You wouldn’t have wanted to die by the gun.
—Munezo Katagiri (Masatoshi Nagase)
When Western firearms came to mid-19th-century Japan, samurai culture changed forever. To a region where the sword was not just a weapon, but the embodiment of a way of life, the rifle brought an entirely new set of expectations and possibilities. The gun, too, embodies a culture: in the samurai’s view, one obsessed with the new, disdainful of traditional wisdom. The clash between gun and sword, then, is the collision of “progressive” values with ancient tradition, and it’s this conflict that drives The Hidden Blade.
The film opens on a trio of samurai from Japan’s Unasaka domain. Munezo Katagiri (Masatoshi Nagase) and the younger Samon Shimada (Hidetaka Yoshioka) bid goodbye to Yaichiro Hazama (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), dispatched by his superiors to the far-off city of Edo. Hazama is, according to Shimada, “a man who’ll rise in the world,” but Katagiri has ominous premonitions about the journey. Both men—absent Hazama and dutiful Katagiri—are barometers for the changes coming to Japan’s longstanding caste system.
With Hazama away at Edo, his friends and family continue along their preordained paths: Samon marries Katagiri’s younger sister, Shino (Tomoko Tabata). Kie (Takako Matsu), maid of the Katagiri household, marries a wealthy merchant. All is as it should be; this is the relaxed domesticity the samurai fights to protect. He is, after all, at the top of the hierarchy, an armed agent of the status quo.
At the same time, those at the top are unwittingly eroding their privileged position. The authorities at Edo provide Unasaka’s warriors with guns and a military trainer, whose efforts to remake them play as farce, with misfiring cannons and botched march formations. The samurais laugh at the culture of the gun, unaware that they are being rendered obsolete. But the military trainer explains, “Wars now are won by the most expensive weaponry. By money. Such is the age that is upon us.” Gone is the dignity of looking an opponent in the eye on the field of battle. Katagiri’s masculine code is being replaced by an economy premised on gunpowder and shot. He accepts this change stoically, as a mandate from on high. Only later does he realize how much has been lost.
A less abstract problem appears when Katagiri hears that Kie, whom he’s secretly loved for years, is being mistreated by her husband. Enraged to hear that Kie, whom his family spent many years training to be a good and dutiful bride, is being treated so badly, he bursts in and carries her off in an act of impulsive chivalry that sets the village gossips twittering. Katagiri has the best of intentions, nursing Kie back to health and never hinting at any carnal desires. But he can never marry her because of their caste differences, and eventually sends her to live with her parents.
The cultural values most associated with firearms—think of cowboys, the American samurai, reticent and independet—would allow Katagiri to marry whomever he wants. But his world is not ready for that, a point that’s driven home with the return of his old friend Hazama. The man who left an honored samurai returns as a fugitive after rebelling in Edo. Hazama wanted to change the system (thought out of arrogance more than anything), and now the system must destroy him. The duty falls to Katagiri, the only swordsman ever to best Hazama.
Killing his best friend would reinforce Katagiri’s position in a society that soon has no place for him and keeps him from love. The same society has imbued in him a strict moral code. Caught on the crest of time’s wave, he’s trying to carry traditional values into an unknown future.
The Hidden Blade - Theatrical Trailer