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Where EAST meets the Northwest

TWILIT SAMURAI. Yōji Yamada’s 2004 film The Hidden Blade, about a samurai in the Edo Period in Japan, will be shown as part of the Portland International Film Festival. (Photo courtesy of Tartan USA)

From The Asian Reporter, V16, #7 (February 14, 2006), page 1 and 11.

Yamada brings another reluctant samurai to PIFF

The Hidden Blade

Directed by Yōji Yamada

Produced by Hiroshi Fukazawa

Distributed by Tartan USA

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

One of the highlights of last year’s Portland International Film Festival (PIFF) was Yōji Yamada’s Twilight Samurai, the story of a low-ranking samurai caught between his emotions and his duty. This year’s PIFF features Yamada’s 2004 The Hidden Blade, also about a samurai in the Edo Period in Japan, facing a similar conflict. The film follows Munezo Katagiri, a low-caste samurai whose father died in disgrace, as he struggles to reconcile his bonds of friendship and love with his samurai code of honor.

Katagiri (Masatoshi Nagase) and Samon Shimada (Hidetaka Yoshioka) open the film by bidding farewell to their friend and clansman Yaichiro Hazama (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), who has been called to Edo to assume a position in the shogunate. During the years Hazama is away, Shimada marries Katagiri’s sister Shino (Tomoko Tabata), and Katagiri watches as his beloved maid Kie (Takako Matsu) is married to a merchant’s son. Though Katagiri and Kie love each other, their castes prevent them from marrying; yet their lives remain intertwined. After he finds Kie deathly ill from constant abuse by her husband’s family, Katagiri carries Kie to his home, demanding she be granted a divorce.

Once Kie recuperates at Katagiri’s home — to no small scandal in the community — and obtains her divorce, she remains as his maid, enjoying her proximity to the man she loves. But then word comes from Edo that Hazama has been caught conspiring with government reformists and is returning to his clan’s territory to live his life in solitary confinement. Katagiri, known as a friend of Hazama, is asked by the clan’s chief retainer Shogen Hori (Ken Ogata) to identify possible conspirators with Hazama, but Katagiri refuses, enraging Hori.

Soon after, Hazama escapes, and Katagiri is called before Hori once more, who orders him to kill his friend, since Katagiri is the only swordsman ever to best Hazama. Katagiri knows he must follow this order or die, but his friendship gives him pause, as well as the fact that Katagiri has never drawn his sword in an actual fight. As Katagiri seeks a path through this thicket of ethical dilemmas, he sees the truth about both his clan and the samurai code, which diminishes daily under the new rifles that the clan is learning to use.

This technological influx provides much of the comic relief to the movie, as the samurai struggle to understand the mystery of gunpowder and the puzzling ways of Western warfare. This subplot also underlines the imminent demise of samurai culture, a central theme of the movie. When two older samurai scold Katagiri for using firearms, Shimada interjects that the way of the world is for the new to replace the old. While this is an insult to the tradition-bound ideals of the elder samurai, it is also an indication of the changes to come in the Meiji restoration, which will spell the end of the samurai. The film’s title nominally refers to the swordfighting techniques taught to Katagiri and Hazama, but it also suggests these dangers inherent in Japan’s future.

As in Twilight Samurai, the swordplay is secondary to the emotional interplay between the characters; the film’s only fight is as much talk as action. But Yamada’s focus is on his characters, and he offers plenty to absorb his audience, bolstered by stellar performances from the cast. Nagase perfectly captures Katagiri’s simmering resentments and inner turmoil, while Matsu makes us believe Kie’s heartwrenching agony, being so close to the man she loves, and yet so far. Yamada’s sure directorial hand is always in evidence, from the crisp cinematography that envelops characters in the rigid lines of Japanese architecture to the pacing that maintains nailbiting suspense alongside subtle emotional conflict. Twilight Samurai and The Hidden Blade are the first two films in Yamada’s trilogy about Edo period samurai, and this film will leave viewers anxiously anticipating his final installment. Yamada has once again given us one of the must-see films of PIFF with his thoughtful and moving The Hidden Blade.