The Hidden Blade

Starring: Masatoshi Nagase and Takako Matsu
Japan Tartan DVD
RRP: 19.99
TVD 3604
Certificate: 15
Available 24 April 2006

An age of change is always a difficult thing to live through. Tradition can be a solace in times of trouble, but tradition can also deny you the love you seek. In 19th century Japan, tradition and modernity have clashed and the way of the Samurai is changing forever. Two friends, Yaichiro Hazama and Munezo Katagiri, face the uncertain future in different ways. Katagiri stays at home and must learn the new ways of war imported from the Europeans, whilst Hazama goes away to Edo to take up an important post. Since the death of his father, over some minor accounting fault, Katagiri has become increasingly ambivalent about the traditions of the Samurai, especially as he is denied union with the one woman he desires as Kei is only a serving girl in his household. Events come to a head when Katagiri rescues Kei from her merchant husband, where she is being ill treated. Forced, once more, to give her up he discovers that his old friend Hazama has been imprisoned following a failed political intrigue. When he escapes, Katakiri is ordered to hunt down and kill his old friend...

The Hidden Blade (2004) is directed by Yoji Yamada who has had previous success with his other Samurai tale, the multi-award winning The Twilight Samurai (2002). As with the previous film The Hidden Blade is adapted from the original stories by Shuuhei Fujisawa. From the early sixties Yamada has notched up more than ninety films. The film was well received by critics and won an award for Best Art Direction from the Japanese Academy and was nominated for a further eleven.

The film is about a man coming to terms with cultural and political changes, and whilst that may sound a little dry and uninteresting, the film is anything but that. Whilst you couldn't class this as an action film, there are very few sword fights; it is an interesting exploration of one mans life. The title The Hidden Blade refers to a conversation that Katagiri has with Kei when he explains that a Samurai rarely shows his blade unless he intends to fight. However, it could also stand as a metaphor for that which Katakiri must hide in his heart in order to follow the way of the Samurai. The whole film is imbued with this level of understatement. The battles which are fought are in the soul of a man trying to balance his desire to hold on to the honourable ways of the past in the face of the introduction of what he sees as degenerative weapons and ideas. His killing of Chief Retainer Hori is his final act of turning his back on a world that he realises no longer exists.

Whilst this might give the wrong impression of the film - there is a lot of existential angst - the film contains some real moments of humour, especially when the riflemen are being instructed to march like Europeans. The absurdity of this manoeuvre is never lost on the audience, it looks funny to us, just think what it must look like to the Japanese.

Across the board the realisation of the era is impressive; the repressed desire between Katakiri and Kei will be familiar to anyone who has watched a Victorian drama about love between the classes, the same unspoken class restrictions which deny love is as evident here as it is in Lady Chatterley's Lover. This leads to a silent intensity between these two characters, played by Masatoshi Nagase and Takako Matsu which comes across as both sad and poignant.

Audio on the disc comes in three flavours, Japanese stereo, 5.1 or DTS all with subtitles. To be honest whilst it's nice to have such a choice, the film doesn't actually require much above stereo, except to bring a little more clarification to the score and the vocal track. There is no great action packed scenes which would require DTS, so you should get just as much enjoyment out of the stereo version, which remains very clear. Visually, the film is presented in 1.85: anamorphic, with a muted palette - which sometimes gives a washed out look to the film.

There are no real extras to speak of just the Original Theatrical Trailer and a Tartan Trailer Reel. Odd really because the sleeve that they sent along with the check disc lists a whole slew of interesting extras, including an interview with the director, a making of documentary and footage from International events. It might be that the pressing sent was an earlier version, so it will be worth checking out the finished product to see if these things mysteriously reappear.

The film would get a nine but with the apparent lack of extras the overall mark drops for the DVD.

Charles Packer

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