Yohji Yamada’s second film is soft with the same rural beauty that made Twilight Samurai such a remarkably refreshing period piece. It is a personal story, unconventional perhaps because its subject matter seems so very conventional, and Yamada is becoming something of a thematic auteur with his quiet, realistic portrayals of the samurai way of life, his harmless non-heroes, his uncomplicated humour and his slow sense of inevitable conclusion.
Munezo Katagiri (Masatoshi Nagase) is an unmarried samurai indentured to a small clan in North-West Honshu, living quietly and modestly with his mother and younger sister, and assisted in maintaining his house by maid Kae (Takako Matsu). His stipend is small, but his home is happy, and he is far enough from the political conflict gripping the country’s capital that even farewelling friend Yaichiro Hazama (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), who is journeying to Edo to assist their clan within the Shongunate, does not necessarily darken his horizon.
But change, especially in the period of Japanese history ending the Edo period (and Japan’s isolation from the outside world), is certainly looming. Yamada’s realistic attitude to story telling sees some humorous, poignant moments where the clan’s warriors attempt to master Western weapons. The clash between East and West, the fundamental differences, have never been clearer, perhaps because of the comical way in which they are handled, but as amusing as Yamada makes them it also smacks of forewarning. The samurai are bemused with these changes; the traditional mode of battle, and indeed the samurai code, is not a way of life but a way of living.
And because there is a difference, this film is very much about the choices Katagiri makes, not as a part of a social system, but as an individual. The increasing clash between what he believes is right to do and what he is expected to do both personally and professionally lead to conclusions that, considering this film’s similarities to Twilight Samurai, are possibly predictable but no less affecting. Katagiri is a character with slightly more status than Twilight Samurai’s Seibei, and while he has visibly more to lose than his earlier counterpart, he has something the other did not – reason to act on principle. This clash between collective honour and personal honour seems the turning point not just for one individual, but perhaps for an entire cultural era.
Speaking of the similarities to Yamada’s first film, such a fact should not put anyone off. Hidden Blade is no less beautiful and is made more accessible by a slightly faster pace and a more prominent soundtrack (by Isao Tomita, who also composed the music for Twilight Samurai). It does not repeat, by any means, the themes and messages of Yamada’s other film, but stands in and of itself as a wonderful, touching glimpse into the heart of man.