Yôji Yamada's Academy Award-nominated 2002 film The Twilight Samurai cobbled together a plot from a series of novels by Shuuhei Fujisawa, all set in the mid-19th century, when Japan was opening up to the West and shedding its last vestiges of feudalism. Yamada's new film The Hidden Blade returns to that milieu—and, again, to Fujisawa's stories—for another movie about people trying to hold onto the best part of their history, while adapting to the necessities of a new age. It's a strange little world, where warriors hone their swordplay skills in preparation for battles they don't ever expect to fight, while chatting amiably about their wives and kids. Just another day at the office, samurai-style.
Change comes gradually, then suddenly. Amid a series of new-world training exercises—how to load and fire a rifle, how to run like an Englishman—low-ranking samurai Masatoshi Nagase gets word that one of his best friends, Yukiyoshi Ozawa, has been arrested for plotting to overthrow the shogunate. When Ozawa escapes, Nagase is ordered to hunt him down and kill him, even though Nagase has never wielded his sword outside of practices and ceremonies. But there's one good side to the threat of imminent death and a general loss of ideals: it drives Nagase closer to his former housekeeper, Takako Matsu, whom he has been unable to marry due to caste differences.
The Hidden Blade builds slowly—maybe too slowly—to a mano-a-mano standoff, just like The Twilight Samurai, and just like the earlier film, the new one presents its climactic swordfight matter-of-factly, with no superheroics and a lot of hesitation. But while Yamada essentially repeats himself structurally, he finds fresh ironies in the story of how a culture built on tradition gets corrupted by technology and years of inaction. Sometimes Yamada illustrates this slyly and comically, like when he shows a cannon trial ending with the freshly fired weapon rolling backward through a fleeing crowd. And sometimes he's more devastating, like when Nagase steels himself for a character-defining fight whose outcome has been predetermined by men with more money and power.