Love and Honor Review
Good old Yoji Yamada, in a filmmaking career spanning over 40 years he has pretty much written the book on Japanese melodrama and proven that no one can stick to a winning formula so doggedly as he can. Case in point: The Otoko wa Tsurai Yo! (It’s Tough Being a Man!) series that shot him to fame with the first film back in 1969 and then went on to span 48 films – 46 of which were written and directed by the great man himself. As a screenwriter he has co-written all 17 of the Tsuribaka Nisshi (Free & Easy) series, not to mention writing and directing all 5 of the Gakko (A Class to Remember) films. The reason the writer/director has gotten away with making so many sequels is that he has a unique talent for tapping right into the sentiments of the contemporary working men and creating protagonists that appeal directly to the zeitgeist of Japanese society. All his characters are both honourable and inspirational, while always appearing to be human and believable: Like Tora-san the lovable, thickheaded, unlucky-in-love travelling salesman who falls for a new woman in every town he visits, or Hama-chan the cheery salaryman who takes care of work and family whilst always eagerly awaiting his next fishing trip with the company CEO, or the hard working teachers and students that are trying to turn their lives around outside of the mainstream educational system in the Gakko series.
In 2002 Yamada added “Tasogare” Seibei to that list when he made Twilight Samurai. Partly adapted from popular novelist Shuhei Fujisawa’s short story The Bamboo Sword; Twilight Samurai tapped right into the growing nostalgia of Japanese Salarymen towards the honour system of the old Samurai days. Seibei’s struggle to take care of his over-sized family on a low rice stipend while remaining dutifully committed to his Samurai obligations proved both heroic and motivational to Japanese males. The film’s success earned the director his 3rd Best Director and 4th Best Screenplay awards from the Japanese Academy, not to mention a nod for Best International Film at the 76th Oscars. For the first time in his career Yamada had created a drama that achieved almost as much attention and acclaim abroad as it did at home. The franchise bell started ringing again, inspiring Yamada to make Twilight Samurai the first in a thematic trilogy of period films all adapted from Fujisawa stories. 2004 saw the release of The Hidden Blade, which didn’t quite muster the same critical praise and international attention as its predecessor, but still made a nice tidy sum at the Japanese Box Office. And so we now have the final film in the “Fujisawa Trilogy”: Love and Honor, which sees the legendary director working for the first time with the man voted most popular actor in Japan throughout much of the new Millennium: SMAP superstar Kimura Takuya.
The hero of Love and Honor is Shinnojo Mimura, a devoted young samurai who’s unfulfilled by his latest posting in the clan’s castle as a food taster for his feudal lord. Far from the glamourous position his wife Kayo thinks it is, Shinnojo sits in a line with four other tasters silently munching on the dish of the day before the food is taken across the castle to the Lord’s quarters. It’s a fastidious, impersonal procedure and potentially very dangerous – as Shinnojo finds out when he eats some Red Tsubugai Shellfish that has been cooked out of season and has turned toxic. After spending a few days unconscious with a high fever, Shinnojo awakes to discover he has turned blind. When he discovers the blindness is permanent his world comes crumbling down. Unable to maintain any working duties as a Samurai, Shinnojo and Kayo are faced with the forfeiture of his 30-Koku rice stipend and are forced to call upon Shinnojo’s relatives for support should the worst case scenario occur. His family prove extremely reluctant to take in a blind relative and his young wife, so when Kayo mentions that a senior samurai named Shimada Toya - who recognised Kayo as the beautiful girl who lived near his old Dojo – has offered his support to the couple should they need it, Shinnojo’s family put pressure on Kayo to go to Shimada’s quarters and take him up on the offer. Shimada uses this situation to take advantage of Kayo, and when Shinnojo finds out what has happened his pride can take it no more, so he picks up the sword once more and begins training towards a life or death duel for both his love and his Samurai honour.
The danger with sticking so close to a winning formula is that you can start to feel a little complacent with repeating central themes and plot points, which I always felt was the main problem with The Hidden Blade; whose script was so close to Twilight Samurai’s that it felt not so much like a remake as more of a direct Xerox. So I was quite relieved when watching Love and Honor to find that this final film in the Fujisawa Trilogy branches out a little and tweaks some of the established themes of the previous films, whilst throwing in a few of its own into the melting pot. The main character Shinnojo has a lot more pep to him this time round, he’s a young man who’s a little disgruntled by his position and just wants to teach Kendo to the local kids. He’s also impishly playful towards children and those he is close to, creating numerous amusing little pranks and insults. Yamada had pretty much gotten everything out of the quietly determined middle-aged heroes in the previous films, so these changes to the central characters this time round make a healthy difference to the general tone of the final film. Of course the director also finds time to inject the usual social commentary on how the Samurai class system and bureaucracy occasionally crushed the “little man”, not to mention frequent comical interludes that playfully poke fun at day-to-day life within the clan’s castle.
