Following The Twilight Samurai (2002) and The Hidden Blade (2004), director Yôji Yamada has capped his masterful samurai trilogy with another rich and involving study of day-to-day life in feudal Japan. As before, Yamada has looked to the historical fiction of novelist Shûhei Fujisawa whose fifty books explore, in intricate detail, the country’s Edo period (1603-1867) – a time of peace when the samurai’s code struggled to find a place within the emerging political structure. Love and Honour amplifies their plight, focusing on a blind samurai cast out by society, struggling to keep a sense of honour but discovering how love can be a much stronger force.
Samurai Shinnojo (Takuya Kimura) dreams of teaching children the art of sword-fighting but is reduced to serving as a food taster at the Lord’s castle. He lives a simple life with his wife Kayo (Rei Dan) and ageing servant (Takashi Sasano) who bears the brunt of Shinnojo’s frustrations. One of Yamada’s many strengths is in portraying the mundane, token traditions the samurai are left to perform as near peasants, drawing parallels to modern life where ambition so often gives way to the necessity of earning a crust. Whether it’s intentional or not, the subtitles also allude to British working-class melodrama with the use of ‘Missus’ and the occasional ‘Aye’ in agreement. The film’s atmosphere of rigid properness even gives it a Jane Austen air, but although it is a period piece it is one that any runner in the rat race can relate to.
After Shinnojo loses his sight from food poisoning Kayo convinces him against seppuku, but she must find a way for them to survive. Reluctantly she seeks out an admirer, the Chief Duty Officer at the castle (Mitsugoro Bando), who agrees to keep paying Shinnojo, in return for certain favours. As Kayo hides her secret, Shinnojo becomes more and more isolated and suspicious, the possibilities gnawing away at him. This is all familiar territory – think Ali MacGraw getting Steve McQueen out of the slammer in The Getaway (1972), or more recently, Turkey’s Cannes winner Three Monkeys – but Yamada approaches it with delicacy and heart, his fragile Kayo driven by love to do anything for her husband while Shinnojo cannot shake his need to maintain honour.
Think of a blind samurai movie and Takeshi Kitano’s Zatôichi (2003) might spring to mind, but unlike Kitano, Yamada has no interest in making Shinnojo a cartoon character. When he does pick up the blade again the film eschews ridiculous theatrics; Shinnojo’s driven to it as a last resort, a way of preserving his last shred of honour. The single, climactic duel may be short but it’s tremendously exciting thanks to Yamada’s investment in making his characters believable. It may go against the usual Japanese exports of slick martial arts action but Love and Honour is a much more satisfying look at the samurai’s existence, showing them as real people trapped in their own daily routine. Honour may be part of that life, but Yamada shows it’s love that truly defines everyone, transcending rank or class.