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The Hidden Blade – duty, honour, love, courage

reluctant hero

reluctant hero

The Hidden Blade – Director Yoji Yamada

Words can die. And the concepts they represent can die with them. Not overnight. Almost always it is of a long terminal disease characterised by neglect and misuse. Does it matter? Often not, but sometimes an important element in the way we think about ourselves and our relationships with others is also degraded or lost. And we are the poorer. The Hidden Blade (HB) explores with great subtlety two words, ideas, which are possibly going through this process in our contemporary Western culture: honour and duty. I suppose ‘duty’ hangs on in an emasculated form as in nurses, policemen and firemen as we say, going on ‘duty’. Except perhaps in the police, the richer, older sense of duty as the Victorians would have understood it, has been hollowed out, leaving only a shell of meaning – such as simply ‘being at work’. And the use of ‘honourable’ in addressing politicians has become for many of us, a cross between irony and satire.

The last remaining context in our culture where the notion of duty and its powerfully associated concept, honour, still carry real weight and significance – is the military. This brings us back to HB but even here there is an important distinction – we call our combat troops ‘soldiers’ which connotes battalions and group power rather than single, individual warriors . And HB is very much about a warrior, a Samurai, Munezo Katagiri played with great dignity by Matsotoshi Nagare.

HB is a variation on the theme of Yamada’s Oscar-nominated The Twilight Samurai (TS). An honourable, reluctant Samurai, shouldering the burdens of family commitment, rescues a woman he loves but cannot have under the rigid conventions of the time. The political context of Japan’s international exposure to other cultures and the turbulent effect of this upon an implacably hierarchical, largely feudal, social framework, looms in the background like a gathering storm.

HB, like TS is a deceptively simple allegorical folk-tale. While engaging us in the moral and emotional conflicts of a simple love story, it poses deep and in some ways surprising questions about what it is to be honourable. On one level, honour and duty come together for the Samurai in that they owe a duty to their caste and honour consists in fulfilling that duty. So far so cliché – individualism submerged within the group ethic. But here Munezo’s story begins to throw up some fascinating questions about the relationship between the individual Samurai and his caste. He sees personal corruption among the leaders against which he takes a rebellious, honourable, stand. This places his personal understanding of the true Samurai honour in conflict with his social and conventional caste duty. In a key moment when this moral conflict first emerges, Munezo remarks that there are things a Samurai must be willing to suffer, but also wrongs, dishonourable things that as a Samurai he must not suffer but actively resist. This poses in the setting of an Eastern culture, the same acute moral dilemma we have faced in the West – that of the relationship between the duty to follow orders and the ultimate arbiter of one’s own moral conscience in refusing to obey immoral commands. This is precisely the moral issue addressed fictionally in Aaron Sorkin’s film and Play – A Few Good Men. It is also the key moral issue with regard to our actual behaviour in say Iraq, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

These questions also resonate with Japanese history. Yamada would have been 10 years old on the day of Pearl Harbour and it is impossible not to draw parallels between the misuse and dishonouring of Samurai values represented by the corrupt leaders in HB and the infamy of the undeclared, dishonourable sneak attack on Pearl Harbour. As portrayed in Yamada’s two films, the Samurai do not extol power and force for their own sake but adhere to a rigorous code of conduct in order to bring under moral control the dangerous inherent human instinct for violence. Thus rendering it a force for social good. Seen in this way the Imperialistic ambitions of 1940’s Japan based upon unrestrained military force, were a total corruption of the basic tenets of the Samurai code. In a different way, the use made of these ideas in Hollywood films by Directors like Tarrantino is corruption of another kind.

I can’t take this fascinating issue any further in a film review but suffice to say, these themes are quite intentionally woven into this very satisfying film, interesting on so many levels. The other stereotype challenged in HB is of the lack of individualism in Eastern cultures. The autonomous self is seen as very much a Western cultural construct. HB rather makes one re-think this despite the implacable social hierarchy of 19th century Japan. Looking at Victorian Britain, Japan had no monopoly of rigid hierarchical structures. Apart from Munezo’s rebellion of individual conscience against corruption of the Samurai ideals, his tender love affair with the delightful Kie is marked by a restraint driven by respect for her within the social mores of the time. But this is a very personal love affair, of two very engaging distinctive individuals. That they struggle to express this love against the barriers imposed by social convention is again clearly echoed within Western social mores of the time.

So for me, this quintessentially Japanese film raises many serious moral and social issues of equal relevance and challenge to Western audiences. Its unfussy editing, beautiful, simple cinematography serves its steady, unhurried pace perfectly. It is slightly more domesticated in tone than TS, which managed to give a greater sense of resonance to wider political and cultural change. Also the sets, costumes and make-up are just a little too neat and perfect in HB. This distracts a little from the grainy, more realistic images of TS. Although a companion piece to TS, HB is richly textured and satisfying in its own right. Lets hope the critical success of TS offers HB a wider distribution.

(December 2005)

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