The Hidden Blade Review
In the waning years of the Tokugawa shogunate, two rank-and-file samurai of the remote Unasaka prefecture – Munezo Katagiri and Samon Shimada – bid farewell to their mutual friend Yaichiro Hazama, who as a rising star amongst their clan is bound for distant Edo (Tokyo) to assume an important post. Returning to the friendly warmth of the Katagiri home, talk soon turns to the gentle teasing of his younger sister Shino for her claim of having prepared dinner… after all, she may be Samon's fiancée, but everyone knows that the one with real cooking skill is Kie, an attractive farm girl who is serving as the family's maid whilst she acquires the abilities and etiquette needed to secure a good marriage for herself someday.
However, three years on, a great deal has changed. Although Shino married Samon as planned (and the two seem content), Munezo's mother has died and Kie has been wed into the Iseya family (of the merchant caste)… which leaves Katagiri living a somewhat lonely bachelor's existence. Worse yet, the clan's military leaders in Edo have sent a young 'specialist' to train the old guard of local samurai in modern warfare techniques, including everything from safely using firearms and heavy artillery to running like Westerners do. But the final blow comes when Munezo discovers that Kie has fallen desperately ill from neglect, trapped in a loveless marriage and being ill-used by her husband's family. Betraying more feeling for her than would generally be deemed proper for a man of his rank, he promptly rescues her from the Iseya household and commands her husband to file for divorce so she will be free of them.
Unbeknownst to Munezo, whilst – with the help of Shino and others – Kie recovers her strength, dark political machinations are brewing on the horizon which will soon engulf him. Despite the fact that with Kie's return the Katagiri household has regained its good cheer, word eventually reaches Unasaka that Yaichiro has been implicated in a plot against the government and that dishonour and suspicion has fallen upon their clan as a result. While Yaichiro is captured and brought back to be imprisoned in Unasaka, the local clan leaders – operating on the principle of 'guilt by association' – call Munezo on the carpet to answer for his friend's actions… or at the very least, to provide the names of those who might be sympathetic to Yaichiro's cause.
Faced on one side by the pressure of his clan's chief retainer and the weight of public opprobrium for his 'unseemly' relationship with Kie on the other, Munezo has some unpleasant decisions ahead of him as the story moves towards its final dramatic act. Although he loves Kie and she loves him, separated as they are by a chasm of castes, can he order her to leave him for her own good? And can he comply when ordered by his superiors to kill a friend… not to mention one who is a superior swordsman to himself?
The Hidden Blade (as it's been rendered for Western distribution, the original title being Kakushi Ken, Oni No Tsume or – roughly translated – 'Hidden Blade, Demon's Claw') is the latest film from veteran director/scriptwriter Yoji Yamada. Those familiar with his previous effort, The Twilight Samurai (2003), will find it bears a lot in common with this new 2004 production… but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. (After all, The Twilight Samurai received no fewer than 13 film awards – more or less sweeping the Japan Academy Prizes – and 4 additional nominations… including ones from the Berlin International Film Festival and the Oscars.)
Both films are set towards the end of the Edo period, when the spectre of imminent Westernisation loomed heavily on Japan's horizon. Both screenplays were co-adapted by Yamada and Yoshitaka Asama from a popular series of historical novellas by acclaimed author Shuhei Fujisawa. Both entail themes of conflicted romance, crises of friendship and loyalty, and the inevitability of change. Oh, yes, and they both feature a samurai as protagonist. However, before you ardent fans of martial arts films rush out to purchase this DVD, there is something you should understand. Unlike the recent spate of Eastern epics such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The House of Flying Daggers and Hero, The Hidden Blade is not a 'thrill-a-minute', wuxia-happy series of spectacular fight scenes choreographed against jaw-droppingly beautiful sets.
And yet again, that's not necessarily a bad thing. However gorgeous the above films are to watch, in many ways they come across as too idealised, too perfect, too constructed. By contrast, what a film like The Hidden Blade provides is a more realistic approach to storytelling. Our hero here isn't a legendary swordsman whose name is known far and wide; he's just a low-ranking samurai in some backwater prefecture eking out a frugal existence on pay of 30 koku [bales of rice] per year. He isn't being summoned to contend with some grave threat to the kingdom or to retrieve a rare artefact; he's just trying to find a way to help those he cares about whilst still holding firm to the code of the samurai. Nor is everything in this world picture-perfect… unlike the dashing characters, stunning swordplay, and pristine staging of that better-known trio of films, The Hidden Blade offers up characters who aren't necessarily handsome and/or beautiful, fights which are messy and look evidently exhausting, costumes which are weatherworn (or even threadbare), and sets that appear as if they've actually been lived in for decades rather than having been built yesterday. The net effect of this is to make the experience of watching The Hidden Blade quite emotionally engaging.
