5.0 out of 5 stars A Warrior’s Duty
This is one of the best modern Japanese films I have seen. It embodies all of the things I love about Japanese cinema: the pacing, the subtlety, the quietude with sudden explosive bursts of intensity, the struggle between obligation and personal desires. All of this with director Yamada Yoji’s keen eye for visuals, painting lovely images that counterpoints the sorrow and desperation of the characters.
The third in Yamada’s “Samurai Trilogy”, including The Twilight Samurai (“Tasogare Seibei” 2002) and The Hidden Blade (“Kakushi ken, Oni no tsume” 2004), it is difficult to believe that this is a director who has made his career filming the ubiquitous and repetitive “Tora-san” films, which were released once a year from 1969 till the lead actors death in 1996. Who knew that an artist of this depth lay beneath the guiding hand of the bumbling and familiar traveling salesman Kuruma Torajiro?
The director clearly knows his Japanese pop-culture films, and offers up a riff on the “blind-samurai” genre of films popularized by the long-lasting series Zatoichi, but updating it with modern sensibilities and the kind of warrior weariness found in such films as Ronin Gai and Unforgiven. In a more realistic take, this blind samurai does not become an all-powerful super-fighter, but is instead humbled and shamed by his handicap, no longer able to supply for or protect his family, including his beautiful wife.
There are many deeper themes here. Shame is only shameful when it becomes known. Honor is poetic and beautiful, but it does not put food on a table. Justice is a fantastic concept, but meaningless without strenght of arms to enforce it. All of the actors put in powerful and nuanced performances, specifically Kimura Takuya, best known in Japan as a member of the pop super-group SMAP (think Backstreet Boys or N’ Sync…). He actually received the Best Actor nomination for the Japanese academy awards, but declined the nomination as he felt it wasn’t right for an inexperienced pop star to compete against experienced and established actors.
The only problem I have with this film is the title chosen for the US release, “Love and Honor”. I think it pales in comparisson to the native title, “Bushi no Ichibun”, where “Bushi” means warrior and “Ichibun” means duty or honor, the one part of himself a warrior cannot live without.