The Hidden Blade – DVD Review

Available at Amazon.com

Director:

Yoji Yamada

Cast:

Masatoshi Nagase……….Munezo Katagiri
Takako Masu……….Kie
Yukiyoshi Ozawa……….Yaichiro Hazama
Hidetaka Yoshioka……….Samon Shimada
Min Tanaka……….Kansai Toda
Tomoko Tabata……….Shino Katagiri
Ken Ogata……….Shogun Hori Unasaka
Reiko Takashima……….Hazama’s Wife
Chieko Baisho……….Mrs. Katagiri
Sachiko Mitsumoto………Mrs. Iseya

Shochiku presents The Hidden Blade (Kakushi ken oni no tsume), a Tartan Films release. Based on an original story by Shuhei Fujisawa. Written by Yamada and Yoshitaka Asama. Running time: 132 minutes. Rated R (for some violent material). DVD release date: August 8, 2006.


The Movie

“…Bushido, then, is the code of moral principles which the samurai were required or instructed to observe… More frequently it is a code unuttered and unwritten… it was an organic growth of decades and centuries of military career.”

(Excerpt from Bushido: The Soul of Japan by Inazo Nitobe)

The Hidden Blade is set in Japan during the 1860s, near the end of the Edo Era, a time of upheaval and change. Instead of sharpened blades, Western influence has given way to expensive weaponry like rifles and cannons. We have seen this before in Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai, stylish in its depiction of outmoded warriors versus modern technology. And while director Yoji Yamada has sequences where samurais are getting accustomed to using cannons or marching in battalion garb, his focus is mostly geared towards the perils of being a samurai.

Munezo Katagiri (Masatoshi Nagase) is a small town, sad-faced samurai whose village is caught up in Japan’s Western modernization. Struggling with the rapid cultural change, he must also contend with matters of the heart. Munezo shows affection towards Kie (Takako Masu), the maid of his mother’s household, but is not cognizant of it himself. The caste system keeps them apart, as a samurai is forbidden to marry a woman of a lower social class. When the day comes, and Kie is married into a family of merchants, Munezo reflects by internally remarking, “It was if the light had gone out in my house.”

This statement concedes that Kie represents something that Munezo cannot obtain as a samurai. Yes, the way of the samurai stresses such virtues as loyalty, honesty and benevolence – all qualities that Kie shares herself. Munezo is disciplined and serves the Bushido. He has never used his sword to vanquish an impeding threat – the only time he unsheathes the blade is to maintain its sharpness.

Several years pass. Unsuspectingly, Munezo meets Kie at a clothing shop. Looking at her, she appears cold and withdrawn from the surroundings; she used to be animated and full of life. The encounter is brief but lingers with each fleeting moment. His sister Shino (Tomoko Tabata) tells him Kie had been ill and left to wither away in her new surroundings. Making quick haste, Munezo rescues her from her abusive marriage, as he puts Kie on his back and takes her home. The small village community gossips about Munezo’s actions, and frowns upon them. To many he has disgraced the way of a samurai, stealing a married woman away from husband. Still, he feels his actions were justifiable. Though we know his actions were because he loves her and can’t bear to see her in such conditions. Kie regains her strength and thrives in her old surroundings.

Much like Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket was a movie told in two parts – USMC Boot Camp and Vietnam – The Hidden Blade is more than a story of love that cannot be realized. While two-thirds is devoted to unobtainable love, the last third has our low-ranking samurai being pressured into risking his life to kill one of his long time friends.

Yaichiro Hazama (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) has gone rogue. Once a trusted friend of Munezo’s, he attempted a political intrigue against the Shogun. He was later apprehended and imprisoned, not allowed the privilege of hara-kiri (belly-cutting). When Hazama escapes, Munezo is thought to have helped, since both studied under the same sword master Kansai Toda. Now the chief retainer, Shogun Hori, orders Munezo to prove his innocence from complicity by slaying Hazama. A total catch-22, Munezo must either bow to said pressure or stick to his own principles.

If he is victorious in battle he will have killed an old friend. A loss and he has failed his clan and added more disgrace to his name.

