In his first foray into the samurai genre, veteran filmmaker Yoji Yamada takes the stories of Shuhei Fujisawa as the basis for a trilogy of films. “Twilight Samurai” (2002), “The Hidden Blade “(2004) and “Love and Honor” (2006) each follow a low-ranking samurai living during the Tokugawa Era. Highly trained military men run the country with no war for several hundred years in a strictly enforced caste system preventing upward mobility. The lower level samurai live monotonous lives, working at tedious jobs and often in poverty. Soldiers become bureaucrats, ritual replaces discipline, and ideology occupies the stagnating minds of strategists. Rife with irony, things lose meaning in Tokugawa Era Japan, making it one of the most intriguing periods in Japanese history and the reason it is the setting for so many samurai films.
In the last of these films, “Love and Honor”, Shinnojo Mimura (Takuya Kimura) is a samurai of middle rank. With a roomy house, a servant and a pretty wife, he lives a comfortable, if unsatisfying life, as a food taster for the local lord. Three times a day the food tasters gather outside the lord’s dining room to test the meal for poison by eating a sample of it themselves. If all goes well, the lord can then enjoy a stress-free dinner and the tasters are free to leave. One day, of course, things go badly for Shinnojo after he tastes a bit of poorly prepared fish and falls into a coma. He awakens after a few days but is irreversibly blind. What is more useless than a soldier in peacetime? That would be a blind soldier in peacetime. Although he can still perform his taste-tester duties, maintaining samurai rank requires a readiness to fight at all times, so Shinnojo is out of a job.
Since he did save the lord’s life, would he receive some kind of stipend to live on? Well yes, but not without a little back scratching. That back belongs to Toya Shimada (Mitsugoro Bando), a high-ranking official and former acquaintance of the scratcher, Shinnojo’s wife, Kayo (Rei Dan). In return for Kayo’s sexual favors Shimada fixes things with the lord so that Shinnojo can maintain his status. But, people talk in a small town, and once he gets wind of what Kayo has been up to, Shinnojo promptly throws her out. Focused on revenge, Shinnojo begins training for an eventual duel with the jerk that stole his wife. (In a side note, famed actor Ken Ogata makes a cameo appearance here as the fencing instructor). This duel comes at the end of the movie; a time-honored trope without which die-hard samurai film fans would feel robbed.
That said, this is no action film. Samurai movies come in two flavors. Chanbara is the more familiar sword fighting style, while the introspective jidai geki films are character focused, often including political dealings or romance in their storylines. With its romantic back-story, rich coloring, and slower pace, “Love and Honor” plunks itself down firmly in the jidai geki camp. Elegant restraint defines the acting of the ensemble cast, yet performances don’t have that stifled quality of many early films of this type. Of particular note is the riveting performance given by former teen pop idol, Takuya Kimura as Shinnojo whose emotional moments never take that awkward turn toward melodrama. And although revenge is a motivational force in the protagonist’s journey, it is his final understanding of his wife’s sacrifice that underlies Shinnojo’s growth as a person.
Critics have questioned Yamada’s choice in making yet another period samurai film, accusing him of retreading old ground without adding anything new to the genre, as he had in the first film, “Twilight Samurai”. And while I agree there is no groundbreaking going on, integrity and craftsmanship will always gain high marks with me. Of the three films, “Love and Honor” comes closest to critiquing current changes in the economic situation in contemporary Japan. Shinnojo’s years of personal sacrifice and unwavering dedication to the lord and system he serves parallels that of modern salarymen to ultimately uncaring corporate employers. Finely crafted, with exceptionally high production values, a strong, charismatic cast, and engaging storyline, “Love and Honor” is a satisfying end to Yamada’s trilogy. For fans of the genre, this is not to be missed.