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"Love and Honor": Precious Commodities

by on April 22, 2011

We hear about ronin (unemployed samurai) all the time. We hear less often about employed samurai, perhaps because many had boring jobs. Take Shinnojo (Takuya Kimura), a lowly food taster tasked with little more than making sure his rarely glimpsed lord doesn’t gag on poisoned sushi. Even that can’t be accomplished without sitting through an endless series of pointless ceremonies and formalities. “It’s nothing but empty form,” he complains to Kayo (Rei Dan), his devoted wife.

Shinnojo wants out, and he gets his wish—at a terrible price. Let’s just say that he suffers the worst physical affliction that can befall a samurai aside from the loss of a limb. He is left emasculated by his new-found dependence on others, especially Kayo, and her selflessness exacerbates his anguish. Soon he loses his love and she loses her honor. By the end we learn that honor is a spiritual commodity exchanged more often—and by more people—than we expect.

Love and Honor (Bushi no ichibun, 2006) was directed by Yoji Yamada, an industry veteran now enjoying a career renaissance. He is best known for directing 46 entries in the long-running Tora-san series, the chronicle of an itinerant vagabond that critics have likened to comfort food for the Japanese. After the death of his lead actor, Yamada switched tack and directed a loose trilogy of samurai films, of which Love and Honor is the last.

Given his populist credentials, one might view him as a relatively conventional filmmaker, but his style has marked art house elements: few to no reverse shots, several long takes, and frequent reliance on master shots (albeit with frequent pans). The latter are artfully composed, with serried lines of recumbent or kneeling servants emphasizing the rigidity of court life, while familiar elements of Japanese interior design, including sliding doors and paneled screens, are used to frame and box in the characters as they undergo their trials before the director’s detached eye.

This is very much the film of a wise old man (Yamada was 75 at the time), free of unnecessary flamboyance and stylistic posturing; a low-key samurai tale, without the idealism and high excitement of Kurosawa’s epics but less bitter and stingingly critical than Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri (1962) or Samurai Rebellion (1967), though Yamada is also attuned to the ruling class’s snobbery and abuses of power. Violence is suggested more often than shown—the film has only one sword fight. Still, Yamada’s restraint can feel reductive, especially since the narrative is rather linear and the characters’ progressions are too cleanly outlined, though the simplistic, regaining-manhood intent of the swordfight is undercut by Yamada filming the coup de grace in a long shot. Ultimately, Love and Honor’s chief pleasures are in its sensibility (Kimura gives a gracefully light performance, even in heavy scenes) and in moments of stray beauty, such as the slow neon drift of a firefly floating by, on the way to a poignant narrative payoff.

In a rather tasteless move, FUNimation has created an English-language audio track for the DVD (the extras consist of a few trailers). Whether the dub is good or not is irrelevant: If Criterion slapped a dub on a Kurosawa or Mizoguchi disc there would be outrage, and though Yamada isn’t as great an auteur, he doesn’t deserve a dub any less. Perhaps Funimation is betting that it will lure the sort of anime fans who steer clear of “serious” subtitled films. That’s a wager I think they’ll lose.

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