In what is being referred to as the third film in his “Samurai trilogy,” vet helmer Yoji Yamada’s meller “Love and Honor” delivers style and grace with a final restrained drop of bloodshed. Building on Yamada’s “The Hidden Blade” (2004) and Oscar-nommed “The Twilight Samurai” (2002), “Honor” has accrued socko biz since opening in Japan last December. Local B.O. was only superseded by the Nipponese embrace of Clint Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima.” Featuring handsome Wong Kar Wai alumnus Takuya Kimura (“2046”), Yamada’a latest effort should replicate the limited international biz of its predecessors.
While pic is the third in the series, given the 50-book storehouse of Shuhei Fujisawa stories to be drawn on and Yamada’s long experience with commercial franchises (The “Gakko” pictures as well as several installments of Japan’s beloved “Toran-san” series), seventysomething helmer is likely to keep making samurai pictures for as long as he, and the substantial B.O., holds out.
A young and proud samurai, Shinnojo Mimura (Kimura) is dissatisfied with his job as a food taster for the local shogun and dreams of teaching martial arts to children in his own dojo. However, a seasonally toxic shellfish draws the curtain on Mimura’s ambition as the poison throws him into a coma, and, upon reviving, he is blind.
Unable to support himself, his beautiful wife Kayo (Rei Dan), or his long-time servant Tokuhei, (Takushei Sasano), the samurai considers suicide. An indication of her devotion, Kayo has hidden her husband’s sword.
Fearful that they may have to take in the blind relative, Mimura’s self-obsessed family (spearheaded by Kaori Momoi in a characteristically amusing turn as a gossiping aunt) suggests Kayo take up an offer of financial assistance from an adviser to the Shogun, Lord Shimada (Mitsugoro Bando). Powerless, Kayo agrees, but she is painfully aware that Shimada is likely to seek sexual compensations.
The Shogun grants Mimura a continued stipend despite his being unable to fulfill more samurai duties. However, the proud young man feels his honor has been sullied when he realizes what his wife has had to do. Inevitably, the dishonored, blind samurai wants revenge.
Narrative plays out too slowly and methodically for those seeking martial arts thrills, but classic yarn makes for fine storytelling. Yamada’s direction is assured and shows no sign of artery hardening.
Kimura’s portrayal of Mimura is convincing despite developments that strain credulity. Dan is excellent as the faithful wife, displaying a command of nuance in what could have been a thankless role. Likewise, Sasano provides humor and sincerity. Ken Ogata also gives his usual strong perf in a cameo as Mimura’s fencing master.
Typically for a big-budget venture like this, lensing and production design are flawless. Music has a whiff of traditionalism, unobtrusively infused with a contempo style.