The Hidden Blade
Reviewed by daface
Japanese Title: Kakushi-ken: oni no tsume
Director: Yamada Yoji
Writing Credits: Yamada Yoji
Cast: Nagase Masatoshi, Matsu Takako, Yoshioka Hidetaka
Genre: Samurai drama
Year Released: 2004
Runtime: 132 min
The Hidden Blade refers to a dreaded samurai sword skill, which you will see only towards the end of the film. Folks like me, who thought that this is going to be one of the usual samurai slugfests, may be disappointed that it is not. But as mentioned in the movie, killing is only a last resort, and even samurais themselves are fearful of death in duels.
But hey, don't jump the gun (pun unintended) just yet. This film has a story to tell, and a poignant one at that. Simply put, it tells the story of a small town samurai whose village is caught in the transition period of Japan's modernization and the introduction of western fighting tactics and arms (guns and cannons). While struggling to understand the rapid changes taking place in the nation, the samurai has to deal with relationships of the heart, namely with his family's maid, whom he adores, but is afraid to own up to. He also has to face a dilemma of being ordered into a duel with one of his long time friends, who has gone off the social track.
This film explores many themes, one of which is the samurai code of honor, where committing suicide via disembowelment (hara-kiri) is widely accepted as a practice of maintaining that honor. We also see the corruption and bastardization of this honor, which brings to mind George Orwell's Animal Farm, where some animals are created more equal than others. The protagonist, samurai Munezo, often puts his head on the chopping board, while maintaining that code, even when everyone around him, including his superiors, pressurize him to make compromises. How many of us will rigidly uphold our values and principles when faced with adversity? Or will we bow to peer pressure, and then apologize for our violation?
We are also shown the caste system in feudal Japan, which proves to be a stumbling block between the relationship of Munezo and his family maid Kie. The village clan frowns upon, and gossips about Munezo's rescue of Kie from her abusive marriage. While the motive may seem justifiable, we all know Munezo's real reason - that he loves her and cannot bear to see her being abused, and ultimately losing her life. Both know that with the caste system, they can never be together. Or can they?
The caste system does not only apply to relationships of the heart. Even within samurais, this system applies. Munezo is a small samurai in a small village, and is given little respect by samurais belonging to larger clans and cities. Think of it like the army, where foot soldiers have to "Yes Sir" every officer's instructions - even when it means given the order to kill an old friend who has gone fugitive. Munezo again struggles with this, but knows that as long as he's a samurai, orders are to be obeyed.
Change and modernization is central to the story. There are numerous hilarious moments as the samurais in training as a modern army come to grips with strange rituals, like foot drills, the handling of modern weaponry, and even the way they run. It's something like Tom Cruise's Last Samurai, only that the training's more comical here, and subtly highlights the dangers losing of one's cultural values when the world changes rapidly.
Finally, for those really waiting for a slugfest, there are two fight scenes in the entire movie. One is when Munezo seeks his old master for new guidance, and is being taught a new skill / trick. The other is when Munezo meets his longtime friend for a final showdown. Do not expect "wuxia" style sword fights. Think Star Wars: A New Hope, the duel between Darth Vader and Obi-wan Kenobi. The duel happens with measured strokes and strategy, rather than fast paced action everyone's used to these days.
But again, the emphasis here is not on violence. It is a simple tale with powerful themes, and when the Hidden Blade is finally used justly, you will applaud.
[This review first appeared in A Nutshell Review http://anutshellreview.blogspot.com/ ]