Yoji Yamada, director of the universally acclaimed The Twilight Samurai, directs an interesting cast in another period samurai film that once again finds the perfect balance of drama, romance, and swordplay.
The storyline follows Munezo (Masatoshi Nagase of Pistol Opera and Suicide Circle), a rough around the edges samurai who has long had a secret crush on Kie (Takako Matsu of Nine Souls), one of the maids in his family home. She ends up getting married to someone in her own caste and is whisked out of his life for a while until Munezo gets word that she has fallen quite ill and that her in-laws have done little to help her.
Munezo and his brother in law, also a samurai, head over to visit Kie only to meet with strong resistance from her mother in law. Munezo demands to see her though and when he finally does, he finds the pretty young girl he once knew reduced to a bed ridden shell of her former self, the victim of negligence. He takes her out of the home and back to his house where she's nursed back to health and serves as his maid once more. Their relationship grows stronger, though their love remains unspoken.
Eventually Munezo sends Kie back to her family home as he knows that their love will never be acceptable. She objects but ultimately her orders her to leave and she does. Shortly after her departure, Munezo finds that one of his former colleagues with whom he used to practice swordplay has gone rogue and been accused of plotting to overthrow the Shogun. He's captured but soon escapes and holes himself up in a small house outside of town where he holds a family hostage. The local officials know that Munezo is the only one who can get close enough to him to stop him and that he's the only one with sufficient sword skills to be able to kill him if the need arises. Munezo is given no choice in the matter, much like he gave Kie no choice in going home, and he is forced to obey his superiors.
The Hidden Blade of the title refers to a specialized sword technique that Munezo learns from his master towards the end of the film, and also of Munezo's philosophy that the sword should never be unsheathed unless absolutely necessary. Though the end result of the film is quite violent, it is never over the top and the characters in the film use it as a last resort, not as a simple method of solving their problems. This keeps in line with Munezo's speech to Kie where he explains why she and her sister needn't be afraid of samurai.
Anyone expecting the arterial spray and unrestrained violence of the Lone Wolf And Cub films or the out and out action of some of Kinji Fukasaku's period samurai films will likely be disappointed to find that The Hidden Blade is much more of a drama than an action film. Though the ending does satisfy in the combat department, with a wonderfully shot and constructed sword fight or two, the film focuses more on Munezo's relationship with Kie and on the interplay between castes and families than on decapitations and bloodbaths.
Yamada also makes an interesting contrast between the younger samurai, eager to embrace the western ways with fire arms and new combat techniques, against the older samurai who cling to tradition and honor above all and who shun the very idea of replacing swords with muskets. The very basis of the samurai code, honor, is under the microscope throughout the film as almost all of the characters have to deal with change and how it will affect them. It's this exploration of change, be it in one's love life or be it political, and the fact that the characters are so powerless against it that makes the drama so compelling.
Masatoshi Nagase and Takako Matsu are superb in their roles – both are very believable, never over the top or too melodramatic with their performances. The emotions that they portray in the film are heartfelt and quite genuine and while all of the soap opera dynamics play out it never feels forced or too sappy. The supporting cast is also quite good, with Reiko Takashima of Takashi Ishii's Black Angel and Tomoko Tabata of Takashi Miike's Sabu playing small but memorable parts.
Though the film unfolds at a slow pace, the cinematography is so delicate and precise, the scenery and countryside so beautiful (especially the scene that takes place at the coast) and the performances so good that you don't mind taking it all in little by little. Yamada's film gives us characters to care about, to root for, and to sympathize with which makes the story all the more interesting even if at its core it really is quite a simple tale.
The 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen looks nice and sharp. Colors are, as should be expected, slightly muted but this is obviously a stylistic choice on the part of the filmmakers and not a flaw with the transfer. The overall quality of the image on this DVD is excellent with only some mild film grain noticeable in a few of the darker scenes. There are no problems at all with mpeg compression artifacts even in the darker moments of the film where they tend to be more noticeable, and edge enhancement is kept to a minimum. Print damage is non-existent and there's really not much to complain about in regards to how this movie looks. Shochiku have done a great job bringing this film to DVD.
The Japanese language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix is great. Dialogue comes at you from the center channel the majority of the time with the rears used to add subtle but important atmospheric effects, but when the action scenes hit, the rears pick up a bit and are used quite heavily. The levels are all adjusted and balanced properly in that the characters are never drowned out by the effects or the score and everyone is clear and easy to understand. Optional English subtitles, a rarity for a Japanese DVD release, are included which are clean, clear, easy to read and free of any typographical errors.
This version of the DVD comes only with a teaser and a trailer for the film, both in Japanese only. There is a special edition three disc set out as well, with some making of documentaries and other extra features but I can't testify as to the quality or whether or not they have English subtitles.
Despite very little in the way of extra features on this single disc release, audio and video quality are top notch and The Hidden Blade, while not quite as compelling as The Twilight Samurai is an excellent film. Great performances, gorgeous cinematography and an interesting story make this one highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.