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The Hidden Blade (Yamada Yoji 2004)


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The Hidden Blade
[Kakushi-ken: oni no tsume]

Genre: Existential Samurai Drama

review in one breath

Faced with declining social status in a quickly changing world, the samurai Katagiri gradually realizes that his personal purpose and meaning are slipping away. Although he tries to create for himself a situation of happiness, social expectations regarding the samurai class force him to abandon even that. Then, when Katagiri's contemplations are at their deepest, his superiors call on him to assassinate a political rebel, his closest friend.


intro

The 2004 film Hidden Blade is directed by Yamada Youji and is based on the novel Kakusi-ken Oni no Tsume (Hidden Blade Devil's Claw) by Fujisawa Shuuhei. If you thought this combination of Yamada and Fujisawa sounds familiar, you'd be right, since Yamada's last film Twilight Samurai (2002) was also based on a Fujisawa novel (entitled Tasogare Seibei*). In fact these two films have a remarkable amount in common including historical setting, central plot elements, the main characters' primary decisions, difficulties and relationships, and even plot resolution. The similarity is so striking, that this almost seems like a remake of Twilight Samurai by the same director despite their derivation from separate novels. (And I've seen Hidden Blade referred to as the "sequel" of Twilight Samurai, which, btw, it is not.)

[* Note: Each of these films is actually based on a combination of two or more of Fujisawa's stories. I am listing here only the (primary) novel from which Yamada derives his film's title.]

Fujisawa's authorial interest (and both Yamada's films) focuses upon the personal dissonance experienced by samurai in the very late Tokugawa Era whose families and reputations have fallen on hard times. As the wider samurai classes gradually decline in number and rank through the national peace established by Tokugawa, many highly ranked and trained samurai find themselves in increasingly dire economic hardship. And yet as the necessities of life and survival loom ever large before their eyes, such samurai are required to maintain the socially expected ritual and nobility of the historic samurai class. Thus in Twilight Samurai, the widowed samurai Seibei works a demeaning job in order to support his children while being denied the right to marry the girl he loves due to their differences in social class. In Hidden Blade, the unmarried Katagiri, whose high-ranking samurai father was forced to commit suicide over a trivial matter, quietly watches as his family and world slowly dissipates into nothing. Here too, the now obsolete expectations of the traditional samurai class have not only destroyed his family's reputation and livelihood (by requiring his father to admit guilt by seppuku), it also hinders him from pursuing the one path to restoration he secretly longs for.

This, then, is a story about the value and happiness of the individual struggling to survive (and emerge) under the suffocating weight of decaying social traditions. In order to emphasize the individual's value, (and to add a very cool degree of samurai intrique), both novels/films attribute a formidable and rare samurai skill to the lead character, both of whom are students of the infamous swordmaster Toda. Twilight Seibei was a master of Toda's "short sword" technique, and here Katagiri alone knows the secret "Devil's Claw". At a critical point in the main character's grappling with his situation, the samurai clan leaders call upon him to use his secret, formidable skills for an assassination. Caught between personal familiarity with the target and the adamant command from his superiors, the samurai's existential moment is reached, wherein personal decision sets the course for his destiny.

If you read my review of Twilight Samurai (and ventured into the "spoiler" portions) you know that I criticized the film for blatantly simplifying the otherwise wonderfully complex situation of Seibei. Hidden Blade, produced two years later (by the same director), tells nearly the same tale but takes a wholly different and far more satisfying approach to resolving Katagiri's inner turmoils. Thus while the question of why Yamada directed two thematically identical films within a two year period looms large, one very plausible answer may be the fact that the latter Hidden Blade is intended to correct the shortcomings of the earlier film and thereby demonstrate that Yamada not only is capable of recognizing the difference but is also able to directorially pull off the more complex scenario in a highly effective and dramatic manner.

The specific historical setting for this film is the year 1861. This falls less than a decade after the 1853 Treaty of Kamakura with which Japan opened its doors to Western influence after 215 years of enforced isolation policy. It is also a mere 7 years before the utter collapse of the Tokugawa Bakufu in 1868 and the emergence of the new Meiji Era. Thus the long held Tokugawan aristocracy, built upon the hierarchy of the samurai and shogun classes, is on the brink of decomposition through ineffectiveness and social change. Power politics and self-promotion have long ago replaced the core bushido values of honor and nobility, while new firearms and cannon imported from the West are making the skills of the samurai obsolete. It is within this sudden social upheaval that Katagiri finds himself and which fuels his discontent at both his own life and the corrupt infrastructure he sees everywhere.

The fims casts Nagase Masatoshias the samurai Katagiri, Ogata Ken as the chief samurai retainer, Tabata Tomoko as Katagiri's sister Shino, and the beautiful Matsu Takako as Kie.

story

In the late Tokugawa Era, a samurai's father is required to commit suicide....

Wait, I think I already told you all this.

verdict

This is a very good story with very polished cinematography and interesting sets. I found this far more satisfying and mature than Twilight Samurai over which I would strongly recommend this film if you choose to see only one. With a running time of 132 minutes, scenarios and character relations are thoroughly developed, with plenty of dramatic twists therein. But despite the trajectory, the end comes across as unexpected and resolves the entire inner paradox in a way which is both plausible and meaningful for the Katagiri character.

There is indeed samurai action here of a formidable sort, but the film's primary weight resides wholly on the contemplative qualities of Katagiri. This is a really good tale of an individual's struggle for personal happiness in the face of all odds.

This film was acquired by Tartan Films and had a release date in late March 2006, but apparently has been delayed. Nevertheless, it should be trickling its way toward you soon.

Version reviewed: VCD with English subtitles

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Interesting historical piece exploring the decline of the samurai class. Though not frequent, its certainly graphic. No nudity, but sexuality, love and desperation figure prominently. Rather powerful tale of samurai existentialism based on the novel by Fujisawa Shuuhei.

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