There’s something inherently warm – possibly even nostalgic – about the third and final film in Youji Yamada’s informal Samurai period trilogy. While The Hidden Blade seemed predominantly cool and blue, and The Twilight Samurai appeared raw with Spring and all it’s free colour, it’s the burnt hues of autumn, of summer at its hottest, that seem to leave the most lasting impression in Love and Honor, making the film look simple, bare, pared down to it’s most essential emotional elements – themes that do in fact take their lead quite directly from the film’s title.
Shinnojo Mimura (Takuya Kimura) is a 30 stipend samurai working as a poison taster for the aged Unasaka clan lord. Living quietly with his beautiful wife Kayo (Rie Dan) and his family retainer Tokuhei (Takashi Sasano), his day is filled – as any samurai’s is – with ritual; waiting patiently with his fellow tasters for the lord’s food to be prepared and samples brought out, and then tasting and approving the purity of the food. It is quite clearly a ceremony that has been repeated so many times for so long and without actual incident that it has lost almost all importance. To Shinnojo and his fellow samurai it is merely a job, a fact made painfully clear when something finally does in fact go wrong – not an assassination attempt on the Unasaka lord’s life, but an out-of-season shellfish.
Ironic perhaps, but that irony leaves Shinnojo blind after three days illness. Suddenly, his whole life is changed, because without his sight, he is no longer capable of holding his position as a samurai for the clan and this is where Yamada and the original author of the novel this film is based on, Shuuhei Fujisawa, begins to properly highlight not so much the pointlessness of the code Shinnojo lives by, but the tragedy of it. As someone of no use, Shinnojo’s options are what? Seppuku? Except he hasn’t shamed himself; it is only that his skills as a swordsman are almost completely negated by his disability and quite clearly the feudal Japanese society was not precisely set up to support its physically challenged.
As fate would have it, however, the possibility of begging assistance off a more powerful samurai presents itself, and Shinnojo’s family, in panic mode at the thought of being related to someone unemployable, ‘encourages’ Kayo to go seek the man’s proffered help. Of course, you can see the second stage of this little tragedy unfolding long before Shinnojo does, but he’s demonstrably blind in more ways than one. When he finally does find out what’s happening, he gets understandably upset, and the dishonour of living as a burden to others is suddenly much less an issue.
And in the true and perhaps subtle vein of Yamada’s homage trilogy, it is not simply a matter of vengeance for besmirched honor; the final conflict is a stage for Shinnojo’s anger that he does not have a legitimate outlet for. Superficially, he fights to restore his wife’s Kayo’s honor, to redress the wrongs done to her despite the fact he has banished her from his life for the very same act he seeks vengeance over. But also, he fights for himself, for some semblance of individual control in the face of the impersonal power the Daimyo Lord holds over him. It’s perhaps not completely original as narratives of this genre of Japanese film go, and while Twilight Samurai had far greater impact as a revolution of the samurai tale of regaining honor, Love and Honor is nevertheless a fitting conclusion to the director’s series.
And Takuya Kimura’s performance in this role is unreservedly good; he was reportedly eager to sink his teeth into something challenging which perhaps over -rode his undeniably pretty, possibly vacuous image, and he has without a doubt achieved that. But Kimura is merely a portion of the excellent cast of this film, and Yamada deserves every acclaim for his direction and handling of the actors. With a gentle, sometimes humorous touch, he does what he set out to do – to give a “respectful portrayal of the quiet lives of those ancestors of ours who lived in rural clan domains during the Edo period”; in other words to humanise the figure of the samurai.