by HELEN GEIB
For some months now I’ve made it my practice to indulge my love of samurai cinema by featuring an older samurai movie in weeks when there is no new DVD release I can recommend. But while today’s pick Love and Honor is an entry in that series, there was no need to reach into the archive to find it. This week offers the rare pleasure of a new samurai movie DVD release.
Love and Honor (released in Japan in 2006 and given a very limited U.S. theatrical release this past September) was written and directed by Yuji Yamada, a prolific filmmaker best known in the U.S. for the very fine Twilight Samurai. Like the earlier film, Love and Honor tells a mature and tender love story. The two films also share the central theme of the difficulties inhering in adapting to changed personal circumstances in the face of familial and societal indifference, incomprehension, and censure.
The hero of Love and Honor is a rank and file samurai named Shinnojo Mimura (Takuya Kimura). Mimura is one of his clan leader’s food tasters until he has the bad luck to sample sashimi with a toxin that causes blindness. The immediate ramifications of the accidental poisoning are catastrophic.
In the eyes of society, loss of sight in a samurai means the end of useful life. As one of his fellow retainers wryly notes, Mimura can hardly become a balladeer or masseur, the only means of livelihood open to people who are born blind. And while a modern viewer might argue that sight is hardly a prerequisite for being a food taster, the possibility that Mimura could continue in the same position could never be so much as thought of by the society depicted in the film. Mimura’s extended family is anxious to avoid the inconvenience and expense of helping him and his wife Kayo (Rei Dan) has no family to rely on. Without aid, the couple faces penury and a precipitous decline in social status.
This and other external pressures aggravate Mimura’s difficult psychological adjustment. The film explores his struggle to accept and adapt with great sensitivity and insight. He has a resilient personality and a strong will, and fortunately he is not completely alone. The two people closest to him are steadfast in their affection and loyalty: Kayo and Tokuhei (Takashi Sasano), who has been the family’s servant for Mimura’s entire life and is closer in affection than his blood relatives.
In health, Mimura was contented with his marriage, but seemingly never really gave much thought to Kayo’s or his own feelings. His illness forces an unprecedented openness and candor between them, and Mimura is surprised to discover that his wife is passionately in love with him. Mimura’s slowly made discovery that he is as much in love with her is at the story’s heart.
The first time Mimura picks up his sword as a blind man, it initiates a subtle and interesting dialogue between Love and Honor and the film series about Japan’s most famous blind swordsman, Zatoichi. Zatoichi is not from the samurai class and wields a sword because it is the best tool to defend himself and others from immediate danger. Mimura’s sword is likewise an instrument of vengeance, a storyline that culminates in a remarkable duel, but it is not primarily a utilitarian object. Mimura cleaves to his blade in observance of the credo that a samurai’s sword is his soul. Proving his continued proficiency with the sword is fundamental to regaining his self-respect as a samurai and as a man who can protect his wife from dishonor.
Other new releases this week: Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Mister Foe, The Perfect Holiday, Planet B-Boy, Sukiyaki Western Django