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During the time of change of the mid-19th Century, Yaichiro is bid farewell by his fellow samurai friends Munezo and Samon as he leaves their clan's fiefdom on the northwest coast of Japan (Unasaka) to take an important position within the shogunate in far away Edo. Munezo has lived modestly with his mother and sister Shino after his father was forced into suicide after the failure of a bridge project. Kie, a farm girl serves them as a maid in their house. As time passes, Munezo's sister marries Samon, his mother dies, Kie is married into a merchant family, and he is required to learn western methods of warfare such as the use of artillery and firearms from an official sent from Edo. Learning that Kie is ill due to abuse, he rescues her from her husband's family. Although sharing mutual affection and respect, a marriage between Munezo and Kie is still impossible due to different castes, and when he, now a bachelor, is criticized for her serving in his house, Munezo sends her back to ... Written by
An engaging story built on commentary Japanese traditions and forward motion
Munezo is a samurai who serves closely with friends and peers Samon and Yaichiro. When Yaichiro goes far overseas to serve for the clan, Munezo is left with Samon, who becomes closer as he marries Munezo's sister Shino, leaving him at home with his aged mother and maid Kie. The years go by and when his mother dies, Munezo struggles with his studies of new Western weaponry and battle techniques and misses Kie who has long since married into a merchant family befitting someone of her caste. A man of tradition and respect Munezo is forced to act against inherited wisdom and practice when he learns of Kie's mistreatment and also of the dishonourable imprisonment of Yaichiro.
Some have warned caution of this film to those expecting an action film and they are right to do so, but to me the opposite applied. Screened late at night on BBC4, I recorded this film thinking it sounded interesting but could easily be a very dry film full of its own importance and depth, delivered with long shots for the sake of, stilted dialogue and every single bit of it screaming "restrained!" like the audience is an idiot. Suffice to say, I have been hurt before when it comes to such films! I needn't have worried though because The Hidden Blade manages to be about the restrained traditions of feudal Japan without making the telling or the film be dry and withdrawn into itself. Nor does the film labour the point in the way some similar works have, indeed it does give the audience food for thought in regards the pros/cons of both tradition and progress neither of which is an entirely good or bad thing but has bits of both. To me this made it more worthy of my respect and interest but what made it so engaging was the amount of ground it covered. I am surprised to read that some found this film "boring" because to me the narrative is surprisingly packed with threads that cover friendship, relationships, loyalty and tradition across many aspects all of which work really well. OK, I will give you that the final ten minutes could have been done with a bit more certainty but even this was only a minor thing because mostly there is plenty to watch. What surprised me most about it was that it did also have a good vein of humour running through it, my favourite moment of which was the men trying to catch a chicken with a basket great little throwaway gag.
The script is the starting point for it as it builds conflicted characters with as much attention to them as to the world they inhabit. The visual construction of the film matches this as it feels very much in the period and I was quite surprised to find it was made as recently as it was because of how of its time it felt. The cast come good mostly even though I didn't think anyone really nailed it or dominated proceedings. Nagase is a strong actor with almost what the character needs in terms of expression and inner thought processes. He was not quite as distinctive as I would have liked the odd time but mostly he is a firm lead. Matsu overplays the "sweet little maid" role just a tad but the script is strong enough to make it work regardless and she does come over as charming and a character we care deeply for. The supporting cast around these are mostly good with turns from Ozawa (not given enough time though), Ogata, Yoshioka and Tabata among others.
The Hidden Blade may not be what you think it is going to be but, whether you assume it is action-packed or dry as a bone, it doesn't matter because the film performs really well at what it sets out to do. The plot builds the world and characters really vividly, providing thoughts on progress and tradition while also laying out both in terms of the relationships, positions and lifestyles of the main characters. It has humour, sadness and intelligence all delivered with professional direction and atmospheric design and cinematography. It is well worth seeing and rewarding with only a little patience required.
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