Title: The Hidden Blade (Kakushi ken oni no tsume)
Release Date: 2004
Length: 132 minutes
Director: Yoji Yamada
Starring: Masatoshi Nagase, Takako Matsu, Hidetake Yoshioka
This is the second movie in Yoji Yamada’s (loose) trilogy of movies about samurai. The characters are all fictional and none of the stories overlap, but they examine samurai in different eras and how the social standards and expectations affect different people and how they react. If you’ve seen one of this series, it was probably the first: Twilight Samurai. It was, quite deservingly, nominated for an Oscar. The final film was a cut below (no pun intended), but this, the middle film, has been unfairly overlooked.
Each of Yamada’s films select a decent samurai, put him in a difficult position and then see what happens. What will it take to make them fight? How much indignity will they endure? What are the limits of honor, justice, virtue, and how should a man behave when confronted with evil, injustice, and shame?
In this film, two plots revolve around the main character, Munezo Katagiri, who is played very sympathetically by Nagase. He is a talented and conscientious, but very minor samurai. His station and life have been significantly shaped by the disgrace suffered by his father and the ritual suicide he was forced to commit to atone for his wrongdoing. Left open, however, is whether his father was truly guilty of malfeasance or was put in an untenable situation by the actions of others who escaped uncaught and unpunished. Despite his father’s seppuku, the family still lost a great deal of standing.
Katagiri’s personal life disintegrates as his colleague moves to Edo to take up an important post. His sister marries his best friend and moves out, and then Katagiri’s mother dies. The maid who worked for their household marries into a merchant family and he is left to live alone with only a couple of servants, one of which is very elderly and another who is not quite all there.
He becomes less and less satisfied, not only with his state, but the double standards and hypocrisy between the public samurai ideal and the reality of life as lived by the samurai. A chance encounter and a dramatic reversal drive him into action and force him to make choices about how he will live, what path he will take, and what he will and will not do. He is tested personally, professionally, and forced to decide just how much he values honor, virtue, and the samurai ideals.
The ultimate ending may or may not surprise you, depending on how much you know about samurai culture, but Katagiri is engaging throughout as a thoroughly decent and humane man fighting to deal with a world that sometimes appears to want to crush that decency. In such a short summary I can’t do justice to the delicate and light touch Yamada brings to the various characters and the deft ways he builds the story to its climax, but I think I can say that even the more cynical will find the ending satisfying along with those who always prefer to see justice prevail. This is truly a great movie.