The Hidden Blade (2004)

The Hidden Blade is a story about Katagiri, a low level samurai, as he struggles to act humanely while staying loyal to his status. This is all set on a backdrop of the Bakumatsu era (~1853-1864), which was the time when Japan was opened to foreign influence and which culminated with the Meiji revolution, where the power went from Tokugawa’s feudal warlords to the Japanese emperor.

The story itself is built in a classic example of the jo-ha-kyu structure: it starts off slowly, builds up to a culmination like the ocean waves, sweeps over the edge and then calms into a lull. Katagiri just wanted the best to his former maid Kie, so he rescues her from the abusive family she got married into, which of course raised some eyebrows across the town, as Katagiri was still a bachelor and a samurai. Why would a samurai worry about a peasant girl anyway if not for carnal reasons?

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“The north-country spring, when leaves burst forth
as if waiting for the snow to melt – was a time I passed out
in an empty, barren state of mind…” – Katagiri

I was actually quite surprised to see that Isao Tomita made the music for this movie. I recognized his trademark phase distorted sweeping orchestral sound, and when I saw his name on the opening credits, I knew I was in for a treat. While the picture told the story in muted, almost pastel colors, Tomita allowed the movie to do the talking and his music just accented the key points. Unfortunately since Tomita perfected the phase distortion during the 80’s, it gave the movie a bit of a dated feel to it. But since the music was so sparse, it wasn’t that big of an issue.

Katagiri’s position as an outer circle samurai is also exemplified by the visual language. He’s barely noticable as he sits in artillery class with the rest of the samurai wearing almost identical shade of brown kimono. Everywhere he goes, he’s just one of the many filling his duty, but when he’s finally alone and people treat him as an actual person, then Katagiri gets his chance to shine. The film’s color is very earthen, keeping it to the green-yellow spectrum and is only broken with only the shine of metal or by the blooming flowers. I suppose it’s meant to show that Katagiri is also one of the few sakura falling to the ground, being most beautiful during its flight.

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Honor and humility are the themes of this movie, as Katagiri never boasts, but simply obeys his standing and his duties. For him, time could only stop and he would wield his sword for his master forever. But the rigid frames set by the caste he’s born in doesn’t allow him to do the things he would most desire. To be a samurai means to live and die for his master, and so he can’t allow himself to bring dishonor to his name and his family. So he must keep a strong poker-face and rebel against the injustice under the strict rules he’s subjected to until it’s no longer possible and he must make a hard yet needed decision.

I think this movie was quite good for what it was, but it’s definitely not an Akira Kurosawa flick filled with dramatic pathos or a Takashi Miike’s samurai slasher. It’s a beautifully taken story about a man doing the right thing, and I think it’s still one of the better movies I’ve seen this year. I recommend this movie to you, but beware! It’s a samurai slice-of-life at first, so if you’re not a real big fan of the whole modernization idea and you’re more of a “guts and blood” kind of a person, you might want to give this movie a pass. But if you have a long attention span, then give this movie a go.

**** / *****

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