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Continuing his adaptations of Shuuhei Fujisawa’s novels, Yôji Yamada released Kakushi-ken: oni no tsume (aka The Hidden Blade) back in 2004. Following the same sort of themes as the 2002 multi-award winning Tasogare Seibei (aka The Twilight Samurai), with an honourable Samurai struggling to find peace with the changing face of Japan, this is another charming and thoughtful study of the time. Released on the 24th of April 2006, have Tartan displayed the same attention to detail with the DVD as Yôji Yamada has with the film itself?

Hidden Blade, The

Feature


”Killing is frightening, even for a Samurai”
Japan, 1857. We join the story as Munezo Kategiri (Masatoshi Nagase) and Samon Shimada (Hidetaka Yoshioka) bid farewell to Yaichiro Hazama (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), who has been awarded a posting with the Horse Guard in Edo. The two friends who remain ponder his fate, knowing all too well their departed companion’s penchant for troublemaking. But life carries on, with Samon about to marry Munezo’s sister, Shino (Tomoko Tabata), and Munezo carrying on as a bachelor until someone worthy of his caste can turn his head. The one woman he desires is, however, not worthy of a Samurai of his stature—at least according to society.

Three years on, as the snow falls on the village, Munezo bumps into Kie (Takako Matsu), the girl who was brought into his household as an impoverished child and who eventually became the family’s maid. Having married into the Iseya family, she is treated more like a slave than a wife and the lack of respect gradually wears her down into illness.

Munezo is already conflicted with his duty as a Samurai, as the ever changing world of warfare gradually erodes the traditions of his honourable way of life. Combat itself is becoming less of the close-quarters, personal style of battle and more the artillery-based conflict sweeping in from the West, but to add insult to injury they even have to learn a ‘new English style of walking’.

Hidden Blade, The
He is not the only one who is wary of the disgraceful weapons being thrust upon them, but the lessons learnt from his Master, Toda (Min Tanaka), prove difficult to unlearn. Torn between ignoring the Samurai code and the call of his own heart to intervene in Kie’s plight, a rash act could put his community standing in jeopardy. To make matters worse, Chief Retainer Hori (Ken Ogata) arrives with a mission—his old friend Yaichiro is on the run after trying to incite rebellion against the Shogunate back in Edo. The rivalry between the two—going back to the days under Toda’s tutelage—is brought back to the fore, and Muzeno faces a difficult choice.

In much the same way as The Twilight Samurai, Yomada’s work here is as understated as the Japanese way of life back in the late 19th century. There are no blood and thunder battles to be found in this film, but instead there are the personal conflicts brought about by the caste system, the battles with conscience, and the unstoppable steamroller that is the changing world. Once again, the focus on a single man struggling on several fronts is used to great effect, with his daily work at the training camp contrasting with his quiet and lonely existence outside his routine.

This is not a totally dry affair though, and the attempts to drill the Western ways into the Samurai give rise to a few humorous moments, from trapped fingers to trying to learn that silly way of walking that us Westerners call marching (heck, it looks daft today to some of us—head back one hundred and forty years and try to imagine seeing that for the first time). The balance between the light-hearted moments, and those that are not so much, is well struck though.

Hidden Blade, The
The acting is pretty solid across the board. The low key attraction between Kie and Munezo is played so that neither realises what the other is feeling, and Masatoshi Nagase and Takako Matsu manage the feat well. Yaichiro and Master Toda (no, that’s not supposed to start with a ‘Y’) get comparatively little screen time, but their roles are used to expand the characterisation of Munezo and as such they succeed. Playing the villain of the piece, Ken Ogata’s Chief Retainer Hori is instantly distasteful, so another well-played performance is put in there.

The film garnered another multitude of nominations for Yôji Yamada’s cast and crew at the Awards of the Japanese Academy (although unlike The Twilight Samurai it failed to get nominated for a ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ Oscar). Aside from the different cast nominations (for obvious reasons), the remainder of the categories included the same nominees as with his earlier work, but this time around—out of twelve nods—only Mitsuo Degawa and Yoshiobu Nishioga took a win for their work with the Art Direction. Of course with so many films about, nominations are almost awards themselves, and the recognition seems deserved.

