- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 10, 2007

“The Hidden Blade” becomes a more haunting title once one realizes precisely what it means. Stop any friends who threaten to be spoilers now that this unorthodox samurai classic of 2005 is available on DVD. Anticipating the payoffs can do no harm.

A late-blooming and disarming wizard of the samurai film, director Yoji Yamada reserves the moment of true illumination about the title for what appears to be an aftermath. Having achieved this sleight of hand, he plays his cleverly protected hole card with a brilliantly heart-stopping melodramatic flourish. If I’m not mistaken, it’s this quality of surprise, firmly wedded to sympathy for the principal characters, that distinguishes superior storytelling.

Mr. Yamada leads us to believe that we understand the title, at least metaphorically, by the time he stages a climactic sword duel that matches the protagonist, a disillusioned warrior and reluctant combatant named Munezo Katagiri (Masatoshi Nagase), with an embittered former comrade. This antagonist, now a clearly psychopathic fugitive named Yaichiro Hazama (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), has escaped the custody of clan officials after disgracing himself during an assignment at the palace in Edo.

Regarded as an unreliable and expendable retainer himself, Katagiri is given the treacherous task of confronting his old friend, holed up with hostages in a woodland village and reputed to be the more skillful swordsman. Inclined to share that opinion, Katagiri consults his mentor, Kansai Toda (Min Tanaka), a legend dwelling in solitary rural retirement since the transition from shogunate government to the reformist Meiji regime in 1868.

The pilgrimage to Toda does give Katagiri several useful pointers as a preamble to his showdown with Hazama. Not entirely in the confidence of the hero despite his additional presence as a reflective voice-over narrator, the audience is likely to envision the “hidden blade” as a decisive dueling maneuver glimpsed during rehearsals and repeated during the extended duel. It proves something at once more tangible and astonishing. As sharers of the secret, we can fully appreciate Katagiri’s need to bury it as deeply as possible and seek a new life of his own, beyond the traditions of an outmoded and dependent warrior class.

“The Hidden Blade” was more or less buried as a theatrical import in the United States. Its predecessor, “The Twilight Samurai,” swept the Japanese equivalent of the Academy Awards in 2002. Also nominated as best foreign language film by Oscar members, it reached American art houses in 2003 and rallied an appreciative press, in Washington among other places.

“Blade” didn’t secure a local booking, so it requires a DVD fallback for admirers of the first movie — and those eagerly anticipating the final installment of a Yamada trilogy based on stories by Shuhei Fugisawa, who would appear to have a flair for extracting potentially forlorn samurai heroes from unfavorable circumstances. The third movie, titled “Love and Honor” for English-language markets, opened in Japan last month. It remains to be seen if it will be on our doorstep later this year. Landmark theaters (which operate the Bethesda Row and E Street multiplexes and did book “Twilight Samurai”) and the American Film Institute Silver Theatre are the most obvious destinations. Both played host to dozens of obscure titles in 2006 that never came close to matching the human interest and cinematic ingenuity of Part II in the Yamada-Fugisawa cycle. Not that one should hold a grudge.

The films revolve around heroes with similar dilemmas but different identities. Evidently, a blind swordsman will attempt to reconcile love and honor in the finale. Katagiri’s struggles as a low-ranking retainer who can’t elude onerous and life-threatening duties are intertwined with a romance. He is carrying a torch for a lovely country girl named Kie (Takako Matsu), who served as a maid with his family for many years. In the course of the movie he rescues her from a wretched marriage and near death, but their mutual affection and temperamental affinity remain at the mercy of caste prejudice and tradition. The idea that they might be permanently thwarted is as unacceptable as the prospect of lifelong estrangement for Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice.”

Improbably, Mr. Yamada came to the samurai genre in his early ‘70s, after devoting much of a prolific, 45-year directing career to a popular series of comedies with the same star, the late Kiyoshi Atsumi, cast as a hard-luck, lovelorn peddler called Tora-San. Only his death brought the series to a close; it endured from 1970 to 1995 and reached 48 titles, all but a few directed by Mr. Yamada.

It’s probable that the appeal of this series would be lost on Americans, but “The Twilight Samurai” and “The Hidden Blade” seem self-evidently assured and accessible, so you’re inclined to wonder if the world of cinema teems with gratifying stuff that gets disqualified on dubious grounds of cultural or commercial marginality. What could be odder than most of the Japanese horror thrillers and animated fantasies that have been making it into circulation in the U.S.? They even generate copycat remakes, such as the forlorn “Ring” cycle.

Of course, Mr. Yamada is clearly old school in terms of thematic emphasis and stylistic savvy. While capable of stunning shock effects when depicting acts of violence, he isn’t preoccupied with showing off or creeping you out. It seems absurd to be discovering this astute yarn spinner in the fifth decade of his directing career, when rejuvenating a genre that most critics are content to regard as decisively played out. Not the way Mr. Yamada plays it. His way with the underdog samurai suggests that there’s always room for a fresh approach, even if it comes from an aging newcomer to the field of specialization.

TITLE: “The Hidden Blade”

RATING: R (Occasional graphic violence and fleeting sexual candor)

CREDITS: Directed by Yoji Yamada. Screenplay by Yoshitaka Asama and Mr. Yamada, based on a story by Shuhei Fugisawa. Cinematography by Mutsuo Naganuma and Gen Nakaoka. Art direction by Mitsuo Degawa and Yoshinobu Nishoka. Costume design by Kazuko Kurosawa. Music by Isao Tomita

RUNNING TIME: 132 minutes

DVD EDITION: Tartan Video

WEB SITE: www.tartanvideousa.com

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