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The Hidden Blade
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Masatoshi Nagase and Takako Matsu in The Hidden Blade.
Japanese: 隠し剣 鬼の爪  
Year: 2004  
Director: Yoji Yamada  
  Cast: Masatoshi Nagase, Takako Matsu, Hidetaka Yoshioka, Yukiyoshi Osawa
  The Skinny: Yoji Yamada's follow-up to the highly successful Twilight Samurai ventures into much of the same territory as its predecessor. Although the near identical plotline makes The Hidden Blade feel almost like a remake, it's still a fine film on its own and a wonderful companion piece to The Twilight Samurai.
   
Review by Calvin McMillin:

If The Twilight Samurai was meant in part to deconstruct the samurai film as a genre, then The Hidden Blade takes that attitude to the next level by introducing two elements not fully explored in the previous film - the idea that faithful samurai were forced to due the bidding of corrupt officials and the effect that Western firearms had on the samurai way of life. Whereas Twilight Samurai innovatively focused its attention on the home life of a lowly, but noble samurai with a family to support, The Hidden Blade centers on a more traditional figure in the chambara film - the lone swordsman of samurai legend. However, this lone wolf isn't a ronin, but a faithful vassal, one who has never killed before and is about to come to a crossroads in his life, as he begins to wonder if the samurai way really is all that it's cracked up to be.

The film begins with two pals, Munezo Katagiri (Masatoshi Nagase) and Samon Shibada (Hidetaka Yoshioka), bidding farewell to Yaichiro Hazama (Yukiyoshi Osawa) as he heads to take an important post in Edo. Afterwards, they head to Munezo's home, which is occupied by his mother, his sister Shino (Tomoko Tabata), and the maid Kie (Takako Matsu). It seems that Kie grew up on a farm and is living with the Katagiri family until she learns enough about taking care of a household so she can find a good husband. Together, they eat, drink, and have a good time with one another. All in all, it seems like an idyllic sort of life.

Flash forward three years, and Samon has married Shino, Munezo's mother has passed away, and Kie has been married into a prestigious family. One day, the still single Munezo happens upon Kie while she is shopping and is shocked by her change in appearance. This chance meeting sets off a chain of events in which Munezo eventually finds out that Kie has been treated so poorly that she's on the brink of death, a fact which immediately compels him to rush to Kie's aid, command that divorce proceedings take effect against her no-good husband, and bring her back to his own house for safekeeping.

Over time, Kie is nursed back to health, and she returns to the role she occupied three years earlier, taking care of the house and Munezo in particular. However, this newfound happiness is threatened when Yaichiro is implicated in an internal clan conspiracy. This spells trouble for Munezo because both he and Yaichiro were students of Kansai Toda (Min Tanaka), master swordsman-turned-humble farmer.

Although Yaichiro was the superior swordsman, Toda passed on the secret of "The Devil's Claw" to Munezo instead, a fact that has always eaten at Yaichiro. During the investigation, Munezo is asked by his superior to name names in connection with Yaichiro. Although Munezo has no knowledge of Yaichiro's dealings, he not only passes on answering the question, but goes one step farther by telling that he feels it is dishonorable for a samurai to inform on others, an act which only infuriates his superiors, soon putting him a very awkward position politically.

Although the relationship between Kie and Munezo is blossoming, both have become the subject of vicious rumors that Munezo has taken her as his mistress. Since Munezo is aware that a samurai cannot marry someone of low caste, and is fearful that the gossip will negatively affect her prospects to remarry, he reluctantly sends her away to her parents' home, much to Kie's eternal disappointment.

Things only get worse when Yaichiro escapes from jail and takes several unsuspecting innocents hostage. Hiding in their farmhouse, Yaichiro swears to kill each and every person who enters the hovel. Given a direct order by his superiors to kill Yaichiro, Munezo has no choice but to face his former classmate in a duel to the death. Will Munezo survive? And if he does, is there still hope for him and Kie? And what's to be done about Munezo's duplicitous superior?

Especially when viewed back-to-back, The Hidden Blade and The Twilight Samurai bear remarkable similarities to one another in terms of plot and character. In truth, the Kie/Munezo relationship is simply a repeat of the Tomoe/Seibei relationship from the first film with issues of money and class standing still being of major importance. Munezo is given an order he can't refuse much as Seibei was, and they both must face their adversary in a confined space. And of course, the thought of impending death has both characters re-evaluating both their values and their lives in a wholly dramatic fashion. For viewers who don't mind getting a second helping of Twilight Samurai in a different form, then these repeats shouldn't be too distracting, perhaps even welcome.

But that isn't to say the film is merely a retread. Where Hidden Blade primarily differs is in its extended exploration on how the age of the samurai is soon coming to an end, an issue suggested in Twilight Samurai, but made explicit here with the intrusion of Western weaponry into the narrative. This feature of the plot comes to the surface in the final duel between Munezo and Yaichiro, a battle that harkens back to one of the climactic showdowns in the first Once Upon a Time in China film - in both movies Western technology ultimately inserts itself into what is meant to be a private duel of honor.

Whatever the film's merits, there's no doubt that some viewers may be put off by Hidden Blade's more than passing resemblance to Twilight Samurai. Even so, the movie's compelling romantic angle and occasional comic moments help matters considerably, as the film begins to take a shape of its own. Considering how great the first film was, it's still a shame that the new ideas included in Hidden Blade simply couldn't have been developed earlier in Twilight Samurai, particularly the climactic student against student duel (which trumps - at least in concept - Seibei's duel with a swordsman he doesn't know), the intrusion of western firearms (which helps punctuate the narrative's overarching theme), and the idea of a special hidden technique (when finally unleashed, "The Devil's Claw" proves to a surprisingly fatal move).

Perhaps its nature of these very additions that compelled Yamada to make Hidden Blade in the first place; maybe he just wanted to get them onscreen. Whatever the case, the film serves as a wonderfully satisfying companion piece to Yamada's award-winning 2002 film. The film's denouement recalls certain classic movie moments, not only among samurai films, but from some of the best cowboy films as well, a welcome bit of nostalgia within the film's less than flattering commentary on the feudal era. Although Hidden Blade successfully dips back into the well once more, here's hoping that the third film in Yamada's proposed trilogy proves to be more innovative. (Calvin McMillin, 2005)

   
Awards: 2005 Japan Academy Prize
• Winner - Outstanding Achievement in Art Direction
• Nomination - Picture of the Year
• Nomination - Director of the Year (Yoji Yamada)
• Nomination - Screenplay of the Year (Yoji Yamada)
• Nomination - Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (Masatoshi Nagase)
• Nomination - Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role (Takako Matsu)
• Nomination - Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Yoshioka Hidetaka)
• Nomination - Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography Achievement in Film Editing
• Nomination - Outstanding Achievement in Music (Isao Tomita)
• Nomination - Outstanding Achievement in Sound Recording
• Nomination - Outstanding Achievement in Lighting Direction
Availability: DVD (HK)
Region 3 NTSC
Panorama
16 x 9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Japanese and Cantonese Language Tracks
DTS ES, Dolby Digital 5.1, 2.0
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
Interview with Yoji Yamada, Original Teasers and Trailers, "Behind the Scenes" Featurettes, Fold-out Poster, and Various Extras

*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
   
   
 
 
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