Thursday, November 08, 2007

Love and Honor

Damn you, New York. I'm certain you're to blame for this cold I've been nursing all week.

All in all, I'm sure it probably would have been more sensible to wait for Love and Honor to maybe show up at the Brattle; creative director Ned Hinkle mentioned on a mailing list that he was hoping to book the film for some screenings there, or at least as part of the Sunday Eye Opener. But, you know how it is - someone says "probably" and "hopefully", and you hear "maybe not". So, off to New York.

First, I mistakenly think the ImaginAsian theater, where the film was playing for a week, was at 239 East 9th Street. Well, there is no 239 East 9th Street. There is a 239 East 59th Street. Time to walk. I barely get to the theater in time for the start of the film.

The movie's good, at least. My plan is to check out Diva at the Film Forum at 5:30, and you'd think two hours would be enough time to get there. It's not; I get distracted by a bookstore (so I can buy a map) and a street fair, then when I try to take the subway... Well, there's confusing signage, a hockey game, the smell of urine, a delay for tunnel congestion... Long story short, I don't make it, so it winds up being a $40 movie. Yikes.

And I'll probably do it again sometime. Just with more planning, a transit map, etc.

Love and Honor (Bushi no Ichibun)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 3 November 2007 at the ImaginAsian (Limited Engagement)

As Yoji Yamada's samurai dramas have become bigger and bigger hits in their native Japan, their American distribution has shrank. This is a real shame, because all three (The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade, and now Love and Honor) are films that could appeal to a broad range of people if only the audience was aware they existed.

The man at the center of Love and Honor is Shinnojo Mimura (Takuya Kimura), a 30-koku samurai growing disenchanted with his position as one of the lord's food tasters. He's already considering resigning his position when a bad piece of seafood strikes him down, leaving him blind and out of a job. His family worries about what he will do for an income - they have few contacts left within the castle - until Shinnojo's wife Kayo (Rei Dan) mentions that Chief Superintendent Toya Shimada (Mitsugoro Bando) has offered to intercede on her behalf. Of course, such favors seldom come without a price.

Part of why Yamada's samurai films have been successful even though the genre was nearly as out of favor in Japan as westerns were in the U.S. is that his samurai, rather than being idealized warriors, were instead portrayed as an earlier century's equivalent to salarymen. Modern Japanese could easily relate to the conflict between the samurai's commitment to serve both their master and society's rules and their own desires to feel happy and personally fulfilled. The film overplays this a little early on: Shinnojo discusses leaving the service so that he could open a kendo school, where he would not only accept students regardless of caste, but would tailor his lessons to the individual's strengths! For a moment, it's a little too on-the-nose as commentary about the modern world.

The moment passes, though, and much of the rest of the movie is actually fairly traditional - the villain is well worth the audience's disdain, there is a formal duel (with the expected gore), and ritual suicide is presented as an honorable decision, if not the required one. The system is far from seeming as broken as it was in Yamada's earlier films, although it still occasionally feels cold.

"Cold" is about the last word that would be used to describe Takuya Kimura's and Rei Dan's performances. Shinnojo is a big-hearted but proud man, and Kimura makes it clear that the samurai's stoicism is a mask that he is not particularly comfortable wearing. His despair upon discovering his blindness is genuine feeling, so that when he later begins training for a duel, the question is always in the back of one's mind that it's as much an honorable suicide as an attempt to avenge a wrong. Rei Dan is very good in what appears to be her first film role - it's easy to like Kayo, since she's kind and supportive without concern for her personal position. In many old samurai movies, this character would be played as stupid or weak, but Dan has a nice way of making Kayo a little smarter than she first appears. Watching her, we get that Kayo is aware when she's in dangerous territory, but doesn't have the skills at social politics she would need to make things work out in her favor.

The rest of the cast is quite enjoyable to watch, as well. Takashi Sasano plays the Mimura's long-time servant; he provides a little comic relief as well as being the main characters' sounding board. Kaori Momoi is memorable in her role as the aunt who likely plays and enjoys the social games that Kayo doesn't. Mitsugoro Bando makes for a proper villain, a thorough creep whose lack of theatrics just makes him more detestable.

Yamada and his cast get a lot of little things right. The scenes in the food-tasting room, for instance, feel like both office chatter and ritual. Though this is a fairly tradition samurai tale, there are still some pointed barbs shot at the dehumanizing elements of castle (or corporate) life. And I love the attention paid to the mechanics of how a blind fighter would have to work. Shinnojo is not Daredevil or Zatoichi with highly enhanced senses; though he says he can sense motion, it's not that effective. Instead, we see him maintaining contact with his opponent's sword, trying to keep track of his location.

Love and Honor isn't the best of Yamada's samurai movies, but that's nothing to hold against it - The Hidden Blade was excellent, and The Twilight Samurai deserved every award it got. This one stumbled a little at the start, but is otherwise a very fine samurai story, and I hope more people get a chance to see it.

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