This storyline is an eerie parallel to The Proposition, an Australian western released earlier this year, in which an apprehended criminal is given the impossible of choice of locating his brother and killing him. Though, unlike the way of the samurai, the prisoner’s decisions are not weighed by those of a clan, but rather his soul. Perhaps that is why I teased my review “a western in an eastern world”.

The film explores themes commonly seen in westerns – themes that Hollywood adopted as it remade a number of Akira Kurosawa films during the 1960s. Honor, the bastardization of honor, and corruption. Swordfights take the place of showdowns at high noon. The duel between friends is not action-intensified; it is subdued, happening with calculated strokes and strategy. This is a better fit, anyway, because the emphasis shouldn’t be about violence.

Director Yoji Yamada skillfully breathes life back into the samurai genre. A few years ago his Twilight Samurai was nominated for the 2004 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. For The Hidden Blade, he beautifully recreates a feudal village – visualized with muted colors and tones – its values and ancient traditions, even as modernization is taking place. Masatoshi Nagase is wonderful in the role of Munezo. He has an everyman quality that fits the part. And when he is interacting with Takako Masu, who plays Kie, they have a master/servant rapport, yes, but also share a love that is hard to put into words.

Note: Those puzzled about the film’s title, The Hidden Blade refers to a dreaded samurai sword skill.


The DVD

THE VIDEO
(Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen)

The video transfer suffers from artifact issues. Imperfections in the film print are apparent from time to time, but not to the point that it becomes a distraction.

But kudos must be given to the art directors, Mitsuo Degawa and Yoshinobu Nishioka, and cinematographer Mutsuo Naganuma. They deftly give The Hidden Blade its faded look, making the film look much older than when it was originally produced – 2004. It is filmed in an old-fashioned and leisurely style; in much the same style used by director Todd Haynes while filming Far From Heaven, starring Dennis Quaid and Julianne Moore.

THE AUDIO
(Japanese – Dolby Digital 2.0 & 5.1 Surround; DTS Digital 5.1)

The sound design helps add to the ambiance of the environment. Wind, cool breezes, nature (birds and crickets), crackling fire, and a household of clanging pots and pans, punctuate scenes of long silence. Isao Tomita’s score is used astutely, but soars when brought into play. The DVD also includes subtitles in both English and Spanish.

SPECIAL FEATURES

Tartan Films has so kindly included a few bonuses for our viewing pleasure.

Behind the Scenes with Yoji Yamada is a 16-minute look at the production of The Hidden Blade. Unlike some featurettes, which include sound bites from principal cast and crew, the primary participant for this extra is a child actress named Yamato Uta. She plays Kie’s sister Bun, and seen only a few times during the film. With comments from Yamada interspersed, we get a look at some of the props used while shooting, as well as an inside look at swordsmanship techniques taught by kendo instructor Masaru Minowa.

The next two features are a couple of press conferences with director Yoji Yamada. The first is from a conference on October 26, 2004. The second is from the Berlin Film Festival Premiere of The Hidden Blade on February 15, 2005. The former involves the director answering a series of questions about his career, including cinematic failures and successes. For the premiere a camera follows Yamada as he makes his way into the festival. The photographer captures him signing his name on a mural in the lobby and addressing the audience before and after the feature.

Rounding out the extras are both the Japanese and US theatrical trailers for The Hidden Blade and advertisements for Tartan New Releases (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Battle in Heaven, Lady Vengeance and Vital).

THE INSIDE PULSE

Having produced 70-plus films, including the Tora-san series, director Yoji Yamada with his last two pictures has gotten wider recognition in this country. With The Hidden Blade he creates a magical film that deals with affairs of the heart. Its protagonist, Munezo Katagiri, is a low-ranking samurai of a small communal village. Trying to achieve love that is unobtainable and overcoming sorrow are central to the story. They are themes that appear not only in films such as this, but in westerns and other genres. From the set design and cinematography to the art direction and on-screen chemistry between actors Masatoshi Nagase and Takako Masu, it’s tough to find fault with Yamada’s picture.

The DVD Lounge’s Ratings for The Hidden Blade
CATEGORY
RATING
(OUT OF 10)
THE MOVIE

9
THE VIDEO

7
THE AUDIO

8
THE EXTRAS

6.5
REPLAY VALUE

8
OVERALL
8.5
(NOT AN AVERAGE)

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