What do you get when you remove Tom (jump the couch) Cruise from THE LAST SAMURAI? You get a whole lot more depth, meaning, and acting. The movie is THE HIDDEN BLADE, second entry in Yōji Yamada's unofficial Samurai Trilogy. THE HIDDEN BLADE recounts the major change that took place in the 19th century when the West introduced modern weaponry to feudal Japan. Smack dab in the middle of this revolution is Samurai Katagiri (Masatoshi Nagase) who is pure and true and never killed a man with his katana. On one side is the old code, everything good and true about the Japanese tradition and the other, the idiots and their messy guns and canons. A film of reflection on change and character unfolds.
I liked most everything about this film but was let down by the anti-climactic ending. WHY - This film is slowly paced the whole way through. What I enjoyed about it though is the Kurosawa qualities of filmmaking and the very focused narrative placed on character and motivations. This is one of those rare samurai films where hardly any fighting goes down and you really learn the ways of their lifestyles and beliefs. It was a pleasent surprise to learn that the badass main character Katagiri never used his sword to kill someone, yet everyone was afraid of him. There is a lot of dialogue but what makes it stick is the lyricism and poetry of the words. Even more surprisingly is the amount of smart comedy laced throughout the picture. The comedy just comes naturally on ironies and situations the characters come upon.
Also equally impressive is the film’s ability to show large scale scenes with armies and canons and also show the quiet intimate scenes of friendship during winter. My disappointment came when there wasn’t an all out big finale battle. During the entire film, soldiers and samurai train with guns and canon for an epic battle that never really happens. The slow build up to this “battle” keeps you interested but when the end comes, there is nothing but a simple duel, which while good, is not exactly ending with a bang. Perhaps I am being too stuffy with my American mentality, but at the same time I do appreciate strong characters and story; I just like some action on the side. All in all THE HIDDEN BLADE is a quality character piece drama and a pretty good one at that.
I’ve got to say, Tartan really surprised me with Yamada’s unique THE HIDDEN BLADE. There might not be action, but there sure is good dialogue, comedy, and characters in spades. Also, a great deal more can be gained from this film than THE LAST SAMURAI so that counts for something too. The DVD is extremely packed with quality (in terms of the feature) but only has interview after interview for the special features. If you are a fan of Kurosawa or good drama, you should give this one a try.
Bottom Line: GOOD DRAMA, LITTLE ACTION