The Twilight Samurai director Yoji Yamada returns to tried and tested territory with The Hidden Blade, another elegiac tale of a low-level sword-slinger. Here the central figure is Munezo Katagiri (Masatoshi Nagase), a samurai in 19th-century feudal Japan who's torn between loyalty to a dying tradition and his love for a lowly farm girl (Takako Matsu). Those looking for cutting-edge swordplay are in the wrong place: this is a stately melodrama rather than a bloodthirsty actioner, no less reserved than the characters themselves.
Unfolding at a leisurely pace, the story starts with Munezo seeing friend and fellow samurai Yaichiro (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) off to his new post in far-away Edo. Munezo holds a torch for his family's maid Kie (Matsu), but to marry someone of her inferior social standing would violate his clan's creed - a creed that's fading in the face of a Westernised changeover from swords to guns. Our hero's growing ambivalence about his way of life comes to a head when he's ordered to kill a traitor: his old pal Yaichiro...
There's plenty of juicy material here - divided loyalties, repressed romance, the clash between tradition and modernity - but Yomada refuses to get excited about it. Even when it comes to the climactic blade battle, the director holds back with samurai-style self-control. In spite of this muted mood, the resolution of the film's love story manages to work the heart-strings. But it's a long time coming and, for viewers of The Twilight Samurai, the main feeling is a sense of déjà vu.
In Japanese with English subtitles.