The decline of the way of the samurai warrior in the style depicted in Kurosawa’s Ran, for example, began during the Tokugawa Shogunate of the 1700’s. Warfare had begun drying up prior to this, and the Samurai, retainers for the Emperors and Shoguns, were the nobility and aristocrats of the land. As peace, settlement and modernism infused Japan, samurai became little more than highly trained courtiers of various ranks and class. Therefore, by the mid 1860’s when this film take place, they are in the throes of their waning role of sword polishing bodyguards and struggling with the horrific confines of having to learn western military mechanizations (guns!) how to march in single file, run, and other barbarous tasks. Soon, Japan would abolish the samurai class in favor of a westernized national military.
It is on this cusp that The Hidden Blade begins, centering on low-ranking samurai Munezo. Munezo, single, of the old school, enjoys poetry, long walks on the beach, fine calligraphy writing, and the construction of a winter time haiku. Morals and ethics are the pillows on which at night he sleeps soundly and the modern world a conundrum and confusion for him and the rest of this fellow clansmen. Munezo has to deal with the daily reminder of his fathers’ (a higher ranking samurai) seppuku because of a failed bridge project of which there was a question of fraud. This act caused Munezo, his mother and sister to live in decreased means at a lower samurai caste, and only retain two servants, one of whom is a Kie a country girl from the north. Kie is trained perfectly in the arts of tea making, sewing and calligraphy by Munezo’s mother and is married off soon after Munezo’s mother’s death to a textile merchant.
During this time, Munezo begins struggling with the questions of stupidity, inflexibility and ridiculousness displayed daily at his job as samurai for the retainer of the representative to the representative to the Shogun in his area. Daily trials in the use of modern “clothes” not kimonos, “guns” not swords, “slapping” not slicing, have him down and depressed. His house falls into disrepair and little holes in his clothes become noticeable. Because Munezo is such a gentlemen he doesn’t even think of getting a wife (the cure for all things bachelor) he simply doesn’t even notice anything is the matter.
Munezo hears that gentle Kie, his family’s former servant girl, is on death’s door. Munezo forces his way into the textile factory where she is being held by her new “family” as slave laborer and sees her emaciated condition. He decides to just take her back home with him, sack-of-potato style much to the shock, anger and dismay of his higher ranked brother –in-law, not to mention the textile family, who immediately divorce Kie. Munezo is pleased as punch because now he has someone to look after him (almost as well as good as mom did) but also because Kie is good company. Though she is of completely different caste systems than he, and theirs seems to be a platonic admiration society you can see the delicate little feelings beading up to the surface as Kie demonstrates her love of poetry, song and general housekeeping.
Things are going from bad to worse at work though, and Munezo is forced to send Kie away rather than deal with the scandal of a bachelor living alone with his comely servant girl. He submits to the will of his superiors. His retainers then force him to hunt for and kill and old friend who was caught in a coup attempt on the current shogun. Munezo, a skilled swordsman and the best in his class, knows that this friend is better and seeks out his former swords master to teach him a few last techniques, one of which was the Hidden Blade. In one of the only fight scenes, the battle between the former friends is seen as an un-romanticized last stand of one era for another, of rebellion with law. Munezo is now tired of submitting. He hears the dying of the age and begins to see what was once the glorious “way” as just another corrupt system ready to be purged.
The film is crafted, acted and directed with a quiet, nuanced scope by Yoji Yamada, director of the sister film, Twilight Samurai. It is NOT an action movie. Hidden Blade received 12 Japanese academy award nominations and though you worry that it will delve into boring samurai minutiae (is that possible?!) it never does. Instead the film unfolds into a sardonically wry dismantling of the perils of class systems, westernization, greed and power and what happens when one decides to be done with all of the above.