(Kakushi ken oni no tsume)
dir: Yoji Yamada
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Just like in The Twilight Samurai, this film follows the adventures of a samurai on the absolute lowest rank samurai can be on without falling off the feudal ladder. Just like in The Twilight Samurai, the noble and impoverished main character is vulnerable to the machinations of those more powerful than him within his clan, who compel him to do something he doesn’t want to do. And just like in The Twilight Samurai he is loved by and loves a woman he cannot be with because of some tenuous, noble, self-sacrificing reason.
But don’t let that give you the impression that it’s a rip-off of Twilight Samurai. Oh, heaven forfend such a perception on your part.
Truth is, though they have many similar elements, right down to the main character being too busy and noble to clean and repair their own kimonos, they are significantly different stories. Regardless of the sheer multitude of similarities.
Other than story elements, they also share a gentler, kinder sensibility that emphasises drama over action. There are people walking around with swords, but very few opportunities to use them. Very little action. If you’re after limbs and heads going flying, and gouts and geysers of blood, look elsewhere, please. Get Lady Snowblood or the Kill Bills for that kind of artery rupturing action. Get this one if you’re after a flick about noble, poor people scrambling about trying to eke out a meagre existence.
Munezo Katagiri (Masatoshi Nagase) is the noble shmuck samurai who, despite his crushing poverty, is a master swordsman and an all-round tube of wonderful. He is too poor and too busy to marry, so he has trouble looking after himself and his crazy mother. They have a wonderful servant girl, who clearly loves him, Kie (Takako Matsu), but she has to move on once she gets married.
Her new owners treat her poorly, and so Katagiri breaches all sorts of conventions by stealing her back when she falls ill. What will the neighbours say?
Around the same time, a longtime friend of Katagiri’s, Yoichiro (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) has been brought back from the capital to the provincial backwater the story transpires in, in disgrace after backing the wrong side in a rebellion. Something tells me he’s not going to go quietly into that good night.
Essentially, the two main problems facing Katagiri are: what to do about Kie, and what to do about Yoichiro. Kie is from the peasant class, which precludes marriage (though presumably not fucking), so he cannot be with her without risking the wrath of his clan. His problem with Yoichiro is that he is tainted by association due to his friendship with him, and Yoichiro’s refusal to commit suicide, once he gets free, puts a lot of people in jeopardy. You don’t see enough flicks that are pro suicide these days, I reckon.
The backdrop of the story is the late 1870s, a period of great progress and upheaval in Japan as it is dragged kicking and screaming into the modern ear. Katagiri’s day job is to help train in a newly created artillery unit with other samurai who have never seen cannons before and wouldn’t know what azimuths and trigonometry-derived trajectories would be if they saw them tattooed on the arse of a particularly comely geisha. The scenes where they are being trained by a humourless martinet sent from the capital, who has to bark orders at them in English, which is then translated into Dutch, which is then translated into Japanese, are quite comical. The samurai treat it all as a joke, and seem almost like goofy children when they are being taught to march or to make formations.
By the end of the film, of course, they are a disciplined and professional bunch, just itching to introduce themselves to the rest of Asia in the new century. It is impossible to watch their professionalism at the end without foreboding.
These highfalutin’ matters are above Katagiri’s head of course. The truth is, from his point of view, being a samurai is more trouble than it is worth. Peasants, who are all pretty much at the mercy of the elements, the samurai and anything else that comes along, at the very least don’t have someone ordering them to kill their friends or risk themselves being killed and their own families if they refuse to follow the orders of their clan leaders. They live the peasant life without any power, but without the obligations of obedience and the likelihood of having to kill themselves that the samurai class are defined by.
Such matters are not rare in Japanese period films. In fact, I doubt there’s a single one that’s been made that doesn’t represent the onerous burden of duty and honour imposed upon the samurai class, with the every present spectre of either being killed or having to commit suicide because of some breach of etiquette or because you looked at someone funny. Most of them also don’t end up with the ending this film ends up with, which is to its credit.
I’m not going to overstate the case and pretend this flick is a masterpiece of pacing and dramatic tension or visual loveliness or a tremendous parable about the lives of nobodies. It’s a slow, modest, low key flick about a decent guy who struggles to do the right thing by everyone in a world geared around doing the opposite. I enjoy these films because a) I have a weakness for Japanese films, especially their Meiji Restoration – Tokugawa Shogunate period piece flicks.; b) I like flicks that deconstruct the societal structures and values of their time; c) I like me them samurai swords being waved around; d) I like low-key flicks, and e) I like flicks where the main characters are trapped in corners like rats but figure out some way to do the right thing before the credits roll.
It’s pleasant enough for a kitchen sink samurai drama, but I’d say that I got more out of Twilight Samurai, which is directed by the same guy, and to which this flick bears many similarities, in case you didn’t pick that up.
7 times that Hidden Blade technique would come in very handy in the corporate world out of 10
“If it's your command, then I have no choice but to obey.” – The Hidden Blade