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The Hidden Blade

Return of the Samurai

The last samurai flick to make any kind of splash stateside was the Tom Cruise adorned The Last Samurai. The Hidden Blade hits theaters this weekend and despite the absence of one Mr. Cruise is no less of a compelling film (perhaps more so) than The Last Samurai. Director Yoji Yamada has crafted a samurai film that resembles The Last Samurai to the extent that it takes place during a period of transition in feudal Japan but this is where the similarities effectively end.

Yamada masterfully recreates the feudal period with an authenticity that is striking. He spares no expense in ensuring that the wardrobe, interactions, relationships, and set pieces are a vivid facsimile of feudal Japan. The one item that is mercifully absent from The Hidden Blade is the overwrought melodrama that often accompanies samurai films.

This is not to say The Hidden Blade is devoid of drama or intrigue, but it is delivered in a subtle, understated way for the vast majority of the film. The primary narrative involves the friendship of three samurai, Munezo, Samon, and Yaichiro. Yaichiro departs early in the film for Edo only to return several years later ignobly after his involvement in some political intrigue. Initially imprisoned, Yaichiro escapes and Munezo is called upon to take care of his former friend.

Amidst Munezo’s quest to track down the disgraced fugitive Yaichiro (who by Munezo’s own admission is a better swordsman) is Munezo’s repressed romantic longing for Kie who is of a different caste and betrothed to someone else. The romantic tension between Kie and Munezo is palpable, but Yamada wisely keeps this below the surface lending believability to the doomed romance.

Yamada also does a solid job in his casting. Masatoshi Nagase brings a grim gravitas to his portrayal of Munezo. Munezo exudes a quiet complexity that leaves you wondering what unspoken thoughts haunt his waking hours. Munezo dutifully accepts his path in life as a samurai, yet he is not a mindless warrior as the latter stages of the film strikingly reveal.

Matching Nagase’s excellent performance is Yukiyoshi Ozawa’s turn as the ronin Yaichiro. Refusing to be taken alive, Ozawa emanates a vengeful desperation in his run from the law and his former friend, Munezo. The depths of his unhinged behavior become frighteningly apparent as he takes a family hostage while on the lam.

If there’s one criticism that can be made about The Hidden Blade, it’s the somewhat languid pacing of the first half of the film. There just isn’t much that transpires that really grabs one’s attention. However, the latter part of the film more than makes up for any lack of action and Yamada’s skillful hand allows for no other noticeable flaws.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars