Yoji Yamada is a work-house Japanese director, reliably efficient and professional. He has made several of the most popular and best loved Japanese films ever produced. Yamada directed about a dozen films in the Tora-San series, including the first and best of these pictures. Tora-San is a loveable loser, a Japanese everyman, who never exactly succeeds in achieving happiness -- the Tora-San movies have an unique bittersweet tone, are sentimental, and the comedies were mostly enormous successes at the box-office. After the death of his leading man, Yamada turned to other endeavors and capped his career with a distinguished A-List trilogy of samurai films -- these movies were also immensely successful in Japan and have received just about every award that the Japanese film industry issues.
The second of these prestigious samurai films is Yamada's The Hidden Blade (2004). The picture follows Yamada's very successful The Twilight Samurai (2001) and the suite of movies was concluded with Love and Honor released in Japan in 2007. The films share certain characteristics: all are set in the mid-19th century when the samurai system was waning and its adherents were regarded as foolish anachronisms. In each film, a member of the samurai class must face, and adjust to, various social dislocations that will ultimately eliminate them as a caste. The film's all feature extravagant love affairs filmed in the most melodramatic style -- indeed, all of these movies are much more closely aligned with Hollywood melodrama of the forties and fifties, so-called women's pictures, then the classic chambara sword-play film. The movies are exceptionally beautiful, shot in splendid, muted colors, and intensely elegiac. As far as I can determine, the acting is flawless, extremely naturalistic when compared with the barking voices and stylized gestures in many samurai films -- for instance, most everything starring Toshiro Mifune. I have seen all three films and have concluded that they are masterpieces within the genre -- each extremely affecting and emotionally complex. Finally, and most controversially, the movies have almost no violence -- there are no showy battles between a lone samurai and mobs of attackers. All three films end with a final duel, a showdown for which the audience has been prepared, and has been waiting, for the duration of the movie. These duels are exceedingly realistic, gory, and suspenseful. In some ways, the pictures resemble classic Westerns from the fifties -- the entire film points toward a final shoot-out and, when that battle occurs, it must bear the weight of emotional meaning for the whole picture.
In The Hidden Blade, the hero is a samurai who has never fought a duel and hopes to go to his grave without blooding his sword. In the film's milieu, the samurai are mostly hapless bureaucrats -- because of their code of honor they have been relegated to the task of managing the accounting for clan projects involving infrastructure: the calculus seems to be that the samurai are either too stupid, or too honorable, to steal and so they can be trusted with administering payroll on quasi-municipal projects. The hero's family is under a cloud of shame. His father was entrusted with paymaster duties on the construction of a bridge, couldn't account for some of the proceeds, and, so, had to commit hara-kiri. The hero lives with his elderly mother, his sister, and a servant girl from the mercantile classes. The hero obviously loves the servant girl, the radiantly beautiful Takako Matsu, but can't marry her due to his bushido code. When the girl is married-off to a merchant, her husband abuses her after she has a miscarriage and her mother-in-law starves her until she is half dead. The hero rescues the young woman, restores her to health, and installs her in his household. One strand of the plot, accordingly, depicts the love between samurai and the servant girl, an account of passion that is as chaste and virtuous as it is powerful. In another strand of the story (the film seems to based on several related short stories), the hero's best friend has traveled to Edo to serve the emperor. In Edo, there is a rebellion and the disloyal samurai who has joined the rebels is returned to his home town in a wicker basket, an object of public derision. The man is starved and tortured and kept in a cage on main street. Ultimately, the rebellious samurai escapes, taking hostages, and defying local authorities. The film's hero is dispatched to kill his best friend. The two men have dueled in practice many times, and the hero won a swordsmanship competition with the rebel, but he understands that an actual battle to the death is a different matter and that his opponent is more ruthless and, therefore, more likely to win the fight. Accordingly, the hero takes counsel with a samurai sensei, a master swordsman, who has withdrawn from the caste and is now living as a humble farmer. The master swordsman teaches the hero a combat technique called "the hidden blade" since he knows that his protégée lacks the proficiency necessary to defeat the fanatical rebel. Rounding out the tale is a loathsomely corrupt official from Edo, a vicious little man who is completely dishonorable himself but who demands that his samurai warriors adhere in the most strict, and hopeless style to their outmoded code of honor. A third strand tangled into these stories involves an attempt to train the local samurai in European combat techniques and technology -- this part of the film is very funny. The samurai are ordered to march in step, something completely incomprehensible to them -- furthermore, they have to be taught to run since a proud samurai warrior might, perhaps, lope in a slow trot toward a battle but, certainly, would not exhaust his honor or dignity in an all-out sprint. The three strands of the story come into sharp focus and culminate during the horrific duel scene that climaxes the movie.
The Hidden Blade is very slow and long -- it's 132 minutes, but, I think, it is an excellent film, indeed, one of the very best samurai pictures ever made. The movie is exquisitely designed in smoky green and brown colors -- everything looks muted, earth-colored and one of the pleasures of the film is landscape and nature photography documenting the change in seasons. The duel scene is fantastically frightening and spectacularly choreographed in long takes, the camera tracking alongside the men as they whirl and stab at one another. The fight begins in mist with the figures as shadowy forms fighting in the fog, but as the combat continues, the air clears and we can see everything with painful clarity. It's extraordinarily difficult to depict a man of ordinary decency and virtue -- but this is what the movie shows and, I think, Yamada's long history dramatizing the travails of poor old Tora-San probably stands him in good stead in showing the hero's essential kindness and goodness. The film's title is ambiguous -- it might refer to the secret ploy that the hero learns from the master swordsman or, instead, might signify a dishonorable assassination technique that the hero employs against the corrupt official. The movie asks the viewer to meditate on the nature of honor and codes of honor, addresses questions about social caste and love, and is successful, I think, on all levels.