By Erik Ruiz | March 10, 2006

“The Hidden Blade” is the 78th movie from Japanese director Yoji Yamada, who is best known in America for his 77th movie, the Oscar-nominated drama “The Twilight Samurai.” Oddly, “The Hidden Blade” bears more than a passing resemblance to its predecessor – and in comparison, it bears a failing resemblance.

Both films have the same foundation: a scruffy, stoic, low-level samurai in old Nippon is viewed by his community and peers as being an odd loner with a vaguely scandalous family background. This samurai slowly finds himself gaining personal redemption with an unexpected display of his long-dormant swordplay skills, and emotional redemption with a blossoming relationship with a lovely lady blessed in domestic abilities.

But whereas “The Twilight Samurai” was a richly-textured, beautifully conceived work of art, “The Hidden Blade” is a chaotic hodgepodge. The film pinballs between political melodrama, icky romance, very bad slapstick comedy, brief history lessons, even briefer martial arts explosions, and patently false notes regarding love and individualism in caste-bound 19th century Japan.

Masatoshi Nagase as the samurai and Takako Matsu as the maid who wins his heart give the worst performances imaginable. He lumbers through the film so stiffly that it seems like a mannequin which is animated through stop-action effects. She giggles and poses like a Meiji Era equivalent of Paris Hilton – even when her character is supposedly lying near death or toiling in the fields, she is the picture of perfect make-up, hairstyling and costuming. She seems more like a high-price model than a low-caste servant.

“The Hidden Blade” has plenty of breathtaking cinematography and rich art direction. Sadly, it is wasted here. And the waste is extensive: the film runs an exhausting 132 minutes. Back to the woodshed with this dull blade!

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