The Hidden Blade is the second of director Yamada Yōji’s Samurai trilogy, all of which were based on short stories by Fujisawa Shûhei, and was scripted by him and Asama Yoshitaka. I saw the first of the set, Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibe, 2002), on its release and thought is superb. I’ve recently caught up with the other two though the last, Love and Honour (Bushi no ichibun, 2006), didn’t grab me; The Hidden Blade did.
The films are set just before the Meiji restoration that ended Japan’s isolation by bringing in western ideas and, at the same time, changed the role of the samurai; the time was also featured in the superb The Last Samurai. During this transition period, unlike the violent heroism of Kurosawa’s warriors, the samurai were functionaries of court. In Love and Honour our hero is poisoned whilst tasting food for the local lord; he’s permanently blinded and has to deal with his emasculation. In The Hidden Blade the hero, Katagiri (Nagasa Masatoshi), rails against the hypocrisy of his rulers whilst being forced to write a manual for using western weapons; a marvellous symbol of our civilising influence! For the samurai there will be longer the honour of using the sword but the ignomy of mechanical weapons. There’s a humorous thread throughout of the inability of the samurai to march in unison or even run with any speed.
Underneath the political intrigue is a simple love story to which the couple in question don’t even notice themselves as it has no possibility of fulfilment due to their caste differences. The performances of Nagasa and Matsu Takako, who plays Katagiri’s servent Kie, are marvellous. We know that they are in love despite the fact there is no interaction between them that directly signifies this is the case. In addition, the beauty of both landscape, buildings and costumes are pleasures in all three films of the trilogy; cinematography is by Naganuma Mutsuo (as it was with Twilight Samurai).
The Hidden Blade is not a film without action as there is a climactic battle where Katagiri is ordered to kill his friend who has rebelled against the feudal system. The rigid cruelty of the era is shown in the over-riding impulse of duty and in its treatment of women and lower castes.
Yamada is a formidable artist, and he’s still making films in his late ‘eighties; unfortunately, as far as I can tell, few of them are available in the UK.
These notes were written in 2006 for an evening class. I’m publishing them now in relation to the screening of Hana (2006) by Kore-eda Hirokazu at HOME in Manchester.
Twilight Samurai was a major commercial success in Japan and a critical success abroad. It was part of a revival in the jedai-geki or ‘period’ film in Japan and for audiences overseas it represented a ‘quality’ period film with similar status to the earlier films of Kurosawa, Ichikawa and Mizoguchi. (Kurosawa’s daughter, born in 1954 just as he completed Seven Samurai, was the costume designer on Twilight Samurai.)
Notable features of the production include the participation of television production interests in what was, by Japanese standards, a big budget film and the backgrounds of director Yamada and star Sanada Hiroyuki. Yamada Yôji is a veteran of Japanese ‘genre films’. Now over 70, he is best known as the director of a staggering 46 films in the popular comedy series Tora-san, comedy-dramas focusing on an ‘ordinary man’, for Shochiku, the major studio that distributed Twilight Samurai. Yamada also directed other genre films, but he managed to squeeze out some more personal films and Twilight Samurai represented his long-held ambition to make a ‘realistic’ film about a samurai in the 19th century at the end of the long Tokugawa era. Yamada recognises the qualities of Seven Samurai, but he thinks that it helped to revive a particular type of ‘swordfight’/’samurai’ film in the 1960s and 1970s. These films had very little basis in historical fact (much like their counterparts, the Hollywood Westerns). Yamada wanted to show how samurai behaved at home and what fighting really meant in terms of crude attacks and messy deaths, not the clinical choreography of the genre film. The whole history of the chanbara (swordfight) and the later samurai films in Japanese cinema is worth exploring in terms of how samurai warriors are represented.
The film was written by Yamada and Asama Yoshitaka and based on a short story by Fujisawa Shuhei (Yamada made two other films based on Fujisawa stories). Cinematography is by Naganuma Mutsuo and music by Tomita Isao. Miyazawa Rie is the female lead as Tomoe and she also appears in a not dissimilar role in Hana.