And if the story, script, and direction are beyond reproach, much the same can be said about the cast. The acting is quietly understated, with no over-the-top theatrics to distract you from the reality of the characters' situation. Masatoshi Nagase hands us an excellent performance as Munezo, the wielder of the eponymous 'hidden blade' (for a further explanation of which, you'll just have to watch the film). Takako Matsu does a very believable turn as Kie, chaste and demure but never once straying into that dangerous territory of saccharin sweetness. Yukiyoshi Ozawa's take on Yaichiro may come across as a bit wild-eyed towards the end, but he does succeed in conveying his own unique perspective on the situation. And Hidetaka Yoshioka's rendition of Samon is less notable, but there's nothing wrong with having a bog-standard 'sympathetic colleague' role in a film like this.
As every effort has been made to make these characters and the interpersonal universe they inhabit more believable, I found myself drawn in by the very real – and somewhat universal – problems the lead character faced throughout the film. After all, most of us can understand the concept of a hopeless romance, or being forced by circumstances into going up against an old friend, or trying somewhat desperately to adapt when the things you took for granted in your life have abruptly changed. No wuxia. No magic. No superhuman mastery of weapons or kung-fu. In short, this is a good story about (relatively) normal people in difficult circumstances, told very well. It's not so much a standard 'samurai film' as a period drama about a samurai. Whilst for some people this distinction will be a turn-off, for me it was a breath of fresh air.
As a very recent production – in fact, one that only opened theatrically in Japan in October of last year – it will come as little shock that The Hidden Blade has received a generally-pristine video transfer on this release. Given the usual 16:9 anamorphic presentation, in all outdoor scenes the picture here is sharp as a tack; the indoor scenes suffer only slightly by comparison, feeling a bit too sepia-toned. Either way, this encode seems utterly devoid of print damage. Similarly, there's very little evidence of encoding problems as far as I was able to discern: the colours are naturalistic rather than heavily saturated (which I suspect was by choice), there's almost no edge enhancement to plague the NTSC video, and what faint grain there is remains quite subtle and generally only creeps in during the darker frames. It is, in short, very easy on the eyes.
The available subtitles are uniformly excellent, taking the form of a bold, very legible font in white with black outlines. The standard Japanese subs even include 'helper kana' for the less familiar kanji… and the somewhat-rarer (for a Japanese R2 release) English subs use clear language and do not suffer from any typographical errors. (Quite a difference from certain official animé releases I've viewed over the years!)
Nor is there anything to fault with the audio presentation of The Hidden Blade. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack takes good advantage of the surround sound speaker setup, switching effortlessly from a predominantly centre-channel focus during the more sedate conversational scenes to a more expansive, highly-directional tracking of individual sounds during the more action-packed segments. Regardless, throughout the film makes good use of the rear soundstage, inserting atmospheric effects and background noises appropriate to the setting, enhancing the entire auditory experience. In addition, Isao Tomita's score for this film is noteworthy in being superb in its composition and delicate in its performance, never once threatening to overpower the foreground dialogue on which this drama depends.
The main menu consists of a full-screen video clip (somewhat naughtily borrowed from a scene near the end of the film, but fortunately taken out of context it doesn't count as too terrible a spoiler), with the actual menu text as an overlay. The segment is pretty generous in size, and should give you ample time to make a menu selection before it loops. The menu choices are pretty standard – 'play film', 'subtitles', 'scene selection', and 'extras' – and each of these sub-menus features a static background image from the film accompanied by a brief looping sample from The Hidden Blade's excellent musical score.
As this is the 'Normal' version of The Hidden Blade rather than the 3-disc 'Limited Edition', it should come as no surprise that the special features are somewhat restricted in number. However, considering that (this being a Japanese import DVD) there are no English subtitles available for any of these extras, the ones that are provided seem perfectly adequate. First off we have a set of three original trailers for the film, two being brief teasers and the last being a full-size theatrical version (and by far the best of the three). There is also a second page containing about half a dozen trailers from what I must assume are the director's previous works – several seem to be quite dated, so perhaps they are part of his long-running series of 'Tora-san' films.
As for the packaging, this version of The Hidden Blade comes in a standard Amaray case, albeit one made of white plastic rather than the usual black (perhaps to invoke the iconic winter scene where Katagiri first rediscovers Kie). The cover artwork is well-chosen, highlighting the two principals and even managing to sneak in a still of the swordfight that features prominently towards the film's end. The rear of the case is rather text-heavy for my limited knowledge of Japanese, but includes several screencaps and the cast/production details.
The Hidden Blade is not going to be to everyone's taste, but it certainly was to mine. Those seeking a film that's built through-and-through on fast samurai action and peppered with bloody swordplay will likely be disappointed. On the other hand, anyone who likes the idea of a gentler drama featuring a more realistic portrayal of the late Edo period, interleaving two stories – one of romance, one of loyalty, and both of honour – will be well-served by this solid production. Whilst this isn't the 'Limited Edition' release, both the video and audio exhibited on this DVD are of good quality and the only thing you'd be missing out on are the additional special features… but as those won't be English-subbed, unless you're fluent in Japanese this 'Normal' version should more than suffice.