Like his 2002 movie Twilight Samurai, Yoji Yamada's The Hidden Blade, set in the scenic mountains of northern Japan, is far more interested in samurai psychodrama than swordplay. The film features only one swordfight, and samurai Katagiri (Masatoshi Nagase) even tells his beautiful servant Kei (Takako Matsu), the secret love of this life, that samurai actually hate to use their swords and rarely even draw them. Schooled on all the glorious samurai legends, she simply can't believe it.
And those samurai legends may be starting to fade. In 1860s Japan, the samurai class is getting nervous as western ways, and western techniques of warfare, threaten their age-old traditions. Local lords are importing guns and cannons, and they hire coaches from the big city to come out and teach these "backwater bumpkins" how England fights. The results are delightfully comical, as the befuddled samurai try to figure out guns, struggle to march in step, and even run in the fashionable way. The trainer ably demonstrates that the western way of running, knees up and arms pumping, is much faster than the samurai way, which involves a lot of tripping over skirts. In one marvelous scene, a squad of 20 or more samurai demonstrate how to fire their new cannon for their lord. How funny that they feel the need to bow after each step. Load. Bow. Ready. Bow. Aim. Bow. Fire. Bow.
Katagiri ignores the lessons as often as he can. He has issues both at home and at work to deal with. His servant Kei has been sent away to marry into a cruel family. His mother, who held his home together, has died, and his sister has left to be married as well. Meanwhile, his best friend Hazama (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) has led a samurai rebellion against a corrupt lord but has been captured and brought back to the town as a prisoner. After he escapes and holds up in a house with hostages, the lord decrees that the best sword fighter, Katagiri, will be ordered to go kill his best friend. If he doesn't, he'll be branded a rebel as well.
Nagase is masterful here, as laconic yet expressive as he was as the too-cool-for-school teenager in Jim Jarmusch's unforgettable Mystery Train back in 1989. He simmers beautifully, with rage, with love, with dejection. He is one of Japan's best, and he's well-served by Yamada's legendary eye, which captures the nitty-gritty details of 19th-century rural life in all its messiness and poverty. The Hidden Blade is a totally immersive experience. You can almost smell the rice boiling over the open charcoal fire.
And by the way, it isn't until the end of the film that the meaning of the title is made apparent, and then, wow. What a brilliant moment of moviemaking. Watch closely!
Aka Kakushi ken oni no tsume.
I see your blade right there.