Thursday, September 15, 2005

the hidden blade (yamada, 2004)

With this film and his much-heralded last film, The Twilight Samurai, the 74-year-old writer-director Yôji Yamada seems to be campaigning for the role of Japan's primary, contemporary chronicler of the waning years of its Edo period, as seen from the point of view of the samurai class - not without a little compassion towards the laboring and farming classes.

The protagonist in The Hidden Blade is a shaggy samurai of modest ambitions but an unshakable devotion to the warrior's code. Like Seibei Iguchi in Twilight, Munezo in Blade is gravely disappointed to see the code betrayed - in this film, by those in upper-middle management, class-wise. And finally, like the earlier film, the protagonist is ordered to kill someone he doesn't wish to kill - this time, a friend who has taken hostages.

Munezo is an absolute, unwavering Boy Scout when it comes to the code, a trait the film reinforces in scene after scene, without complication. The code is shown to be an unquestionable yardstick of Right - so, then, is the hero. Everyone else in the picture is either on the side of Wrong, a victim of wrongdoers, or assigned supporting roles. The one exception is, expectedly, the one interesting character in the picture, Yaichiro Hazama - who by choice or chance has come loose from the gears of Japanese civilization. After escaping incarceration - the result of a failed attempt to overthrow the clan leadership - Hazama is driven by forces we recognize neither in the good nor the bad characters in The Hidden Blade. He refuses the honorable solution (suicide) but he is not corrupt; his other-directed rage and self-destructive passion resembles devotion to the bushido, in spirit if not letter.

Finally, the pure-hearted Munezo solves all his problems for good and all, but feels empty - he says as much, out loud. The solution: marry the girl he's been denying himself for the past 130-odd minutes.

This is one for the Armond White defense team. It's so correct and wholesome and disciplined that the hipsters won't understand it, won't get it, will stupidly refuse it. This hipster was bored mostly by the compositional work, which has a blockbuster precision (and artlessness: a tinge of elegance to disguise haphazard framing and dull cutting) that I found gruesome. A few exceptional moments are nearly worthy of Imamura, including the large-gun demonstration for the Emperor Meiji, a wide shot that turns the men onscreen into scurrying, panicked insects. I'm also grateful for the use of relatively long takes during the fight scenes, which emphasize grace and physicality; the smoky, glum color palette downplays whatever glamour they might have had in another film.

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