Appellate Judge Erick Harper says that Yoji Yamada's work is kind of like leftover lasagna—it's even better the second time around.
Killing is frightening, even for a samurai.
Writer-director Yoji Yamada captured world attention with his 2002 film, The Twilight Samurai. The film scored big at the Japanese Academy Awards (winning 13 of the 15 for which it was nominated) as well as garnering much praise on the international festival circuit. His follow-up film, The Hidden Blade, accumulated a similarly impressive twelve Japanese Academy Award nominations, but won only one. The Hidden Blade, like its predecessor, is based on a series of novels by Shuuhei Fujisawa set in the late Nineteenth Century, as modernization and a resurgent imperial throne signaled the imminent end of the samurai era.
Facts of the Case
In 1860s Japan, the times they are a changin'. Samurai warlords look to European technology and military tactics to improve the combat abilities of their forces. The rank-and-file samurai are being trained in Western methods so that they in turn may train and command units in the new, modern Japanese military.
One of the samurai caught in the transition is Munezo Katagiri (Masatoshi Nagase, Suicide Club). His friend Yaichiro Hazama (Yukiyoshi Ozawa, Fireflies: River of Light) has already been dispatched to far-off Edo. Munezo spends his days training in the modern style, along with the rest of his clan's samurai retainers, many of whom scoff at the new ways as silly and unnecessary. Their instructor, sent all the way from Edo, is a picture of the new Japan: under his traditional robes he wears a starched, white, European-style shirt with high collar and necktie. The instructor can't understand why these backwater bumpkin samurai can't seem to grasp simple tasks like marching or running in formation, or loading and firing a cannon.
Munezo also finds time to pursue an old flame: the lovely Kie (Takako Matsu, The Wow-Choten Hotel, April Story). Prior to her marriage, Kie used to work as a servant girl in the Katagiri household. When Munezo finds that her husband's family is working, starving, and neglecting her almost to death, he simply walks into her in-laws' business and carries her out bodily, demanding that she be given a statement of divorce. A tentative romance buds between the two, prevented from blossoming fully by their difference in social status. He may be low-ranking, but he is a samurai, after all, and she is just a commoner.
In the meantime, old friend Yaichiro Hazama has managed to get himself embroiled in a political scandal in Edo and comes home to be placed in a cage, locked in solitary confinement. When he escapes, the clan bosses choose Munezo to hunt him down. They trained together under the same legendary kendo master and are reputed to be the two best swordsmen in the entire clan. Munezo cannot refuse the assignment; doing so would brand him a rebel and subject him to the same fate as Hazama. Munezo dutifully goes off to face Hazama, despite the blatantly dishonorable conduct of his superiors. He doubts his ability to best Hazama in a swordfight, but arms himself with a secret technique taught to him by his old instructor, Kansai Toda (Min Tanaka, The Twilight Samurai).
The Hidden Blade may charitably be said to explore similar themes and conflicts to those driving Yamada's previous film, The Twilight Samurai. Both films focus on ordinary, relatively powerless samurai caught up in the vortex of changes marking the waning years of the Edo period. Both films show men powerless to control basic aspects of their lives, such as love and marriage, due to a rigid and unyielding social structure. Both films show men struggling to behave loyally, honorably, and honestly as they serve a system that proclaims these virtues above all others but fails to practice them.
That is one interpretation: this film is a further exploration of themes found in The Twilight Samurai. The less charitable reading would acknowledge that The Hidden Blade is but a thinly-veiled rehash of essentially the same story: low-ranking samurai deals with the pressures of modernization, saves an old friend or lost love from a hostile marriage, and receives orders from his superiors to hunt down and kill a formidable swordsman from his own clan. Fans of the earlier film will notice other similarities, such as Hiroshi Kanbe reprising his role as Naota, a mentally handicapped servant. Yamada reuses a number of settings and exteriors. Most notably, the house that provided the exterior of Seibei Iguchi's home in The Twilight Samurai now stands in as the Katagiri family home. Min Tanaka, the dancer-turned-actor who played the fugitive in the first picture returns as Munezo's kendo master; his character is described as having renounced samurai status to become a farmer, a clear reference to "Twilight" Seibei's ambitions.
