Sunday, April 17, 2005

The Hidden Blade

The Hidden Blade refers to a dreaded samurai sword skill, which you will see only towards the end of the film. Folks, who like me initially thought that this is one of the usual samurai slugfest, may be disappointed that it's not. But like mentioned in the movie, killing is only a last resort, and even samurais themselves are fearful of death in duels.

But hey, don't jump the gun (pun not intended) just yet. This film has a story to tell, and a poignant one at that. Simply put, it tells of a story about a small town samurai whose village is caught in the transition period of Japan's modernization and introduction of western arms (guns and cannons) and fighting tactics. While struggling to understand the rapid changes taking place in the nation, he has to deal with relationships of the heart with his family's maid, whom he adores but afraid to own up to, and the dilemma of being ordered into a duel with one of this long time friends, whom has gone off the right track.

This film explores many themes, one of which is the samurai code of honour, where committing suicide via disembowelment (hara-kiri) is widely accepted as a practice of maintaining that honour. We also see the bastardization of this honour, of corruption, which brings to mind George Orwell's Animal Farm, where some animals are created more equal than others. The protagonist samurai Munezo often put his head on the line while maintaining that code, even when all else around (including his superiors) put pressure on him into making compromises. How many of us will rigidly uphold our values and principles when faced with adversity? Or will we bow to that pressure and be apologetic for it?

We are also shown the caste system in feudal Japan, which proved to be a stumbling block between the relationship of Munezo and his family maid Kie. The village clan frowned upon and gossips about Munezo's rescue of Kie from her abusive marriage. While the motive may seem justifiable, we all know Munezo's real reason - that he loves her and cannot bear to see her being abused, and ultimately losing her life. Both know that with the caste system, they can never be together. Or can they?

The caste system doesn't only apply to relationships of the heart. Even within samurais, this system applies. Munezo is a small samurai in a small village, and is given little respect by samurais belonging to larger clans and cities. Think of it like the army, where foot soldiers have to "Yes Sir" every officer's instructions - even when it means given the order to kill an old friend who has gone fugitive. Munezo again struggles with this, but knows that as long as he's a samurai, orders are to be obeyed.

Change and modernization is central to the story. And in this film, there are numerous hilarious moments as the samurais in training as a modern army come to grips with strange rituals like foot drills, the handling of modern weaponry, and even the way they run. It's something like Tom Cruise's Last Samurai, only that the training's more comical here, and subtly highlights the dangers losing of one's cultural values when the world moves rapidly in change.

And finally, for those really waiting for a slugfest, there are 2 fight scenes in the entire movie. One is when Munezo seeks his old master for new guidance, and is being taught a new skill / trick. The other is when Munezo meets his longtime friend for a final showdown. Do not expect "wuxia" styled swordfights. Think Star Wars: A New Hope, the duel between Darth Vader and Obi-wan Kenobi. The duel happens with measured strokes and strategy, rather than fast paced action everyone's used to these days.

But again, the emphasis here is not on violence. It's a simple tale with powerful themes, and you will applaud when The Hidden Blade is finally used, justly.

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