Veteran helmer Yoji Yamada smoothly trumps his previous "The Twilight Samurai" (2002) with "The Hidden Blade," another deft dovetailing of stories by Shuhei Fujisawa. With interest high, this Tokyo fest opener looks set for meaty Japanese B.O. Offshore, pic could improve on its predecessor's performance in specialized release.

Veteran helmer Yoji Yamada smoothly trumps his previous “The Twilight Samurai” (2002) with “The Hidden Blade,” another deft dovetailing of stories by Shuhei Fujisawa. With interest high, following the extraordinary local success of “Samurai” (plus its foreign film Oscar nom last year), this Tokyo fest opener looks set for meaty Japanese B.O., especially given lead thesp Masatoshi Nagase’s heart-throb status. Offshore, pic could improve on its predecessor’s performance in specialized release.

Lower-class samurais Munezo Katagiri (Nagase, known to Western auds for “Mystery Train” and “Cold Fever”) and Samon Shimada (Hidetaka Yoshioka) see off their ambitious buddy, Yaichiro Hazama (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), who’s going to Edo to serve in the shogun’s court. After their parting, Hazama is put on hold for more than half the film as the yarn enters meller mode.

Katagiri’s samurai status prevents him from marrying attractive servant girl Kie (Takako Matsu), whom his mother has trained in all the household arts, from cooking to calligraphy. After the death of Katagiri’s mother, Kie is married off and subjected to a workload of Dickensian proportions. When she is close to death,Katagiri intervenes, bringing her back to his own house in a supposedly platonic arrangement.

As their putative romance is danced around with great delicacy, a major subplot focuses on the beginnings of Western influence in Japan, through the introduction of guns and other affronts to the samurais’ fighting arts. There’s some enjoyable comedy relief here via the character of a frustrated Edo soldier trying to educate his country-bumpkin charges in the use of artillery.

When it becomes clear that Katagiri and Kie must separate for the sakes of both his and her honor, Hazama is reintroduced. After unsuccessfully planning a rebellion against the ruling government, is brought back to the village as a prisoner. He is held in solitary confinement and denied the honor of harakiri. Crazed but still lethal, Hazama manages to escape, and Katagiri is ordered to hunt him down and kill him.

The final sword fight between the two former friends is compelling without being groundbreaking, but its shocking conclusion has an emotional impact that shows helmer Yamada’s grip on his audience is as secure as a scabbard on a sword. Post-climax, film neatly brings all its separate elements together, completing both storylines for a deliciously satisfactory whole.

“Blade” is only Yamada’s second samurai movie: The journeyman director made 76 pics before “The Twilight Samurai” (including the entire, 48-part “Tora-san” series) and his experience shows. Unremarkable on the surface, “Blade” shows the flawless ease of a director who knows his craft intimately.

Nagase is quietly charming as the battle-weary samurai who seems doomed to eternal bachelorhood, and Matsu is suitably alluring as the intelligent object of his desire. In the second half, Ozawa’s turn as Hazama gives the film a real lift in energy, fulfilling the character’s purpose. Tech credits all cut the mustard, with Isao Tomita’s score suitably regal in its underlining of Katagiri’s honorable ideals.

The first part of the original Japanese title (“Kakushi ken”) refers to the “Hidden Blade” series of short stories written by Fujisawa; the handle, “Oni no tsume,” refers specifically to one of the collection, “The Devil’s Claw.” “Hidden Blade” describes a unique swordplay maneuver by Katagiri.

The Hidden Blade

Japan

Production

A Shochiku production. (International sales: Shochiku, Tokyo.) Produced by Takeo Hisamatsu, Hiroshi Fukusawa, Ichiro Yamamoto. Executive producer, Junichi Sakamoto. Directed by Yoji Yamada. Screenplay, Yamada, Yoshitaka Asama, based on the short stories "Oni no tsume" (The Devil's Claw) and "Yuki Akari" by Shuhei Fujisawa.

Crew

Camera (color), Mutsuo Naganuma; editor, Iwao Ishii; music, Isao Tomita; art director, Mitsuo Degawa; costume designer, Kazuko Kurosawa; sound (Dolby Digital), Kazumi Kishida. Reviewed at Tokyo Film Festival (opener), Oct. 23, 2004. Running time: 131 MIN.

With

Munezo Katagiri - Masatoshi Nagase Kie - Takako Matsu Samon Shimada - Hidetaka Yoshioka Yaichiro Hazama - Yukiyoshi Ozawa Shino - Tomoko Obata Hazama's Wife - Reiko Takashima Kansai Toda - Min Tanaka Ogata - Nenji Kobayashi Hori, the Shogun - Ken Ogata

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