Seibei Iguchi is a widower and is forced to work in a lowly job as an inventory clerk in a grain warehouse belonging to his clan. His colleagues mock him as ‘Twilight’. He needs the job to pay for his wife’s funeral and the upkeep of his daughters. His mother has dementia and all in all he is a not the conventional figure of a warrior. But when Tomoe, his childhood love, is abused by her husband and leaves him to live with her brother Michinojo Iinuma’s family, Seibei reconnects with her. When the deserted husband challenges the brother, Seibei takes up the challenge – and this contravenes many rules about samurai behaviour.
In the press pack for Twilight Samurai Yamada discusses the historical setting at the end of the long Edo/Tokugawa period – when the traditional samurai warriors had to move into a more ‘modern’ social structure. He was clearly concerned to shape the story so that it had resonances for modern audiences:
I tried to include plot elements that present-day Japanese could relate to. When you’re ordered to do something by the boss, you have to do it. Or it might be the end of your job. That’s something everyone can understand – and that’s the kind of situation the hero faces. Some people buckle under the pressure and commit suicide. In Japan, nearly 30,000 people kill themselves every year – a lot of men in their 40s and 50s. Some of them have been fired, some have been told to fire others. The hero deals with his situation differently, of course – but the pressure is similar. (Press Pack)
The position of Tomoe, who leaves her abusive husband, is perhaps anachronistic since the later Edo and early Meiji periods were very bad for women, who were generally excluded from society and expected to be passive. This representation, Yamada concedes, may be a critique of the feudal system rather than a ‘realistic’ commentary, but again it helps to involve a modern audience in a period story. He also indicates that the film was successful because older audiences went to see it and then persuaded their children and grandchildren to see it. This is an important observation, since the shrunken Japanese cinema industry generally shows Hollywood films to younger audiences, with television serving the needs of the older audience. A revival of jidai-geki could help to change the fortunes of Japanese cinemas.
Part of the film’s success (it won 12 awards in the Japanese equivalent of the Oscars) certainly derives from the performance of Sanada Hiroyuki, one of the few Japanese actors to maintain a career in the cinema and to gain international recognition, partly through his role in martial arts films. After Twilight Samurai he appeared in the Hollywood film, The Last Samurai and earlier he featured in the worldwide horror film success The Ring (1998).
The setting of the film focuses on a range of ‘end of an era’ issues (and a concern about “what will happen next?”). This has clear parallels with the American Western, set in roughly the same period, and the two meet to some extent in The Last Samurai, which might be compared to Yamada’s film.
This short feature (80 mins) sees the Japanese auteur of ‘cyberpunk cinema’, Tsukamoto Shin’ya, exploring what he can do with the chanbara or swordfight film. This follows on from his previous film, Fires on the Plain (2014), a remake of Ichikawa Kon’s classic anti-war film from 1959. There is certainly a possible connection between this new film and its predecessor.
The film opens with the forging of a katana, the classic samurai sword, shown in close-up. We then meet the central character, a young ronin or ‘masterless samurai’, Mokunoshin (Itematsu Sosuke). He appears to be working for a farmer in his rice paddy and in his free moments sparring with the farmer’s adolescent son, with both using wooden staffs rather than swords. They are being watched by the boy’s sister Yu (Aoi Yu) when a pair of older samurai enter the village, engaged in some kind of duel. The victorious samurai is Sawamura (played by the director himself). Tsukamoto often appears in his own films but although I recognised him it wasn’t until later that I realised that he played a secondary role in Martin Scorsese’s remake of The Silence (US-Mexico-Japan 2016).
In the first section of the film I found myself wondering when the film was meant to be set. As far as I could see there were no markers of the era and no dialogue exchanges that suggested when. Kurosawa Akira’s jidaigeki or ‘period films’ included some, like Seven Samurai (1954) set in the late 16th century or early 17th century, but most of the ‘samurai films’, as they are known in the West were far more conventional and formulaic and tended to be set in the latter days of the 250 year Tokugawa shogunate, the so-called Edo period. All the reviews of Killing from Venice and Toronto suggest that it is indeed an early 19th century setting. Presumably this info was in the Press Notes. The Glasgow programme suggests that Tsukamoto was ‘inspired by Kurosawa’. Hmm!
