Late in samurai history, a samurai’s first real duel

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If I hadn’t seen Yamada Yoji‘s very impressive 2002 “Twilight Samurai,” (Tasogare Seibei) I probably would rapturously praise Yamada’s 2004 “The Hidden Blade,” (Kakushi ken oni no tsume), which repeats so many of its themes with only slight variation in characters and their difficult situations in the final decade of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868).

As in “Twilight Samurai,” there is a very skilled swordsman, Munezo Katagiri (Nagase Masatoshi, “The Sea Is Watching,” “Mystery Train”) who is disenchanted with serving a corrupt clan chief retainer (Ken Ogata, who once portrayed Mishima Yulio in Paul Shrader’s biopic). The obsolescence of samurai swordsmanship is even more obvious in “Hidden Blade,” because other low-level samurai are being drilled by a frustrated modern (gun-oriented) instructor from Edo (later renamed Tokyo). Their trying to high-steep in kimonos and sandals is quite comic. Eventually, they don trousers and shoes and begin to resemble a modern army.

Katagiri, however, is ordered to take out a rebel who has broken out of prison and is barricaded with an old peasant and his grand-daughter. Katagiri has a strong aversion to the assignment, less because of concern about being killed (which was paramount for the Twilight Samurai being sent to eliminate an expert swordsman who had refused to commit hari-kari and barricaded himself in a peasant house) and being separated from his love (from whom he is already geographically separated) than from not wanting to kill a “brother in the sword.” Hazama Yaichiro (Ozawa Yukiyoshi) was seen in the very first scene departing for Edo, sent off by his best friends, Katagiri and his soon-to-be-brother-in-law Samon (Yoshioka Hidetaka).

Over the course of the movie, the viewer learns that Katagiri and Hazama were the star pupils of their cohort at Toda Kansai’s academy and fought three exhibition matches, of which Katagiri won two, though Katagiri three times says that in a real sword fight Hazama would have won (and killed him). This is also Hazama’s view.

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Katagiri also three times reports that he has never drawn his sword in a real duel or battle. As Jet Li says of wu-shu and as Toshiro Mifune showed as the title character in Sanjuro Tsubaki, Katagiri says that a samurai should try to settle matters without fighting. But like Jet Li characters and characters in innumerable westerns (particularly Anthony Mann ones), if fight he must, fight he will. As in “Twilight Samurai,” Katagiri’s preparation for fighting and possible dying is shown in meticulous detail. And as in “Twilight Samurai,” the fight-to-the-death is in the confined space of a house. Unlike in many samurai movies, but as in “Twilight Samurai,” the hero does not emerge unscathed and unruffled. The swordsmen here cut each other and eventually struggle for breath (contrast “Goyokin,” for instance).

And, as in “Twilight Samurai,” the hero has been in love since childhood with someone he cannot think of marrying because of caste differences. In both movies, the beloved has a horrible marriage to an abusive husband (and driven to the brink of death by a ferocious mother-in-law, played by Mitsumoto Sachiko, in “Blade”) before love (mutual but unspoken) has any chance.

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Despite its title “The Hidden Blade” is more a love story—albeit one between very repressed individuals who try to force themselves not to think of the one they love—than an action movie. In both movies, the fights, when they occur, are all the more impressive for being severely rationed.

Oh yes, “the hidden blade”: that is a technique that only one samurai in a generation (within the clan) learns. Hazama is resentful that it was not he who was taught it, and is very curious about whether Katagiri will use it in fighting him. It is a surprising technique and Katagiri eventually uses it, but what it is and when it will be used are the main suspense of the movie (love eventually triumphs, as in most movies, and as the audience—if not the characters—expect). There are some other surprises.

What is not surprising is the series of exquisite visual compositions. “Hidden Blade” looks as good as “Twilight Samurai,” which is extremely high praise. The cinematographer for both was Naganuma Mutsuo. (also responsible for shooting “Zaiotchi” and for other Yamada movies, including “Gakko”). The disenchanted samurai has to carry both movies. Nagase Masatoshi is up to the challenge, supported by the open faced Matsu Takako as Kie, the woman he loves but cannot marry. Ozawa Yukiyoshi is also excellent as the crazed prisoner and escaped prisoner Hazama, And Tanaka Min, a dancer who had never acted before playing the barricaded master swordsman in “Twilight Samurai” has another interesting turn as the teacher, Toda Kansai, who has renounced his samurai status, but is ready, willing, and able to coach Katagiri before his first duel-to-the-death.

Not a chambara (swordplay) movie, “The Hidden Blade” is akin to many of the 1960s rebel samurai films (especially. Kobayashi’s, “Samurai Rebellion” and “Hara-Kari“) in showing a very honorable samurai in a dishonorable world, torn between obedience to corrupt masters and parts of the samurai code (bushido) other than the duty to obey. (The chasm between what the regime claims are its values and how it unscrupulously uses those who believe in those values, of course, has not contemporary relevance—or does it?)There is some broad humor in “The Hidden Blade” (not the black humor of “Yojimbo” and Kill!). And the end of the era of the skilled swordsman is more clearly inscribed (often being only implicit in rebel samurai films).

The pace is slow, and, as I began by saying, I recently “saw it all” (with minor variations) before in Yamada’s “Twilight Samurai.” Otherwise, I would think “The Hidden Blade” was a great movie. It is a great movie if repeating oneself is not considered a bar to the label (and I don’t mean that the two are similar).

The Tartan DVD includes a 16-minute featurette on the making of the movie, with Yamada (again) stressing his interest in showing low-rank characters. It also shows some of the training of the actors. There is 8 minutes of red-carpet coverage of the film’s premiere at the Berlin Film Festival with Yamada’s introduction of the movie before its showing and 6 minutes of press conference that adds little to what Yamada said in the “making of” featurette. The DVD includes both the original Japanese trailer (filled with spoiler) and the (misleading) US release one. A howler-filled essay by Jonathan Crocker is very dispensable (I mean someone who can’t distinguish between the name of the main character and the actor portraying him? That the film with its frequent mentions of the shogun(ate) is set in the 1890s? .Etc.!)

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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