Following 2002’s Oscar-nominated Twilight Samurai, Yôji Yamada’s The Hidden Blade proves content to tread on familiar ground by recounting the waning days of the samurai class in isolationist 19th-century feudal Japan. Katagiri (Masatoshi Nagase) is uncomfortable with his warrior clan’s decision to embrace Western military armaments as tools for battle, even as his rebelliousness and distaste for his society’s caste system arouse a desire to break free from his current way of life. Katagiri is in love with his household’s devoted maid Kei (Takako Matsu) but cannot act on his feelings because of her inferior social rank, while his status as a bachelor arouses disdain from samurai superiors who view his being unmarried as an affront to tradition and custom. When his close friend Hazama (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) is charged with trying to overthrow the Shogunate, Katagiri is ordered by corrupt senior shogun Hori (Ken Ogata) to slay the traitor, a duty that finally forces the ambivalent swordsman to confront both his continuing loyalty to Japan’s old order and his feelings toward the encroaching specter of Westernization. As portrayed by the low-key Nagase, Katagiri is a man of two minds whose outward decisiveness contrasts with an ever-increasing internal hesitancy about his life’s path, and—especially during the muted final showdown between Katagiri and Hazama—the actor acutely captures this soon-to-be-archaic samurai’s conflicted perspective on the untenable present and the frighteningly unknown future. Though Katagiri’s tender, repressed relationship with Kei exhibits a touching combination of subdued frustration and (at story’s climax) transcendent elation, Yamada’s classy melodrama doesn’t amount to much more than a series of reserved, well-acted vignettes about the pervasive uncertainty that accompanies large-scale sociological evolutions. Respectable and safe to a fault, the overly staid film seems to cry out for a climactic, cathartic dose of wild, passionate unpredictability that the director—in true sober samurai fashion—is never fully willing to indulge.
- Yôji Yamada
- Yoshitaka Asama, Yôji Yamada
- Masatoshi Nagase, Takako Matsu, Yukiyoshi Ozawa, Hidetaka Yoshioka, Min Tanaka, Tomoko Tabata, Ken Ogata, Nenji Kobayashi
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