BERLIN -- In a movie involving samurai and a tale of betrayal and revenge, the expectation is of clashing swords and carnage, but Yoji Yamada's "Love and Honor" (Bushi No Ichibun) turns out to be a tender love story.
Unlikely to satisfy an audience with bloodlust, the picture should do well on the festival circuit and in international art houses for its pensive examination of loyalty.
In an unspecified period in history where the local shogun rules and is served by tremulous servants and guarded by ferocious warriors, a young samurai named Shinnojo (Takuya Kimura) has a noble but unheralded job as one of the ruler's food tasters.
With four other handsomely uniformed and disciplined men, he participates in the ritual of taking one bite and one swallow of everything his lordship is about to eat.
Unhappy with his lot despite the privileges his minor rank affords him and the devotion of his loving wife, Kayo (Rei Dan), Shinnojo dreams of quitting to teach children to become swordsmen.
The likable but serious young man sees the ritual of tasting for poison as foolish tradition until one day he swallows a piece of sashimi from a fish as potentially lethal as the fugu pufferfish. He becomes ill immediately, so the shogun is saved. But after emerging from a coma, the loyal samurai discovers he is blind.
He descends into depression, though Kayo nurses and feeds him devotedly. She not only keeps him from suicide, but when his disability means he can no longer function as a samurai and their income is threatened, she goes to see the head of the castle guard for help.
He is willing to help but only at a price -- and when Shinnojo discovers what price Kayo has been willing to pay, he not only sends her away but also decides that honor must be served by challenging the leader to a duel.
Yamada takes his time with the story, showing husband and wife in their loving relationship and detailing the niceties of the shogun's dining rituals. The pace of the proceedings is never dull, however, thanks to expert performances -- especially by leads Kimura and Dan -- Matuso Naganuma's fine cinematography and the suitably graceful editing of Iwao Ishii.
When the final clash occurs, it has elements of a classic Western gunfight, full of stealth and steel, but Yamada has much more on his mind than simple bloodletting.
LOVE AND HONOR (BUSHI NO ICHIBUN)
Shochiku Co. Ltd.
Director: Yoji Yamada
Screenwriters: Yoji Yamada, Emiko Hiramatsu, Ichiro Yamamoto
Based on "Moumokuken Kodamagaeshi" by: Shuhei Fujisawa
Producer: Takeo Hisamatsu
Cinematographer: Matuso Naganuma
Art director: Naomi Koike
Music: Isao Tomita
Costume designer: Kazuko Korosawa
Editor: Iwao Ishii
Shinnojo: Takuya Kimura
Kayo: Rei Dan
Also: Takashi Sasano, Nenji Kobayashi, Makoto Akatsuka, Toshiki Ayata, Koen Kondo, Nobuto Okamoto, Tokie Hidari, Yasuo Daichi, Ken Ogata, Kaori Momoi, Mitsugoro Bando
Running time -- 121 minutes
No MPAA rating