The English title “Love and Honor” (L&H) has the elements backward: honor is way, way, way more prominent for the characters in “Bushi no ichibun” (2006—bushido is the samurai code of honor, so the Japanese title indicates primacy for honor). As with the two preceding historical dramas adapted from the fiction of Shuhei Fujisawa and directed and by Yamada Yôji (born in 1931), The Twilight Samurai (2002) and The Hidden Blade (2004), the samurai duties are onerous and domestic life is prominently displayed.
The samurai protagonists in this triptych are ready to fight, but reluctant. And for Japanese (past or present) they are very uxorious: they are in love with their wives and would rather be with their wife than hanging out with the other samurais.
These samurai are low-paid ones who are skilled with swords but rarely unsheath them. In L&H Shinnojo (Kimura Takuya) is one of the five samurai who taste dishes before they are served to the aging lord of the castle. (The inadequacies of protection in this set-up struck me at once).
Shinnojo would prefer to teach swordsmanship to children and be home with his wife Kayo (Rei Dan) who was adopted and raised by Shinnojo’s father. (In the Japanese colony of Taiwan, such daughters-in-law taken in as children were called simbua, and husbands raised with their future wives tended to feel something of an incest taboo about these wives, so the marriages had low fertility. The movie’s Kayo has not borne any children, but Shinnojo is shown as being very in love with her—to an extent unusual even for Japanese couples not raised together.)
There is also an aged loyal retainer inherited by Shinnojo form his father, Tokuhei (Takashi Sasano), who provides comic relief but is in some ways wiser than his young master.
Plot spoiler alert
Shinnojo eats some shellfish that should not have been served out of season. The lord is saved from the toxins, but when Shinnojo emerges from a coma that followed a high fever, he is blind.
The melodrama of his family pressing Kayo to go and seek help from a randy castle official, Shimada Toya (Bando Mitsugoro) then whispering about what she has done to Shinnojo is almost as maddening to the viewer as it is to Shinnojo. As Aunt Ine, Momoi Kaori is easy to loathe (as Shinnojo long had).
The official has certification more impressive than Shinnojo’s and is reluctant to duel someone not only of lower status but who is blind (what glory can there be in winning a duel with a blind man?).
Anyone expecting another Zatôichi blind-swordsman movie… has not seen “Twilight Samurai” and “The Hidden Blade.” All three movies have climactic sword fights, but even the sword fights are character-driven, not cartoonish action sequences. This is not to say that they are not choreographed interestingly!
What happens after the duel is pretty predictable and very audience-pleasing.
End plot spoiler alert
The visual style is austere, not amplifying the melodrama in the Douglas Sirk manner. There is camera movement, but the visual austerity is reminiscent of Ozu movies. The lower-class woman with no good options seems very Mizoguchi, with Tokuhei resembling comic figures in Kurosawa movies (not least the fool in “Ran,” Kurosawa’s imagining of a Japanese “King Lear”).
In his de facto trilogy (with different characters, I’m pretty sure the movies were not conceived as a trilogy) Yamada has single-handedly revitalized samurai movies in/for this millennium. Although I have no idea whether Yamada is familiar with Hollywood revisionist westerns of the early 1950s (The Gunfighter, The Searchers, Winchester ’73, et al., the samurai in Yamada’s trilogy are more human than action hero with concerns other than glory as fighters.
“Twilight Samurai” remains the most original and most striking, but I think all three are worth seeing by those with some patience for ritualized Japanese conduct. (The pacing is too slow for me, but I’m used to it from the Japanese classics. Nakadai Tatsuya coiled through most of Kobayashi Masaki’s “Seppuku” (1962) was an outstanding precursor of the long delay of the violence, as was Toshiro Mifune and Nakadai Tatsuya putting off their inevitable duel in Kobayashi’s “Samurai Rebellion” (1967) is another)
The samurai lead in L&H is younger than those in the previous two Yamada samurai movies. Kimura Takuya is apparently a big tv star in Japan. He can hold the screen without histrionics. Newcomer Dan Rei is also impressive as the loving wife.
©2009, 2016, Stephen O. Murray