In its perfunctory theatrical run Yoji Yamada's The Hidden Blade (Kakushi ken oni no tsume, 2004) grossed a paltry $30,000 after a month's run on three screens in the U.S. this summer. Given that this is one of the best Japanese movies in several years, and that it's light years ahead of high concept claptrap like Memoirs of a Geisha (which nonetheless grossed 1,900 times The Hidden Blade's domestic take), such imbalance is downright criminal yet typical when it comes to the Hollywood entertainment machine and the downtrodden Japanese film industry. At 75, director Yamada is part of an ever-dwindling generation of master filmmakers whose work still does big business in Japan and wins armfuls of awards in Japan and on the festival circuit, but which struggles to find an audience in the west. Hopefully Tartan's generally good DVD will help find the film the audience it deserves.
The film is the second of a trilogy, all based on stories by the late Shuhei Fujisawa. Yamada's Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibei, 2002) swept that year's Japanese Academy Awards, while Yamada is currently at work filming the final third for release in Japan this December.
Each is set in the harsh rural landscape of northern Japan at the end of the Tokugawa Era (around 1860). In The Hidden Blade, minor samurai retainer Munezo Katagiri (Masatoshi Nagase, best-known to western audiences as the Japanese tourist with an obsession for Carl Perkins in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train) is in love with Kie (Takako Matsu), a farm girl taken in by his family and trained as a servant to the samurai class. When she's married off to a merchant's family, he becomes depressed but later rescues her when Kie's abusive, slave-driving mother-in-law works her to the point where she becomes seriously ill. Munezo and Kie are obviously in love but this is unspoken, partly because they are of different mibun (castes): as a samurai, he would never be allowed to marry a mere servant.
Meanwhile, an old friend of Munezo's, Yaichiro Hazama (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) has been arrested for plotting against the shogunate in Edo, and soon Munezo falls under suspicion as well.
Like Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade is a partly-revisionist, partly straightforward take on the lives of ordinary samurai and their families. As was famously said in Kurosawa's Sanjuro (1962), "good swords are kept in their sheaths," and part of Yamada's aim is to emphasize the fact that the historical samurai rarely used their swords, and dispel the movie- and TV drama-perpetuated myth that samurai were constantly engaged in battle in Musashi Miyamoto-like epic duels. Instead, he focuses in on in the little details of everyday life: how servants washed their clothes, what samurai training might have been like. A rather ingenious subplot to the film involves a western-world trained artillery instructor's frustrated efforts to teach his resolutely traditional samurai students. Unfamiliar with Occidental ways, they march worse than Abbott and Costello in Buck Privates, are overwhelmed by English military terminology, and, in a hilarious vignette, prove hopelessly inept at firing a western-made cannon. Later in the film, however, the same troops are shown to have eventually adapted to western ways all too well, and the sight of this more modern, far more destructive army is no longer very funny.
The film recalls the revisionist samurai films of the 1960s, especially Masaki Kobayashi's Harikiri (Seppuku, 1962) and Samurai Rebellion (Joi-uchi - Hairyo tsuma shimatsu, 1967) in its condemnation of bushido hypocrisy. As in those films, the disgraced but honorable samurai, like El Cid, serve unworthy masters who play fast and loose with their own code of ethics.
As with all of Yamada's films, the script (co-written with longtime collaborator Yoshitaka Asama) is rich in complex characterization gradually unveiled over the film's leisurely (but not overlong) 130 minutes. The performances are uniformly excellent, though Ken Ogata is especially oily as Chief Retainer Hori (he's not the Shogun [!] as listed on the IMDb and elsewhere), while Sachiko Mitsumoto (the very first Tora-san "Madonna") recalls Haruko Sugimura's vile madam in Red Beard.
A number of Yamada veterans appear, most prominently Hidetaka Yoshioka (A Distant Cry from Spring) as Munezo's worrisome samurai friend and brother-in-law, Samon. It's a pleasure to see Chieko Baisho, Sakura in the Tora-san movies, in a small role near the beginning, while Kunie Tanaka has an amusing turn as a samurai outraged by the encroachment of western world ways. Most of Yamada's surviving, career-long collaborators have returned for The Hidden Blade, joined this time by Akira Kurosawa's look-alike daughter Kazuko, who designed the costumes.
Video & Audio
The Hidden Blade is presented in a fairly good 16:9 enhanced transfer that approximates the original 1.85:1 theatrical release. The image is a bit soft and the colors muted (the later would seem to have been Yamada's intention) but a vast improvement over the inexcusably bad U.S. DVD of Twilight Samurai. The excellent sound, with lots of directional effects, is offered in three mixes: Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, 5.1 surround, and DTS Digital Surround. In addition to the removable English subtitles, Spanish subtitles are offered as well, very unusual for a Japanese movie.
Tartan's DVD is accompanied by a number of nice extras, most apparently carried over from the Region 2 Japanese release. All are 4:3 standard size. Behind-the-Scenes with Yoji Yamada (16 minutes) eschews the usual featurette of this kind, focusing in on Yamada's attention to historical little details, his Kurosawa-like studiousness with regard to even minor props. It also spends time with one of the actresses, a child performer excellent in the film as Kie's younger sister.
Also included is a nice montage following Yamada around the Berlin Film Festival Premiere (eight minute). Mostly it soaks up the atmosphere of the event. A Yoji Yamada Press Conference (six minutes) dated October 2004 relates to a cultural award that goes unnamed in the English subtitles. During the press conference, Yamada answers a few questions, and talks about an early work with Crazy Cats star Hajime Hana, his first Tora-san movie, and Twilight Samurai.
A spoiler-filled Japanese Trailer emphasizes The Hidden Blade's love story while the American Trailer, actually a video spot, predictably implies a movie with a lot more swordplay action and battle sequences than there actually is. The trailer quotes The New York Times' Stephen Holden's ludicrous comparison of The Hidden Blade to "an old-fashioned Hollywood Western." Like what, Hoppy Serves a Writ? Hoary cliches about Japanese cinema die hard.
One unfortunate extra is the embarrassingly sloppy booklet essay by Jonathan Crocker. It's filled with glaring typos and numerous factual errors. Frankly, a junior high school student writing a book report on the film could do better. A few not-insignificant examples: Crocker thinks Munezo Katagiri is the actor's name, and that Masatoshi Nagase is the name of the main character, a mistake hard to make if you watched the movie. He claims director Yamada is 65 years old, has 78 films "on his CV," and directed "every one" of the Tora-san movies - all of which is incorrect. He also asserts the film is set in "the 1890s Samurai era," which is not only decades off but long after the samurai class was disbanded. Tartan must share some of the blame for not editing or fact-checking this properly.
The Hidden Blade is extremely good if shy of perfection, only because nothing about it especially new or revolutionary. But as a portrait of late-Tokugawa Era daily life, few films are its equal.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.