>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.

>Review: Kakushi ken oni no tsume

>Director Yoji Yamada’s “Kakushi ken oni no tsume”, released for English-speaking audiences as “The Hidden Blade”, is not really a martial arts film, even though to some extent it has been marketed to Western audiences as such. Certainly there are a few scenes of fighting, and the “hidden blade” referred to is a technique reminiscent of Pai-Mei’s Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique from “Kill Bill Vol. 2”. Yet this delicately restrained film is more about love, honor, and sacrifice than swordplay, and for this reason is well-worth a look by anyone who appreciates good storytelling.

The film’s hero is Katagiri, a low-level samurai warrior, who is trying to find a place for himself in a world where he is neither fully accepted, yet which in the 1860’s when the film is set, is starting to change into something he does not recognize. His family honor having been lost as a result of actions taken by his father, Katagiri is a master swordsman who has never actually killed anyone by the sword. Like many of the other samurai in his town, Katagiri spends much of his time at leisure – in his case in study and reflection. He is secretly in love with his mother’s servant girl Kie, a farmer’s daughter from a lower class than himself, but who has been promised as the bride of a local merchant.

As time moves on, we learn that Kie is deathly ill and trapped in a loveless household. Katagiri rescues her from her abusive mother-in-law, bringing further scandal upon his own household. He nurses Kie back to health but learns that Hazama, a former schoolmate has been arrested for plotting a rebellion against the Shogun in Edo (present-day Tokyo.) Hazama has been sent back to the town to serve a sentence of imprisonment, and suspicion has fallen on Katagiri as somehow being involved in the plotting due to his long association with Hazama.

Realizing that trouble is coming, Katagiri sends Kie away back to her father’s farm, without telling her of his love for her, and matters come to a head as Hazama escapes from his prison cell. Katagiri and the local authorities come into conflict as he refuses to rat on his samurai brothers with regard to the suspicions of local rebellion, but he is eventually forced into leading a team to capture the prisoner. Themes of betrayal, politics, and cowardice lead to some unexpected results – sometimes tragically so, yet justice and love ultimately prevail.

I had to keep reminding myself, as I watched the film, that this piece was shot in 2004 by a Japanese director, and not by a Scandinavian filmmaker like Bergman in the 1970’s. There is a quality of golden light which washes and suffuses the entire piece, be it among the agricultural fields of rural Northern Japan, illuminating the faces of the actors by paper lanterns, or catching the feathers of chickens scratching in the courtyard as seen from within a country house. Similarly, there is a languid pacing in much of the movie, a discussion of thoughts and feelings enveloped in cloak-like reserve that would be just as much at home in a Nordic drama, as well as a few moments of shocking violence done to others and to the self that give a gravitas to what otherwise might have been merely a set piece about Japanese life in the mid-19th century. This is not to say that the film is lacking in humor, as indeed a number of the scenes of the samurai trying to adapt to Western weapons and methods of fighting provide a great deal of comic relief.

Katagiri is a man without a country by the end of the film, and those interested in how Japan changed into the dominant power it became in the 20th century will find much to appreciate about this piece. Yet it is his relationship with the broken but shy Kie that is the real heart of the picture. The strict codes of old Japan slow down the film considerably at times, and for this reason the viewer may not want to watch it without a strong cup of tea to hand. However, as a piece on human dignity, the virtues of sacrifice, and the power of love, it is a beautiful piece of art with a strong moral center of gravity, unusual in our present age of selfishness.