What if Merchant Ivory made a samurai movie? What would it look and feel like? Probably a lot like this. THE HIDDEN BLADE is filled with questions of tradition in a world where technology is fast overrunning moral codes, and where people of different castes cannot marry, but must instead play with the hand they were dealt in life.
Which is all fine, except this is a samurai movie, and I like my samurai movies to have a little more, well, samurai stuff in it.
Katagiri is the lonely older samurai, deeply imbued with the code of the samurai in a world that is fast turning to the weaponry and military strategy of the West. He pines for Kie, a young woman who his family took in but, since she was a lower caste, was forced to marry in her own rank.
Tied in amongst this love story and the tense political atmosphere is Katagiri's old friend Hazama, who while stationed in Edo becomes a rebel faction against the Shogunate, and escapes imprisonment. Katagiri is told the only way he can prove he was not in league with the rebels is to seek out and kill his friend Hazama. To do that, he must call upon his old master Todo, and rely on the secret arts he is taught. Will he use the secret Hidden Blade, whose art has been entrusted only to him? Will he use the Devil's Claw? Does it matter when there's only one fight in the movie, and it's over before it ever really gets going?
THE HIDDEN BLADE is tender and moving, and plays on the role of honor and tradition in a changing world. It reminds us that fighting is only used as a last resort (prior to the climactic battle, Katagiri admits he's never even killed anyone before, despite his being the best swordsman in the land). There is romance, comedy, and above all, a sense of humanity that overrides the rest of the action in the film. The scenes in winter, like when Katagiri sees Kie shopping, have a quiet pastoral beauty that seem to freeze time. But you always get the feeling that the movie has no gut, no punch to it. I felt at times like I was watching a television drama that just happened to be about samurai. As good a film artistically as it may have been, I wouldn't recommend it to anyone looking for serious samurai ass-kicking.