• Hidden Blade, The



    Released by: Palisades Tartan
    Released on: June 19, 2012.
    Director: Yoji Yamada
    Cast: Masotoshi Nagase, Takako Matsu
    Year: 2004
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    The Movie:

    Yoji Yamada, director of the universally acclaimed The Twilight Samurai, directs an interesting cast in another period samurai film that once again finds the perfect balance of drama, romance, and swordplay.

    The storyline follows Munezo (Masatoshi Nagase of Pistol Opera and Suicide Circle), a rough around the edges samurai who has long had a secret crush on Kie (Takako Matsu of Nine Souls), one of the maids in his family home. She ends up getting married to someone in her own caste and is whisked out of his life for a while until Munezo gets word that she has fallen quite ill and that her in-laws have done little to help her.

    Munezo and his brother in law, also a samurai, head over to visit Kie only to meet with strong resistance from her mother in law. Munezo demands to see her though and when he finally does, he finds the pretty young girl he once knew reduced to a bed ridden shell of her former self, the victim of negligence. He takes her out of the home and back to his house where she's nursed back to health and serves as his maid once more. Their relationship grows stronger, though their love remains unspoken.

    Eventually Munezo sends Kie back to her family home as he knows that their love will never be acceptable. She objects but ultimately her orders her to leave and she does. Shortly after her departure, Munezo finds that one of his former colleagues with whom he used to practice swordplay has gone rogue and been accused of plotting to overthrow the Shogun. He's captured but soon escapes and holes himself up in a small house outside of town where he holds a family hostage. The local officials know that Munezo is the only one who can get close enough to him to stop him and that he's the only one with sufficient sword skills to be able to kill him if the need arises. Munezo is given no choice in the matter, much like he gave Kie no choice in going home, and he is forced to obey his superiors.

    The Hidden Blade of the title refers to a specialized sword technique that Munezo learns from his master towards the end of the film, and also of Munezo's philosophy that the sword should never be unsheathed unless absolutely necessary. Though the end result of the film is quite violent, it is never over the top and the characters in the film use it as a last resort, not as a simple method of solving their problems. This keeps in line with Munezo's speech to Kie where he explains why she and her sister needn't be afraid of samurai.

    Anyone expecting the arterial spray and unrestrained violence of the Lone Wolf And Cub films or the out and out action of some of Kinji Fukasaku's period samurai films will likely be disappointed to find that The Hidden Blade is much more of a drama than an action film. Though the ending does satisfy in the combat department, with a wonderfully shot and constructed sword fight or two, the film focuses more on Munezo's relationship with Kie and on the interplay between castes and families than on decapitations and bloodbaths.

    Yamada also makes an interesting contrast between the younger samurai, eager to embrace the western ways with fire arms and new combat techniques, against the older samurai who cling to tradition and honor above all and who shun the very idea of replacing swords with muskets. The very basis of the samurai code, honor, is under the microscope throughout the film as almost all of the characters have to deal with change and how it will affect them. It's this exploration of change, be it in one's love life or be it political, and the fact that the characters are so powerless against it that makes the drama so compelling.

    Masatoshi Nagase and Takako Matsu are superb in their roles – both are very believable, never over the top or too melodramatic with their performances. The emotions that they portray in the film are heartfelt and quite genuine and while all of the soap opera dynamics play out it never feels forced or too sappy. The supporting cast is also quite good, with Reiko Takashima of Takashi Ishii's Black Angel and Tomoko Tabata of Takashi Miike's Sabu playing small but memorable parts.

    Though the film unfolds at a slow pace, the cinematography is so delicate and precise, the scenery and countryside so beautiful (especially the scene that takes place at the coast) and the performances so good that you don't mind taking it all in little by little. Yamada's film gives us characters to care about, to root for, and to sympathize with which makes the story all the more interesting even if at its core it really is quite a simple tale.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    The Hidden Blade arrives on Blu-ray from Palisades Tartan in an AVC encoded 1.85.1 widescreen 1080p high definition transfer. This is an improvement over the previous DVD release but it isn’t a transfer that’s going to floor you. Even on DVD the movie looked a little on the soft side, and that’s carried over to this release as well. Some light noise reduction appears to have been applied here and there as facial detail looks a little too smooth, and the picture in general is soft looking. Colors look nice, black levels aren’t bad at all, and only minor compression artifacts pop up here and there. This won’t blow you away but it looks alright in motion.

    The sole audio option on the disc is a Japanese language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track with optional subtitles provided in English and Spanish. No complaints here, the movie sounds very good. There are some nice directional effects used throughout the movie and the score makes good use of all channels in the mix. There are no problems with hiss or distortion and the levels are properly balanced.

    Extras are carried over from the 2006 DVD release that Tartan issued before the Palisades acquisition. Look for a sixteen minute Behind The Scenes featurette that does a great job of showing us how much care the director put into getting the period setting right. Also included is an eight minute collection of footage that shows us the director doing his thing at the Berlin Film Festival where the movie played for the first time. There’s also six minutes of footage documenting Yoji Yamada’s press conference held in Japan to discuss the making of the film.

    Rounding out the extras are the film’s U.S. theatrical trailer, the original Japanese trailer, trailers for a few unrelated Palisades Tartan properties, animated menus and chapter stops. As this is a Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack, a standard DVD version of the movie is included and it contains the same extras as the Blu-ray disc does.

    The Final Word:

    The Hidden Blade is an excellent film, well worth seeing for anyone with even a passing interest in samurai films, even if it’s more of a drama than a typical swordplay film. It’s a beautifully made picture and if the Blu-ray from Palisades-Tartan isn’t going to take home any ‘disc of the year’ awards it does offer an upgrade from the DVD release from a few years back (which is included in this combo pack release).

    Click on the images for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!