HIDDEN BLADE (a.k.a. Kakushi Ken Oni No Tsume) is the second chambara film by Yoji Yamada, who is not particularly well-known for his samurai films. However, there aren't too many directors during these modern times that mastered the art of chambara film-making as Yamada has in such a short time. After his award-winning hit; "Twilight Samurai", Director Yamada looks poised for more samurai fame. "Hidden Blade" has even been nominated for numerous international film awards even in the Academy awards. (This is the second of reviews I will be writing for Yamada's "Samurai trilogy")
Munezo Katagiri (Masatoshi Nagase) is a low ranking, unmarried samurai in the Unasaka Clan. He is struggling during the last years of the Edo period with the westernization of Japan's political and military ways. Hazama, an old friend, leaves for Edo to seek his fortune and another friend marries his sister, Munezo is left with his mother and a devoted servant-girl; Kie. (Takako Matsu)
Munezo has hidden feelings for Kie but caste (social status) differences prevent him from pursuing her. Kie eventually marries a merchant while Munezo watches, as his ailing mother is about to pass away along with the age of the samurai.
Years past and Munezo comes across Kie once again; looking sickly and lonely. Apparently she is not living a happy life with her abusive new family and has fallen ill. Munezo works to free Kie from her irresponsible husband and takes her to his home. Meanwhile, Hazama (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) is arrested and returned to their hometown to face treason charges against the clan; Munezo is suspected of collaborating with Hazama in the rebellion.
At first glance, viewers will see similarities between "Twilight Samurai" and "Hidden Blade"; Munezo and Kie's situation in this film closely matches Seibei and Tomoe's issues of social differences. But if you look beyond the obvious similarities, "Hidden Blade" has quite a few major differences to its predecessor. This film expresses the reality of corrupt authority figures and the effect of the Western way of military strategy had on the way of the Samurai. "Twilight Samurai" inventively focuses on the life of a petty but noble samurai who has a family to support, while this film focuses on the more traditional ideals of chambara legend. Unlike the traditional samurai films with a great swordsman as the hero; Munezo hasn't killed before. His teacher; swordsmaster Toda has abandoned his samurai status to become a farmer and past complications regarding his father forces him to reach a crossroads where he begins to doubt if the ideals he was born to do is fitting for him.
"Hidden Blade" has one very realistic but intense swordfight near the climax. The duel is filmed in a single shot and is quite magnificent in its own way. The intensity and realism of the duel complements the strong dramatic elements of the film very well. However, even the strong vitality of the sequence may not be enough to satisfy the needs of the action junkie. Yamada seems to have a strong fondness for period drama but believe me, he does it very well. The intricate storytelling is the true strength of the film. The structure and pace is well done that the plot takes a life of its own.
The characters and the performances of the film are once again the key to the film's success. I wasn't really expecting Masatoshi Nagase in the role of a grim samurai, although he did have some practice in the fantasy-chambara flick; GOJOE. I have to say he fits the role very well as with the rest of the supporting cast. Takako Matsu is so refreshing to look at as Kie; the actress has that simple but very warm charisma that compliments her character. MinTanaka even makes a short appearance as Sensei Toda. I was also pleasantly surprised with the performances of Yukiyoshi Ozawa as Hazama and especially Reiko Takashima as his wife. However brief her screentime was, she managed to express the needed emotions, her sad look of dishonor will forever be etched into my memory.
One weakness the film may have is its similarities to "Twilight Samurai", one may see it the less powerful of the two. Not so in my opinion; I believe director Yamada actually made the film to stand on its own. With its well-structured plotline, I think the director actually succeeded in filling in the blank spaces not explored in his first film. There is also a touch of well-placed satirical nods that aids in the film's proceedings. The revelation of the secret forbidden technique known as the "Devil's Claw" also adds an exclamation point to the film's final act.
All of Yamada's samurai films have the spirit of classic Kurosawa films regarding Duty, Honor, Loyalty and Ideals. The director did well in adding Love and Family in the mix. This is not to say his films are superior, but I rather thought it was a very ingenious move to humanize the samurai legend. Yoji Yamada has mastered the chambara genre and has earned him a spot in the annals of great Japanese film-making.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! [5 Stars]
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