But perhaps the most crucial difference with Love and Honor is that this time round our central hero’s giri/ninjo (duty/desire) conflict is much more direct and pressing. In the previous films it was peripheral characters that became victims of Samurai politics and the corruption of senior officials, leading to the protagonists being ordered to dish out the “justice” of their clans and thus clean up their superior’s mess. In this film, it is our protagonist and his wife who become victims of their social status and a lecherous senior official. This in turn leads us into a straight revenge theme for the closing act and a final confrontation where Shinnojo has no conflicting emotions. He has already decided to forgo his Samurai duty (which dictates that Samurai are not allowed to fight personal duels with each other) and fight for both his love and personal warrior honour. This is also reflected in Yamada’s approach to the duel, which is far more serene and graceful than the awkward, hesitant grappling of the previous film’s duels. The ultra-realistic approach is still there of course, so Shinnojo’s movement and technique is severely impaired by his blindness, but the sequence is shot with a subtle stylishness and beautiful compositions that perfectly captures the turbulent emotions of its protagonist. As such, even if there’s less “overall” action in Love and Honour compared to its precursors (which both had little action to begin with), I think it will appeal to action fans more.
Considering Love and Honor is a pretty laid back drama there’s a fair amount going on in it. We have emotional drama when our hero has to learn to cope with disability and the subsequent break down of his relationship to Kayo, then there’s the usual social subtext with a dash of Samurai politics; all leading into a revenge thriller. It’s a giddy mix of various elements that are moulded together with Yoji Yamada’s usual skill and delicacy. The only real misstep the director makes is in his over-reliance on melodrama and cliché in the way Shinnojo initially deals with his disability – i.e attempted suicide – and the news that his wife has been forced into a relationship behind his back. You know these are obstacles concocted purely to build into a somewhat emotionally manipulative, sentimental conclusion. The performances from leads Kimura Takuya and Rei Dan go do a very good job of selling this melodrama though. Both stars have little film roles to their credit (it is in fact Dan’s film debut) but they comes across as seasoned professionals. Of course in Takuya’s case that is exactly what he is now, having starred in numerous TV dramas since the mid 90’s. Over these years he’s developed a unique screen persona that’s a little surly, a little playful and very natural. All three qualities prove a perfect fit for the role of Shinnojo. The supporting cast too are note perfect: in particular Kaori Momoi - who pops up in a comical supporting role as Shinnojo’s motormouth aunt – and Takashi Sasano as Shinnojo’s oft-insulted servant. Fine performances aside though, there’s so much more to Love and Honor than Yamada’s trademark excessive sentimentality to satisfy any fan of a good old fashioned gentle Samurai drama. It may not reach the giddy heights of Twilight Samurai, but Love and Honor is a more than fitting conclusion to an excellent trilogy of films.
PresentationAsmik Ace have brought Love and Honor to DVD in 2 editions: A 3-disc extras laden Limited Edition and a basic single-disc Standard Edition, which is the version being reviewed here.
The previous films in the Fujisawa Trilogy didn’t receive very good transfers on DVD in any region, but the progressive, anamorphic 1.82 transfer for Love and Honor is a marked improvement. Colours are rich and vibrant, and skin tones are very natural and certainly nowhere near as “murky” as in the previous films’ DVD releases. Contrast and brightness levels are also excellent and the print used is very clean, with only fractional spots being noticeable on one or two occasions. Compression is also generally excellent, but there is a little mosquito noise present around the opening and closing credits. The only area that doesn’t impress quite so much is the sharpness of the image; which is just a touch lacking in detail (maybe down to some Digital Noise Reduction), and as a result there’s been some noticeable Edge Enhancement applied. Overall though, this is definitely a pleasing transfer.
There are 3 audio tracks on the DVD: Japanese DD5.1, DD2.0 Surround and a descriptive audio DD5.1 track (which doesn’t have any subtitles). For the purposes of this review I listened to both the DD5.1 and DD2.0 tracks and can report that they’re both more than adequate for this mostly dialogue driven movie. The DD5.1 track in particular has excellent dynamics, sharp, deep bass and very clear and audible dialogue. For the most part dialogue remains fixed to the centre channel with the front stereo channels used for environmental effects and Isao Tomita’s excellent score. Rear channels remain mostly dormant, but when they are used, they’re used very intelligently and add well to the overall soundstage. In comparison the DD2.0 surround track is a little more restrained, and has softer bass and a slightly hollower sound, but it too has excellent dynamics and crisp, clear dialogue.
Optional English subtitles are included, with no spelling or grammatical errors that I can recall.
ExtrasJust a couple of TV spots and a Theatrical Trailer. Nothing to write home about.
OverallAlthough Love and Honor is perhaps a touch over-melodramatic at times, Yoji Yamada has delivered a superior film to his previous samurai opus: The Hidden Blade, and brought his Samurai trilogy to a fitting close. Whether you’ve seen Twilight Samurai or The Hidden Blade or not, if you like a good, well paced period drama then this film is definitely worth checking out. The r2j Standard Edition DVD from Asmik Ace may be lacking any real extra features, but it offers a very solid audio/visual presentation – which is certainly more than can be said for the previous films in Yamada’s trilogy.
Last updated: 02/05/2018 15:25:11