Sawamura tells Mokunoshin that he is on his way to Edo and that he is trying to recruit samurai to fight for the Shogun against rebels in Kyoto. He offers the young samurai the chance to join him and Mokunoshin agrees. The farmer’s son also wants to join and Sawamura agrees to take him as a reserve, convinced by watching the sparring between the two young men. The second ‘inciting incident’ is the arrival on the edge of the village of a group of bandits. This heavily-armed and gruesome-looking group are probably not samurai but rather ruffians with plenty of experience of fighting. Do we anticipate a battle with three against many? I won’t spoil the narrative as the film looks set for a UK release via Third Window Films, but what underpins the final section is a philosophical question posed by Sawamura and aimed at Mokunoshin. A samurai sword is intended for killing. Can a man really be a samurai if he has not used his sword to kill? Mokunoshin is a young man beset by several problems, questions of honour and gratitude towards the farmer’s family, the raging hormones of a young man living close to an attractive woman and strong feelings about how to fight.
The action in the last section of the film is shot in almost expressionistic style with flashing blades, hand-held photography and the action itself something of a blur. A set piece fight under a natural bridge on a muddy path is contrasted with a chase up a hillside in the long grass and bracken and beneath the trees (the vivid greens of the forest clearings and paddy fields define the background while the samurai are presented in more mute colours). The film screened at both Venice and Toronto last year. It seemed to please critics but some raised questions about whether it would please fans of the director or fans of the genre. It’s a low-budget film made quickly but with verve and a music soundtrack by Ishikawa Chu (his last film before he died). I enjoyed the film and it’s good that there can still be new takes on the chanbara. I think I still prefer Kurosawa and the other filmmakers of the 1950s and 1960s. Tsukamoto is reported as saying his inspiration was partly Ichikawa Kon’s 1973 film The Wanderers, a film I saw on its release in the UK back in 1973. Perhaps I’ll try to find it and watch it again.
This is a classic samurai film and enjoys the talents of two stars: filmmaker Kurosawa Akira and actor Mifune Toshiro. Both bring their special talents to an entertaining and exciting action movie. Like much of their work the film has been remade several times, including as a spaghetti western, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), and as a Hollywood prohibition/action film, Last Man Standing (1996).
The film is set in 1860, just prior to the Meiji period and the rise of modern Japan. Mifune plays a ronin, that is a masterless samurai whose traditional functions have vanished and who takes on whatever work he can find. In this case in a small town he is offered work as a bodyguard (the English sense of the title) by rival merchants. The merchants are the emerging class in this period, but here they rely more on criminality than trade, forerunners of the modern Yakusa.
The main character and the film’s story are strongly sardonic. The opening sequence shows our hero passed by a dog carrying a severed hand. And the violence implied here is a central right through the film.
The cinematographer on the film was Miyagawa Kazuo. He had worked with Kurosawa on the earlier Rashomon (1950) as well as with other major directors like Mizoguchi Kenji and Ozu Yasujirô. As in some of the director’s other films Kurosawa and Miyagawa make great use of the telephoto lens. There is a depth of field in the shots, but a rather flat image as the action is foreshortened. Among the distinctive editing techniques, performed by Kurosawa himself, are frequent wipes, a technique rarely seen in post-war (WWII) cinema. And the music track by Satô Masaru uses distinctive instrumentation including wood blocks.
Kurosawa had set up his own production company. The first film was a variation on Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, The Bad Sleep Well / Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru (1960). Mifune was the lead actor. Yojimbo was the second film from the company . Both film were also scripted by Kurosawa.
The film was popular in Japan and Kurosawa made a sequel titled with the character’s name, Sanjuro (1962). Once again Mifune played the lead. Yojimbo had a relatively large international release and has remained a regular title for revivals over the years. On its initial release in the Britain the BBFC gave it an ‘A’ Certificate.
The film’s format was black and white TohoScope. almost identical to CinemaScope with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1: with Perspecta Stereo sound., Now Hebden Bridge Picture House are screening the film in their ‘reel film’ series on Saturday January 6th. So it can be seen in its original 35mm format: what a treat.