Prime Cut

Tireless Japanese veteran evokes John Ford with an elegiac samurai story

An all but unknown quantity in North America, septuagenarian workaholic Yoji Yamada appeared on our doorstep two years ago with The Twilight Samurai (2002), which was only the 66th feature in a filmography dominated by the 46 romantic comedies in the contemporary "Tora-San" series. A radical departure for him and for the Japanese imports we see, Twilight is a mature, brooding, revisionist samurai epic, executed with unpretentious expertise. Every shot in the film counts, narratively and emotionally. The genre itself was treated to a colon cleansing— Yamada's 19th-century shogun functionaries are haunted less by honor and courage than clan politics, financial problems, managerial humiliation, and prescripted hara-kiri. Constructed as a concise yet organic contest between happiness and society, Twilight was a rueful and respectful gift, oddly Oscar nominated but otherwise ungratefully received.

While still rapping out comedy series scripts, Yamada has now crafted a follow-up, returning with The Hidden Blade even more conscientiously to the fading dusk of the samurai era, when artillery and modern military methods began to change the manner of war and render swordsman norms obsolete. From the beginning Yamada's movie, made in 2004, looks and feels more like a John Ford western than any other Asian film I've ever seen—without the tavern yuks, racism, and glut of stereotypes. The compositions are functional and stately, the battles are fought at a dignified distance (we aren't made to feel them with amphetaminic editing, but of course we feel them even more clearly), and the measured rituals of home and duty are treated with reverence.

Derived, as was Twilight, from a Shuuhei Fujisawa novel, the narrative has an inevitable but natural frontier logic, and boils down to the tender moral sphere of Munezo (Masatoshi Nagase, his wary stare having accumulated gravity in the 15 years since Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train), a low-level samurai pining for his family's maid Kie (Takako Matsu). Again, nothing is as ruinous in the social fabric as feudal class distinctions. As his clan slowly struggles with the adoption of gun warfare, Munezo watches Kie get married away, and then learns a few years on that she is a slave in her new home, sickly and abused. Worrisomely violating the first of many conduct codes, Munezo charges in and rescues her; back at the homestead, Kie's nursed back to health and again becomes the family's servant.

Her lower station forbids marriage, and as the couple's story begins to hit the brick wall of propriety, a parallel thread emerges, forcing Munezo to confront his Hamletian stasis: An old friend is brought back to town in a cage, arrested as a usurper. Munezo is accused of consorting with the renegade and is even pressured, HUAC-style, to inform on mutual friends, before the prisoner escapes and Munezo is commanded to settle the business for both his own good and that of the corrupt clan.

The air of ethical crisis is germane to the western even more so than to the samurai genre, and The Hidden Blade evokes the cream of the Ford–Anthony Mann–Budd Boetticher prairie dramas along the way. (The homegrown traditions aren't slighted, however; familiar Japanese images, such as the careful arrangement of characters standing on a hillside and gazing off frame, are returned to like holy icons.) Yamada's decidedly undazzling yet expressive filmmaking approaches classicism, from a sensei training session captured in one lengthy shot to the final showdown, seen with shifting points of view that suggest a relativist unease with the cut-and-dried judgments of war culture.

 
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