On a personal note, though, I didn’t feel that this was as strong a film as The Twilight Samurai. It is undoubtedly well crafted and well performed—and the realisation of the era is impressive—ut while I enjoyed it, it just didn’t quite match up to Yôji Yamada’s 2002 effort. There are other threads to the story that I have purposely steered away from that, while not major plot points, do add to the portrayals of the various characters, but I just didn’t find this quite as emotionally involving. Still, I liked The Twilight Samurai a lot, so ‘not quite as good’ is in no way meant to be an insult to The Hidden Blade.

Hidden Blade, The
Ah, yes—what about the title of the film? Well, this isn’t a veiled reference to a hero in the vein of Zorro, or indeed The Flashing Blade, but the name of a technique passed down by Toda to Munezo that is at the heart of some of the strain behind Munezo and Yaichiro’s relationship. To divulge more about what it is, or when and if it is used during the film, would spoil any payoff that may (or may not) be attributed to it.

Video


The 1.85:1 anamorphic presentation given to us here does give the impression of being a little bleached out at first, although overall the colours are well balanced and accurate. The reds and greens are not what you could call vibrant or lush, and the blacks not as perfect as in some recent discs, but the palette is generally pleasing to the eye.

There is some minor edge enhancement on display, however detail is very good and like the cinematography in The Twilight Samurai there is a great deal to make out in the backgrounds. It is presented here with an interlaced transfer though, and it never seems quite as sharp as it should be for a fairly recent film. The average bit-rate is a paltry 6.9Mb/s, but the disc itself is nearly at capacity so perhaps little more could be done with that.

Hidden Blade, The
A big downside is that, with panning shots and the end titles looking somewhat other than smooth, it does look like we have been saddled with another unfortunate NTSC to PAL conversion. Smoke and dust are still handled well—as is the layer change in chapter seven at 1h13m28s—but if conversion is indeed the case then it all could have been so much better.

Audio


We don’t get the full-rate DTS track that Tartan afforded The Twilight Samurai back at the end of 2004, but then the sound design never seems to be so involving as to require it. Offering only the original Japanese language audio, the DTS 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are predominantly front-biased, with decent stereo separation and clear dialogue.

Dedicated bass is present in both tracks, but is so subtle as to be almost unnoticeable, and the surrounds only really kick in around three-quarters of the way through with a little echo in the clashing of swords and some stormy weather (always good for a bit of atmosphere). Even the music feels underused but the end titles do reassure you that your cat hasn’t chewed through some of the cables, with some nice orchestration and decent use of the rear channels.

Hidden Blade, The
The stereo track is—somewhat unsurprisingly—also front-biased. It does still manage to display a good range, and again vocals and separation are very good.

Extras


An exclusive interview with Yôji Yamada, a ‘Making of’ documentary, footage from international events, Director’s filmography, film notes...these are all teased on the pre-release cover that came with the check-disc but don’t actually make an appearance here.

What we do get are the original theatrical trailer (2m04s, non-anamorphic 1.85:1, Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, burnt-in English subtitles) and a Tartan Trailer Reel. The latter presents us with three individually selectable trailers for Lady Vengeance (1m46s), A Bittersweet Life (2m04s)—both with non-anamorphic 2.35:1 transfers, stereo Korean tracks and burnt-in English subtitles—and The Propostition (2m10s, anamorphic 1.85:1, English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo).

Not the most awe-inspiring collection of extras available today.

Hidden Blade, The

Overall


An honourable telling of a story in times much different to those today, and while not as engaging as Yôji Yamada’s previous film it is still a worthy successor.

As for the DVD, the audio is serviceable, and as the tracks stand they do the contents justice, but video and extras are definitely lacking. The interlaced video and a large suspicion that this is a converted disc rather than a pristine transfer from the original film elements are shortcuts to releases that studios should try harder to avoid, but the lack of extras does at least appear to have ensured that it is not as bad as it could have been. In hindsight, I was initially full of praise for the Tartan release of The Twilight Samurai and while my opinion of the audio on there still stands, that disc does have the same problems with the video that are exhibited here, but eighteen months on I would have hoped for better.

Overall, this is a solid film presented in an unspectacular way, but the contents will still prove worth it for fans of the genre.


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