>Review: Bushi no ichibun

>”Bushi no ichibun”, which translates as “Warrior’s Honor” but in the U.S. is entitled “Love and Honor”, is a 2006 Japanese film by director Yoji Yamada. It completes his “Samurai Trilogy” begun in 2004 with “Tasogare Seibei” (known as “The Twilight Samurai” in this country), and which continued with 2005’s “Kakushi Ken: Oni no Tsume”, released in the U.S. as “The Hidden Blade”. The latter film I had written about highly favorably in a previous post.

The movie is centered around the married life of a young samurai warrior named Shinnojo and his wife Kayo. Shinnojo’s job, in a decadent Japan as it existed prior to the advent of industrialization, is to serve as an official food taster to the local shogun. He and several other samurai head up to the castle every day, and sit in a dark room off of the kitchens, where they are brought samples of the food intended to be served to the warlord. If they eat the food and suffer no ill effects from poisoning, the meal can then be served to their master.

Shinnojo has grown tired of this lowly courtier position, and wants to open a sword-fighting academy for the boys of the town. Like most young men Shinnojo longs to make a name for himself in the world and see some action. He has a comfortable, quiet life with plenty to eat, extended family and friends for society, a dutiful servant, a charming cottage with beautiful gardens, and an even more charming and beautiful wife. Yet despite all of these apparent advantages, Shinnojo feels as though he is wasting his vital years performing a meaningless role; the elderly shogun never even sees him or the other samurai who make sure the warlord is not in danger.

One day Shinnojo heads up to the castle as usual, and after tasting some out-of-season shellfish sashimi, becomes violently ill with a high fever, and lapses into a coma. He has saved the shogun from accidental food poisoning, but at great cost to himself. After several days, he awakens from the coma only to find that he has been left permanently blinded. His days as a warrior are, apparently over.

Kato proves to be highly resourceful in trying to help her beloved husband. She naturally solicits the assistance of his family, who prove to be less than helpful and somewhat resentful of the burden that she and Shinnojo have laid at their feet due to his disability. A chance meeting with an important samurai from the shogun’s castle opens up the possibility of assistance to the young couple, but it proves to be something of a Devil’s bargain. How the plot develops from this point I will leave to my readers to discover.

Like “The Hidden Blade”, “Love and Honor” is not really about martial arts. Yes, Yamada gives us a showdown fight scene, but this is not the heart nor the real climax of the film, as it (arguably) is in other martial arts films such as American director Quentin Tarantino’s epic “Kill Bill”, or Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers”. Rather, Yamada is very much interested in the interior life of the married couple, and how this tragedy impacts their relationship.

There are several scenes in the film between husband and wife that are so poignant, so beautifully and sensitively written and acted, that the hardest heart of stone would be hard-pressed to keep from weeping. As I speak virtually no Japanese, and had to watch the film with the use of subtitles, I can only imagine that the original text of the script is even more moving than the words which appeared at the bottom of the screen. Despite the strictures of the Edo society which Yamada is portraying on film, he manages to allow these characters, even when restrained by the conventions of their day, to express emotions which are timeless – feelings of helplessness, betrayal, compassion, anger, and above all, self-sacrificial love.

At the same time, Yamada does not skimp on beautiful, naturalistic detail. This is not a film of sweeping scope, with vast plains of warriors, crashing waves, and towering mountain vistas. It is a piece where the camera lingers over the seasons of the natural world and the tasks of daily life on a small scale, just enough to impart a real sense of place, but also to provide the director with an opportunity to link together nature with human emotion.

In one sequence for example, the blinded Shinnojo is sitting one evening by an open door which gives out onto the garden of the cottage. He asks Kato whether it is firefly season yet; she replies that it is, but that the fireflies have not yet emerged. He does not and of course cannot know that flickering all around him are the slow, chartreuse lights of the happy insects, and she deliberately spares his feelings by lying to him about their appearance.

The relationship of Shinnojo and Kato as it develops on screen is one marked by opposing forces, and a remarkable example of – dare I say it – Christian moral teaching. These are most definitely not Christians: they are Shintoists, and several important scenes take place at the local Shinto shrine. However there are just as definitely some interesting parallels to Christian moral teaching in the film. It is interesting that Yamada deliberately prevents either Shinnojo or Kato from killing themselves, as would have been understandable in the Japan of their day, and indeed as is the fate of several characters in the film.

As the characters move through the storyline, there is something very Christian about the development of their relationship. From a sense of taking each other for granted, to anger, sadness, and loss, to lying and concealing the truth, they take a downward spiral which is ultimately redeemed by a combination of selfless love, contrition, and forgiveness for what they have done. Even if you are not a fan of martial arts this film, which is by no means excessively gory or bloody, rises above the genre and provides a very compelling and touching story worthy of your consideration.

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