Review: Kakushi Ken Oni No Tsume (The Hidden Blade, 2004)

the hidden blade

I really enjoy playing, Bakumatsu Rouman Dainimaku: Gekka No Kenshi – Tsuki Ni Saku Hana, Chiri Yuku Hana on my Sega Dreamcast, that’s close to being a samurai, right?

Screenplay By: Yoshitaka Asama & Yôji Yamada
Directed By: Yôji Yamada

The camera shifts to a close-up of our protagonist, Katagiri, wrapping the hilt of his sword. The camera only stays there for a second and then there is a knock at his door. We know that Katagiri is preparing for an important showdown in the morning. It would make sense for the wrapping of the hilt to be immediately followed by a visual of Katagiri on the battlefield. That’s what would happen in a more action oriented samurai film. However, that’s not the type of film that Yôji Yamada specializes in making. Kakushi Ken Oni No Tsume isn’t a film about the showdown or the battle, it’s about the moments before and after the battle. We are given the showdown, because it is important, but the end to the showdown is almost anti-climactic. The film is so unconcerned with the action of the showdown that it gets away from the showdown as quickly as possible. The wrapping of a hilt, the conversation with a friends wife, these are the moments that matter to Yamada-san.

Great patience is shown in delivering the detail oriented world of Kakushi Ken Oni No Tsume. The changing of the guard is the true story of the film. Or rather, the forward momentum of progress and the way the guard has to change to avoid being run over by such momentum. The delivery of such a theme could have been rushed, the mechanics of the change could have been glossed over in a desire to get to the change quicker. That’s not the case in Kakushi Ken Oni No Tsume, instead the camera spends plenty of time focusing on the little details of the present and the details that make up the change. The wrapping of the hilt is one such detail. As is the hanging of the family laundry on a clothes line outside of the Katagiri house. The same is true of the focus on soldiers learning to load a cannon or cock a gun. The theme of change is rendered in its simplest, and most beautiful form, in a foot race between a samurai and a commander of the new guard. The samurai is left in the dust, and the camera remains still and focused on the differences in the way the two men run. By taking the time to establish its theme Kakushi Ken Oni No Tsume delivers a well thought out and fully explored theme.

In Kakushi Ken Oni No Tsume the theme need not stand by itself. There’s also a romance that takes place, and it is just as well crafted as the thematic elements of the film. It helps that the romance ties into the theme, but again the romance mainly comes down to the details that Yamada-san is fascinated by. The romance isn’t spoken of in every frame, its the details that do most of the talking. The way that Kie looks at Katagiri, the way Katagiri shifts his posture when he is talking to or thinking of Kie. The meticulous nature in which Kie is able to relay the daily routine of Katagiri to another of his servants. What we think of as traditional romance is not the romance found in Kakushi Ken Oni No Tsume. Rather, it is the romance of knowing another person, the romance of the details of someone’s life.

I wish that the voice over and text narration weren’t added to the film. It only pops up a couple of times, but it exists to tell us things easily gleaned from the actions of the characters. The narration is the only real blight that exists in Kakushi Ken Oni No Tsume. Yamada-san has crafted yet another fantastic samurai tale that avoids the typical samurai cliches in favor of a more reserved style. Kakushi Ken Oni No Tsume is a small film in the way that it focuses on the details of its characters instead of the larger actions of its characters. Those details help to tell a much broader story with deep thematic connections, I wouldn’t expect anything less from the masterful storyteller that is Yamada-san.

Rating:

***1/2

Cheers,
Bill

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2 responses to “Review: Kakushi Ken Oni No Tsume (The Hidden Blade, 2004)

  1. Wait. There’s a Bakumatsu Rouman Dainimaku: Gekka No Kenshi – Tsuki Ni Saku Hana, Chiri Yuku Hana game on the Dreamcast?! I did NOT know this. Anyway, you get 300 Dreamcast points (which are useless these days) for making me crack up laughing by getting in a game reference and a Dreamcast reference. I haven’t seen this film yet, but it’s going on my list…

  2. I still have my Dreamcast, and I still bust out stuff like The Last Blade 2 every now and then. 🙂

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