japanese history, may find a poetic density in Yamada's subtle shifts in focus. It's as if he's performing an inch-by-inch exploration of Japan's cultural transition from feudalism in the Meiji restoration.

Unfortunately, Yamada once again demonstrates his nearly limitless capacity for clunky endings. The finale of The Hidden Blade is weaker by far than that of Twilight Samurai. It's so out of place, in fact, it almost undoes all of the gossamer beauty that's come before.

It's doubtful the aged Yamada has enough time to make 46 more variations on the samurai theme he's introduced. But based on his tenacious devotion to Tora-san, if he does by some miracle of genetics make it into his 140s, I'm sure we'll see many more pictures in the style of Twilight and Blade.

The Hidden Blade is not yet available on DVD in North America, but there's a solid Region 3 disc from Shochiku if you've got a player that can handle it. Colors are slightly muted here and there, but the image overall is quite beautiful. The original Japanese audio is offered in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround.

(Cross-posted on Stray Dog.)

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