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Love & Honor (Bushi no ichibun)

dir: Yoji Yamada
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Topping off his trilogy of films about samurai on the lowest rung of the feudal order, Yoji Yamada’s most recent flick again looks at a few months in the life of a down-and-out but noble swordsman.

They’re not linked in any other way apart from being about poor samurai at the mercy of their more powerful masters, but the three films, Twilight Samurai, Hidden Blade and this one all carry through the same themes of devotion to family above duty, and the reluctant carrying-out of duty in order to safeguard one’s loved ones.

As

Love and Honor opens, samurai Shinnojo Mimura (Takuya Kimura) hates his job, and jokes with his wife about giving up his status and becoming a kendo instructor to the poor and wealthy alike.

Who doesn’t hate their fucking day job? I guess some people must like them, else the productive world would fall apart. Maybe guys working in a slaughterhouse love their jobs. Police? They love their jobs. Proctologists? Well, if they don’t love their job, you wonder what keeps them coming back.

Well, whatever it is that keeps Mimura coming back, it isn’t a love of being a food taster for the local lord. When he is accidentally poisoned, one of the side-effects is permanent blindness, which really puts a dent in his and everyone else’s day.

He and his beautiful young wife Kayo (Rei Dan) struggle to figure out how it is that they’re going to survive when he can’t really be considered for active duty, seeing as his shameful affliction is considered to be a great reason to commit suicide.

Thankfully, this isn’t like the general Japanese story set in the Tokugawa Shogunate era, where people commit suicide for the flimsiest reasons you can possibly think of. Stubbing your toe, breaking a nail, being caught without an umbrella when it rains are all similarly great reasons to meet your maker if my limited understanding of the genre is even remotely accurate.

No, Mimura isn’t going to be given a chance to be self-pitying and suicidal. His lovely wife and their goofy servant care about him too much to let him end it all then and there, especially since they’ve thoughtfully decided to hide his swords.

Mimura can still joke about his condition between bouts of depression, and it seems he can breath a sigh of relief when the local lord grants than Mimura will receive 30 koku a year, which is what they were getting previously anyway.

In case you’re not absolutely familiar with the Japanese system of feudalism circa the 17th century, and there’s absolutely no reason why you wouldn’t be, loyal samurai would receive koku, or a quantity of rice from the daimyo, or lord. Your position in the complicated hierarchy would dictate how many koku you’d get a year, and therefore how wealthy you were. The more koku, the more you could eat, sell or plant for greater wealth.

Mimura is a lowly 30-bagger, but the choice between no koku and 30 koku is no choice at all. When their security becomes assured, the question becomes not whether they’ll get 30 koku, but why.

It seems Mimura’s lovely wife has had to do something quite terrible to safeguard their future. She loves her husband enough to make sacrifices no wife should have to make, but their society is not one in which dishonour can really be tolerated. Of course the ultimate indignity is that there's almost nothing he could possibly do to avenge himself or die honourably. Or is there?

Thus a blind man must find a way to avenge the shabby treatment of the wife who custom dictates he must send away, if not cut up into tiny pieces despite the deception perpetrated upon her.

This doesn’t result in the creation of Zatoichi, the classic Japanese blind masseur character who shuffles across Japan righting wrongs and bedding the young lasses; hero of something like 90 or so films and thousands of novels. Yamada makes light-hearted but serious films, so, since all the films in this trilogy end in a sword fight, he has to make it seem believable and credible when Mimura calls out the prick responsible for his shame.

The title of the flick couldn’t be more accurate, at least the translated one. This is about Mimura’s love for his saintly wife, Kayo’s unconditional love for him, and the honour which is simultaneously the burden and the liberation of these people in this incredibly claustrophobic and stratified society. The samurai, despite being the relatively wonderful noble class that only makes up five per cent of their society, with the peasants constituting something like 80 per cent, are consistently depicted in these films of Yamada’s as being even more at the mercy of their betters than the peasants are. The peasants at least have the luxury of anonymity in a culture where they are expected to throw themselves in the dust whenever a noble crosses their path. Whereas, to use a curse from a completely different culture, the samurai often find themselves brought to the attention of powerful and unscrupulous people.

These are quiet, stately flicks told without a hurry in the world, with great attention to detail and with more emphasis on character than plot. The characters face circumstances where they are given equally impossible options by their repressive culture, only to find that the solution usually involves initially doing what is expected of them and then withdrawing from the society that doesn’t really have their interests at heart.

When swordplay erupts, it’s not a highly stylised, choreographed endeavour: it is messy and desperate, even when the people involved are swordmasters. In a way, the purpose is to pull back from the trivialisation of killing for honour and for its own sake that most audiences, whether they’re conversant with these kinds of flicks or not, associate with Japanese flicks. Though they closely hew to the party line, this trilogy and Love and Honor no less, exist as subtle deconstructions of the samurai genre without satirising it the way that a lesser director would.

Yamada is in his mid-70s now, and has been making movies for half a century. He’s said that he’s not making any more samurai flicks, and who can blame him. He’s paid his dues, and can make flicks about radioactive monkeys or sassy catfish for all I care now. Though it’s not my favourite of the three, Love and Honor is a touching and beautiful film to cap off a great trilogy and an impressive career.

7 times the guy who wrongs Mimura and his wife got off very lightly out of 10

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“He's issuing a challenge to ME? Do you know who I am?” – well, if you don’t know, how are we supposed to, Love and Honor.

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