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Friday, Dec. 8, 2006

Serving up a blinding samurai tale

Some directors, like the recently deceased Akio Jissoji, have careers that look from the outside to be wildly eclectic. Jissoji's filmography encompassed everything from the early "Ultraman" shows to the arty films he made for the Art Theater Guild in the early 1970s.

Bushi no Ichibun Rating: (4.5 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Takuya Kimura and Rei Dan in "Bushi no Ichibun" (c)LOVE AND HONOR FILM PARTNERS

Director: Yoji Yamada
Running time: 121 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now playing (Dec. 8, 2006)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Yoji Yamada, on the other hand, would seem to be the ultimate journeyman, churning out 48 episodes of the Tora-san series from 1969 to 1996 -- a feat that lifted him into the Guinness World Records. In discussing the series, Yamada often compared himself to a noodle cook, who aims for consistency as well as quality.

But Yamada's trilogy of samurai films -- "Tasogare Seibei (The Twilight Samurai)" (2002), "Kakushi Ken -- Oni no Tsume (The Hidden Blade)" (2004), and the new "Bushi no Ichibun (Love and Honor)" (2006) -- differ from much of his earlier work not only in subject matter but treatment and sensibility. The folksy humor and sentimentality that were once Yamada trademarks are seldom in sight. Instead, the dominant mood is autumnal, verging on somber; the stylistics spare, if visually rich.

If Yamada was once a sort of Japanese Norman Rockwell, giving the big audience warm tinglies with his idealized, portraits of national archetypes, he has since become more like Andrew Wyeth: still popular with the masses, but striking deeper, darker emotional chords.

Based, like the first two films in the trilogy, on the fiction of Shuhei Fujisawa, "Bushi no Ichibun" also resembles them in its story arc. Once again, a low-ranked samurai faces character-testing difficulties that he overcomes with the support of a pure-hearted woman, culminating in a sword duel with a rival. In other words, a third serving of soba.

But just as one bowl of noodles is not like the next, "Bushi no Ichibun" stands apart from the other trilogy films. First, its star, Takuya Kimura, is not, like Hiroyuki Sanada of "Tasogare Seibei" and Masatoshi Nagase of "Kakushi Ken," a middle-aged screen veteran, but a youngish TV megastar with limited film experience. Rei Dan, who plays Kimura's wife, is a screen newcomer, in contrast to Rie Miyazawa and Takako Matsu, established stars who played the female leads in the first two films.

Also, the situation of Kimura's samurai, Shinnojo Mimura, is more dramatically desperate. A food taster for his clan's lord, he is poisoned by bad shellfish and goes blind. Though poor by samurai standards, Shinnojo and his wife Kayo (Dan) have a happy marriage, and his career prospects as an expert swordsman are bright until suddenly it all goes crash.

Kayo and the couple's elderly servant Tokuhei (Takashi Sasano) remain devoted, but Shinnojo feels worse than useless. He contemplates suicide, and turns bitter and violent. Kayo, an orphan who married up, can bring no allies to this struggle. Meanwhile, Shinnojo's relatives, beginning with his aunt Ine (Kaori Momoi), are selfish, coldly practical sorts who, at a family conference, tell Kayo to find a powerful patron. She remembers Toya Shimada (Mitsugoro Bando), a clan banto (captain) who had once expressed sympathy for her plight.

Shimada proves to be as good as his word, using his influence to allow Shinnojo to keep his status, income and house. All seems to be saved -- the once light-hearted Shinnojo cracks his first jokes in ages -- but he can't escape the feeling that Kayo is slipping away from him, into the arms of another man. When a rumor confirms his fears, he goes off the deep end -- this time, it seems, for good.

This material is ripe with melodramatic potential, but Yamada films it with a minimum of histrionics. He keeps his scenes, even ones in which crockery is thrown, simple and pointed, with plenty of strong emotion but little overacting.

This sort of paring down is common in films by older directors, but "Bushi no Ichibun" does not share other familiar features of "geriatric" cinema: staginess or outdated-ness. One reason is that Yamada's principal couple is young and he allows them to act that way, instead of sitting on their personalities in the name of auteurist rigor.

Kimura disappears into his role more completely than I would have thought possible, while Dan, a former Star performer in the Takarazuka revue, is a revelation -- thoroughly professional, refreshingly natural. Not an aughties idol or diva, but an actress who could have walked in from a Mizoguchi film.

Also, instead of falling back on the tricks of his earlier career -- Tora-san redux -- Yamada is working in what for him is still a new genre, using new approaches. Even Tokuhei -- whom Yamada could have easily turned into yet other lovable version of Tora-san -- is a hard-bitten character in his own right.

Viewers of the other trilogy films will recognize familiar tropes, including the climactic duel that, true to Yamada's keep-it-real code, has none of the fantastic flash of other films about blind swordsmen, including the "Zatoichi" series. The sword moves are the real deal, the battle intensely personal, the results grippingly final. That is to say, if you liked the first two films, you'll like this one even more. Cooks tend to improve with practice -- and Yamada's third batch of noodles is his best.

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