HAWAII INT'L FILM FESTIVAL
Katagiri (Masatoshi Nagase) must battle an old friend, Hazama (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), in "The Hidden Blade." The film touches upon themes of duty and love, as well as the samurai values of justice and honor.
Deja vu for samurai buffs
If you've seen Yoji Yamada's "Twilight Samurai," you've seen this movie. Same time period, same quiet hero, same themes. Yamada executes the formula so well, though, it's like getting hooked on a quality TV show, even if the same stories play out week after week. "Law and Order" comes to mind.
"The Hidden Blade"
Screens at 6:15 p.m. tomorrow at Hawaii Theatre
And "Twilight" is a good model. A luminous and fascinating film, it won the Golden Maile Award at the Louis Vuitton Hawaii International Film Festival in 2003 and was nominated for a foreign-film Oscar.
We begin with Munezo Katagiri, a low-level samurai able to afford a comfortable home and a few servants but not invested with much prestige. People bow to him; he bows to many more who are higher on the samurai food chain.
Life is all tied up in duty and honor, but no heroism. At one point, Katagiri states that he has drawn his sword only to clean it. He has battled only with sticks, in training, although he has proven himself masterful. So far, pretty much like the hero in "Twilight."
He loves a woman, Kie, whom he cannot marry (it's a caste thing). A good chunk of the movie is spent rescuing her from a bad marriage. Same as in "Twilight."
And then some action. An old friend, in fact his sword-training buddy, has been implicated in a plot against the shogun and is sent back to Katagiri's clan in disgrace. When he escapes, Katagiri is sent to battle him to the death. Same dutiful dilemma as in "Twilight."
Director Yoji Yamada's "Hidden Blade" can be viewed as a companion piece to his earlier "Twilight Samurai."
Masatoshi Nagase is appropriately staid as Katagiri, and Takako Matsu appropriately delicate as Kie. Yukiyoshi Ozawa as the renegade samurai doesn't have a lot of screen time, but injects much energy and wild-eyed craziness.
Yamada's stories are quiet yet forceful character studies, beautifully told and enlightening about the period -- the 1860s, at the end of the samurai era. He doesn't aim for swashbuckling action or the soaring battle choreography of a "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," but rather shows us everyday samurai life in the village, away from war.
If this sort of thing rings your chimes, this film will enchant you, even if you've seen the story before. If you prefer your samurai drama with blood and guts, though, go somewhere else.
"Hidden Blade" has its individual moments, especially those of high humor that "Twilight" can't touch. When Katagiri goes off to "work," it's like National Guard training. He and his samurai brethren are learning Western-style warfare as interpreted by a sensei from Edo.
"See what he's doing? That's called 'aiming,'" the sensei says as they practice setting up a cannon.
He barks out orders; they don't see the point of all this snapping-to, high-step marching and drills. But they scurry around dutifully, trying to follow the confusing commands. "Don't stop to bow!" the sensei screams.
The real distinction in "Hidden Blade" comes in the way it reaches its end. Revenge, justice and honor all play out in a manner that is true to the hero, and we learn what the title is all about. It's all quite satisfying.
If Yamada goes for another film in the same vein to make a trilogy, I'm game, but I'm hoping for a few more twists in the story.