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Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2004

Another samurai swinging in Edo's twilight

Oni no Tsume -- Kakushi Ken

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Yoji Yamada
Running time: 131 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
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Akira Kurosawa never liked to repeat himself. True, "Yojimbo" (1961) and "Tsubaki Sanjuro" (1962) were strikingly similar in the way the crafty samurai hero (played in both films by Toshiro Mifune) outwitted his enemies -- but Kurosawa made "Yojimbo" from an original script, while "Tsubaki Sanjuro" was based on a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto. Also, after these box-office successes, he put Mifune's samurai -- his most popular creation -- into permanent storage.

News photo
Masatoshi Nagase and Takako Matsu in "Oni no Tsune -- Kakushi Ken (The Hidden Blade)"

By contrast, Kenji Misumi turned his 1962 hit about a blind swordsman, "Zatoichi Monogatari," into a series that lasted 26 episodes, one featuring a showdown between Zatoichi and Yojimbo (which Kurosawa had nothing to do with whatsoever).

Though a declared disciple of Kurosawa -- and corecipient of the first-ever Akira Kurosawa Award for career achievement at this year's Tokyo International Film Festival -- Yoji Yamada is more in the spin-it-out-forever mold of Misumi. Best known for the 48 films in his "Tora-san" series about a wandering peddler who is forever falling in love, Yamada has directed or scripted several other series in his four-decade-long career, including the "Tsuribaka Nisshi (Free and Easy)" series about a fishing-crazy salaryman, now in its 15th installment.

Two years ago, Yamada released his first jidai geki (period drama) -- "Tasogare Seibei (The Twilight Samurai)." Based on three novellas by Shuhei Fujisawa, this portrait of a low-ranking samurai who was both a devoted family man and a death-dealing swordsman swept the Japanese Academy Awards and was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar.

Given his track record, it's no surprise that Yamada's second period drama is much like his first. "Oni no Tsume -- Kakushi Ken (The Hidden Blade)" is not only based on two short stories by Fujisawa, but also has a storyline similar to that of "Tasogare Seibei."

Once again the hero, Katagiri Munezo (Masatoshi Nagase), is the samurai equivalent of a hira (rank-and-file) salaryman, scraping by on 30 koku (bales of rice) a year. Once again he is a dab hand with a sword, having learned the deadly kakushiken (hidden blade) technique from his fencing teacher. And once again the hero falls in love with a woman, the lovely family servant Kie (Takako Matsu), whom he considers untouchable (not unsuitable) because of the class difference between them. (The platonic love of ["Twilight"] Seibei's life was from a higher-ranking samurai family.)

Yamada films this story in the same subdued and realistic, if emotionally charged, style as "Tasogare." Instead of the dancelike sword fights of so many jidai geki, though, the duels in "Oni no Tsume" look sweaty, tiring and dangerous. Also, instead of the theme-park appearance of so many jidai geki, with every kimono and fusuma (sliding door) seemingly brand new, the clothes and sets in "Oni no Tsume" have a lived-in, even worn-out, look. Meanwhile, the cast of characters, particularly the lower classes, mostly look in need of a long rest and a few good meals. The full-of-beans folks of so many jidai geki, forever about to burst into song or dance are nowhere in sight.

"Oni no Tsume," however, is not a two-hour exercise in gloom and doom. Serious though he may be, Yamada is first and foremost an entertainer who is dedicated to giving his large audience what it wants.

So, what we get is an opening scene of two samurai friends, Katagiri and Shimada Samon (Hidetaka Yoshioka), bidding a third, Hazama Yachiro (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), goodbye at a riverbank as his boat leaves for Edo (present-day Tokyo), where he intends to work for their clan and seek his fortune.

The two stay-at-homes, though sad, are not about to follow him. Shimada is looking forward to his marriage to Katagiri's younger sister Shino (Tomoko Tabata), while Katagiri is living contentedly with his elderly mother and devoted servant-girl Kie.

Three years pass. Katagiri's mother dies and Kie marries a son of the Iseyas, prosperous oil sellers in town. Meanwhile, waves of Westernization and political change are surging through the Tohoku region -- and Katagiri's clan is not exempt. He starts to learn the foreign arts of war (including how to fire a cannon without causing major havoc to the people firing them). The age of the sword and samurai is coming to an end.

Then Katagiri learns that, far from the happy life he had imagined for her, Kie has separated from her husband and is wasting away from illness. He rescues her, brings her home, where he, Shino and Kie's younger sister Bun slowly nurse her back to health. Meanwhile, her feelings toward him change from gratitude to something more -- and he finds himself wanting to reciprocate.

But before Katagiri can properly celebrate Kie's recovery, more bad news arrives: Hazama has been discovered leading a plot against the clan leaders -- and has been imprisoned in a mountain hut instead of being allowed to honorably commit seppuku like the other plotters. Because Katagiri and Hazama trained at the same fencing school, Katagiri's loyalty is doubted by the clan's wily karo (chief retainer), Shogen Hori (Ken Ogata). How can he prove it -- while staying true to himself?

As Katagiri, Nagase is no longer the punkish rebel he played in Yamada's 1991 father-and-son drama "Musuko (My Son)." Instead, here he is closer to the modest-but-proud samurai Sanada Hiroyuki portrayed in "Tasogare Seibei." But while the martial-arts-trained Sanada impressed more with his sword skills, Nagase is more convincingly the pacifist at heart who turns to violence only out of extreme necessity -- but knows how to mete it out. The sense of banked fires that can flare up, which Yamada deployed to good effect in the earlier film, is still present, though Nagase, now pushing 40 and no longer the wild kid, really seems to mean it when he says he wants a quiet life with the woman he loves.

When the world is going mad around you, carving out a small oasis of sanity is no mean feat. Sometimes it helps to have a hidden blade.

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