Hidden Blade, The (US - DVD R1)
Gabe takes a look at the latest film from the director of The Twilight Samurai...
Aging Samurai Munezo has said goodbye to his best friend Yaichiro, seen his father dead of Hari-Kari, and watched his way of life fall to the wayside of Japanese culture. In his depression he comes across Kie, a former servant of his house, and rescues her from the torments and degradations of her husband’s family. Munezo's love for Kie becomes obvious as his family nurses the sick young woman back to health, but his love is never to be acted on due to the couples varying castes
Munezo and his brother-in-law Samon are forced to learn the Western ways of War along with their fellow samurai, an act no one takes too with much enthusiasm. Munezo's frustrations bubble beneath his quiet façade as his colleagues begin to disrespect his lack of proper marriage, his social worth dies, and his love is rendered unobtainable. Just when life appears its bleakest our protagonist receives word that Yaichiro has been branded a trader and imprisoned, and in true witch-hunt fashion Munezo is expected to take sides against one of his most respected comrades.
The Hidden Blade was one of those movies I really wanted to love. I'd heard from varying sources that it was an utterly sublime work of film art, and I really looked forward to finally getting a chance to see it for my self. I'm crushed to say that I am under whelmed. No one but the blindest of viewers could ever accuse this film of being bad, but in lieu of countless other filmic artefacts I find it hard to get to frazzled over this particular release.
The film is, for all intents and purposes, very old fashion, from its look and storytelling, right down to its acting. I've no doubt that this was deliberate, and very much doubt that tenured director Yoji Yamada is so out of touch that he'd think his film was current. The themes and characters have been revisited by countless filmmakers through out Japan and the World, none better than the master Akira Kurosawa. Whether the familiarity and dated nature of the film will be carried as a burden or a blessing will depend 100% on any particular viewer's tastes and patients. For me the film had a classic feel, but I found it very hard to keep interest in.
Everything about The Hidden Blade is reserved—its characters, its actors, even its visual style. The shallow little kid in me wants to complain more about the generally flat compositions and lopped off camera work, but I'm afraid it'd reveal too much of my MTV generation attention span. Perhaps I've been spoiled by the far more elegant Far East period work of contemporary filmmakers Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou. Most of what you'll see here has already been covered by Kurosawa, and I wonder what the point of suggesting this film, which may be a fine one, to viewers over something truly brilliant like Rashumon.
I know, I know, it's a lovely story, and a wonderfully intimate portrait of a honourable man and the average Japanese workman of the era, but what sets The Hidden Blade apart? The third act confrontations and catharsis is spot on, but don't justify the previous hour and a half of finely crafted mediocrity, not to mention the fact that our story really ends with the should-be climatic samurai showdown. The death of the samurai culture seems to me to be one of the most common themes of so called ‘important’ filmmaking, next to bio-dramas of bygone pop culture icons and those concerning the plights of mentally or physically disabled people. I'd honestly (and again, admittedly shallowly) prefer more comic book like adaptations of the samurai lifestyle, like that of Ryuhei Kitamura's (overlong) Azumi. In the end, Yamada's film unfortunately plays as a more restrained version of Tom Cruise's vastly flawed epic The Last Samurai, minus the white man's point of view, plus a tacked on final twenty minutes that though intriguing from a character point of view, feels like it fell out of a different film's script.
Perhaps I should be clear in that I still haven't gotten around to seeing any of Yamada's other films, including his supposed masterpiece Twilight Samurai. There's a good chance that his films are an acquired taste, and it is true that sometimes an acquired taste can be the most delicious. Again, I've harped on the negatives of a very ‘good’ film, and I would not want to deter others from giving the film a chance. There aren't any standouts to speak of, though from a purely visual standpoint the film does pick up as it progresses. This is a film created with love for only the most enthusiastic of Japanese film lovers.
This Hidden Blade DVD doesn't house the most impressive of transfers, but I found little to specifically fault. There is an even grain, and colours appear accurate. Very small artefacts are visible throughout, but nothing jarring or even particularly noticeable. The image is a bit on the dull side, but this is most likely due to Yamada's earthy colour pallet. I mentioned in my film review that the film is visually flat for a great deal of its runtime, but more visually inspired sequences, like the samurai showdown piece, are effective, if not a bit on the dark side. Black levels appear to suffer from a fair amount of digital noise and blocking, but are deep and even nonetheless.
For the most part the Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 soundtracks are just as subtle and subdued as the film itself, but occasionally they come to life and remind the viewer that there may be people sleeping next door. These little reminders come during the cannon test firing scenes, which will thoroughly rock your living room, if you're not careful. There's a fair amount of ambient noise, mostly of the natural variety as a very large portion of the film takes place in the outdoors, and these sounds are realistically rendered. On occasion there will even be a surround effect, specifically during the indoor section of the semi-climatic fight. The DTS track is unquestionably louder, but not necessarily better in general quality.
Though informative, the special features adorning this disc are drier than a week old Saltine cracker baking in the Saharan sun. Only the greatest Yamada enthusiasts need apply, as the extras do a fantastic job of putting the man on a pedestal. Things start with a fly-on-the-wall mixed with interview footage mini-doc that gets to the point and helps us all understand the director's craft. There is far too much time padding film footage for my taste.
There are two press featurettes; one featuring footage from the film's Berlin Film Festival premiere, the other a straight press conference with Yamada. These talking heads are followed by the original Japanese trailer, which advertises the film for what it is—a reserved period drama—and the new U.S. trailer, which plays up the film's two or three action sequences, and even cuts one of the more comedic scenes to appear as a battle scene.
Though a fine portrayal of samurai life, and surely what some viewers will crave, I found The Hidden Blade just too uneventful to recommend whole-heartedly. This is a case of a viewer understanding that they are not renting or buying an action film, but a drama. The DVD itself isn't tops in the extras field, but does carry a decent transfer and a sometimes surprising soundtrack. If you've seen every old time Samurai film and still have a taste for more give this flick a whirl.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 8th August 2006
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: DTS 5.1 Japanese, Dolby Digital 5.1 Japanese
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Extras: Behind the Scenes Featurette, Berlin Film Festival, Yoji Yamada Press Conference, Theatrical Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Yôji Yamada
Cast: Masatoshi Nagase, Takako Matsu, Yukiyoshi Ozawa, Hidetaka Yoshioka, Min Tanaka
Length: 132 minutes
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