The Hidden Blade


Reviewed by: Merlin Harries

In a similar fashion to his earlier film The Twilight Samurai (2003), Yoji Yamada uses the 19th century feudal system of Japan as the main setting for what is both a touching and moving love story and a grizzly portrayal of the downfall of Japan's samurai. He cleverly employs the instability of the 1860s, where the Edo-era was coming to an end and the increased Westernisation and industrialisation of Japan saw a largely unglamorous end to the governing system of the feudal lords, whom the samurai served. This proves to accentuate the underlying themes of struggle and ill-fated love as the rising sun of modernisation marks the end of Japan's distinctive cultural heritage.

The story itself begins with two rank-and-file samurai, Munezo Katagiri (Masatoshi Nagase) and Samon Shimada (Hidetaka Yoshioka), watching their close friend Hazama (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) beginning his journey to Edo (Tokyo) where he is destined for an official post with the Unasaka clan. This symbolic parting marks the beginning of the end for feudal Japan and the honour bound code of the samurai's service to the Shogunate. The story then moves forward three years where we find Katagiri and Shimada firmly entrenched by the invading Western culture as they attempt to learn the new martial techniques that will soon dispose of their own forefathers' noble traditions.

Unlike many of the other more recent offerings from Asian cinema, such as Hero (2002) and House Of Flying Daggers (2004), Yamada is not overly concerned with effects-heavy martial arts sequences that bow to the spectacle of slow-mo wuxia. The Hidden Blade is very much a period romance that uses the chivalry and nobility of Japan's shogun era as the backdrop to a story of romance.

It is the forlorn love of the aforementioned Katagiri for Kie (Takako Matsu) that serves as the main storyline, as he rescues her from a life of perpetual labour and servitude to a trading family. This represents a betrayal of the traditions and values held dear, as Katagiri pursues his love for Kie who, as a servant, is deemed beneath him in the rigid class system. In this act, Katagiri personifies the changing beliefs and values of Japan as it is forced into a new era of modern technology and warfare. It is his struggles, pain and love that amplify the underlying turmoil of his people.

News from Edo that a conspiracy against the Shogun has been discovered and those plotting against him apprehended and ordered to commit Hari-Kiri soon shatter the tranquil love between Katagiri and Kie. The pair's old friend Hazama is also found to be involved and forced to return home and imprisoned, while Shogun Hori (Ken Ogata) interrogates Katagiri. The nobility and unswerving loyalty of the samurai is ever-present as Katagiri refuses to divulge anything despite being ensconced in distrust and suspicion by locals over his friendship with Hazama and his love affair with Kie. The juxtaposition of Katagiri's struggle and the forceful change of surrounding Japan is most acutely felt in the third act where the samurai is faced with not only the dilemma of his love for Kie but also his duty as a samurai following an order to kill Hazama.

The Hidden Blade is a triumph for Yamada and represents one of the most touching and saddening period dramas to arise from not only Asian cinema but the world over. Nagase lends the character of Katagiri a likeable warmth and steely strength, at once becoming the hero of the film, as the audience is witness to the changing face of feudal Japan through his eyes.

The final swordfight between Katagiri and Hazama is symptomatic of the individual character of The Hidden Blade, as it offers a more realistic and emotional depiction of the passing of an old order. Both Hazama and Katagiri share the common bond of their reluctance and rebellion against the feudal system, as the former plots a revolution against their ruler and the latter embraces a love forbidden by his cast system.

Reviewed on: 25 May 2006
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Conflicts of love and loyalty for a good samurai.
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Angus Wolfe Murray ***1/2

Director: Yoji Yamada

Writer: Yoshitaka Asama, Yoji Yamada

Starring: Masatoshi Nagase, Takako Matsu, Hidetaka Yoshioka, Yukiyoshi Ozawa, Tomoko Tabata, Reiko Takashima, Sachiko Mitsumoto, Chieko Baisho, Min Tanaka

Year: 2004

Runtime: 132 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Japan


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The Twilight Samurai