If The Hidden Blade is essentially a remake of the earlier film, there are a number of things handled more smoothly the second time around. The climactic showdown, ordered by the lowly samurai's clan superiors in both cases, flows more naturally from the script this time and seems less deus-ex-machina. Also, The Hidden Blade makes better use of Munezo's honesty and decency as a key weakness that allows him to be practiced upon by friend and superior alike. Even Hazama's wife, begging for mercy for her husband, allows herself to be disgraced—as she well knows she will be—as a way of manipulating Munezo. She knows that he will invariably do the right thing and that will guarantee her the revenge she seeks. The very virtues that should make earn him respect and advancement in the samurai worldview actually make him the pawn of anyone less scrupulous than himself.
Yamada's films may nominally be samurai films, but the domestic, everyday concerns of the characters fill far more screen time than stereotypical "samurai" happenings. For most of its running time, The Hidden Blade is a more than usually engaging family or romantic drama. In the midst of Munezo's sister getting married, his dealings with Kie, her in-laws, and her sister, we almost lose sight of the samurai nature of the film. Sure, in the meantime there are scenes of Munezo and his fellow samurai drilling and learning the new ways of warfare, but these scenes are mostly played for comic relief and form mere interludes in the more personal story. This continues for some time until Hazama returns as a prisoner and subsequently escapes, thus creating the conflict that will drive the film to its conclusion.
Samurai film fans should not despair, however. While much of the film is Japan by way of Jane Austen, the final confrontation between Munezo and Hazama incorporates a fine bit of swordplay. It is appropriately thrilling while also being one of the more realistic swordfights captured on film. There is little flash or swashbuckling, but rather a hard-fought contest between two well-trained swordsmen, men who actually get tired and gasp for breath or stumble once in a while.
This DVD release come from Tartan Video and is a major improvement over the Empire Pictures release of The Twilight Samurai. This time, the transfer is anamorphic and subtitles are optional, not burned in. Picture quality is a little on the soft side, with fine textures tending to be lost. Colors are dull and drab, but that seems to be the result of deliberate choices in cinematography, much of the film being shot in a muted color palette that almost evokes old sepia-toned photographs of the time period. Sound comes in three flavors: DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, and Dolby Digital 2.0. This is not, for the most part, a rip-roaring action film, so a DTS track may seem superfluous, but it actually does a nice job of creating an immersive sound environment, with natural environmental sounds surrounding the viewer. This is particularly evident in Chapter 6 when Munezo and Kie visit the seashore; the crash of waves all around the viewer is impressive. The DTS track also provides surprising punch during the few action sequences, such as training sequences of samurai learning to fire these newfangled European cannons and rifles. After a period of relative quietness, the cannon shot came through with such shocking force that I was afraid it would wake up my one-year-old son in the next room.
Additional content includes a behind-the-scenes featurette and a couple of events surrounding the film's debut at the Berlin Film Festival. The featurette runs about 16 minutes, the first part of which deals with Yamada's focus on telling the stories of ordinary people, particularly in the character of Kie's sister Bun. Later, the featurette shifts focus and takes a look at the kendo training given to various members of the cast at one of Japan's most prestigious training schools. For those with a taste for authentic swordsmanship, this will prove a real treat. The special features then shift focus to the Berlin Film Festival. From the film's premiere we get to see some red carpet footage, followed by Yamada's remarks prior to the screening of the film. Also included is a press conference with Yamada fielding questions. The Berlin publicity stuff is interesting, but not as enlightening as one might expect. Finally, some trailers appear on the disc as well. We get to see the original Japanese trailer, the U.S. release trailer (marred by a quote from Harry Knowles—Seriously, do the people who put these things together realize how much credibility they lose this way?), and a collection of trailers for other Tartan Video foreign releases.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If, as seems to be the case, The Hidden Blade is at least a slightly better executed film than The Twilight Samurai, how come it didn't win nearly as many awards as its predecessor? I have no insight into the minds of the Japanese Academy, but if I had to guess, I'd venture that perhaps they were reluctant to heap such recognition on essentially the same film just a few short years later, no matter how much an improvement it may have been.
Remake or no, The Hidden Blade is a moving, interesting film in its own right and, if anything, perhaps an improvement on Yamada's previous effort.
Not guilty! Another fine film from Yoshi Yamada, even if it is mostly the same film over again. The DVD from Tartan Video does the film credit as well.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
• "Behind the Scenes with Director Yoji Yamada" Featurette
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