Review: Love and Honor (2006)

Love and Honor (L&H) is the third film by writer/director Yoji Yamada that’s based on the novels of Shuhei Fujisawa.  Following The Twilight Samurai and The Hidden Blade, these three films, although containing no recurring characters, have come to be known as Yamada’s samurai trilogy.  It is my opinion that L&H is, hands down, the best of the three.

L&H is, first and foremost, a beautiful film that strikes the perfect balance between plot, character, and theme.  Although the story is paced somewhat slowly, I was completely engaged the entire time because not a single moment is superfluous.  The writing reminded me of Shakespeare in that there are tragic, comic, and action elements that are so clearly intertwined as to approach a poetic version of reality.

The story follows a low-ranking samurai named Shinnojo Mimura.  He’s dissatisfied with his position as one of the food tasters for his liege lord and he dreams of opening a kendo dojo so he can work with children of any class and cater programs specifically to the strengths of the individual.  This is mentioned in little more than a sentence but the way it’s revealed lets us know just how much thought Mimura has put into the idea.  Unfortunately, the dojo is not to be.  Mimura is stricken ill when he tastes a bad bit of shellfish and the toxins he ingests cause him to lose his sight.  The bulk of the film deals with the ways that Mimura and his family try to deal with this tragedy.

Thematically, the film is about captivity that stems from both the group and the individual.  Some cages are created by society while others are self-imposed.  This is complex material that doesn’t boil down to a single moral.  I think the message you take away depends on your own point of view, but for me, I found the film to be about acceptance.

Yamada illustrates his deft hand at creating meaningful visuals, reinforcing the film’s themes with cage imagery throughout, but it’s his work with his actors that deserves the highest praise.  Even when a plot point might be somewhat predictable, the actors infuse their performances with so much realism that it’s easy to get caught up in the story.  Takuya Kimura, best known for his work in television, is great as Mimura, but it’s the supporting cast that enables his performance.  The beautiful Rei Dan, as Mimura’s wife, Kayo, has a quiet dignity that informs every moment she has onscreen.  Takashi Sasano plays the aging houseman, Tokuhei, whose name we can hardly forget because it’s shouted at him throughout the film.  His character’s humble acceptance of his situation presents the example that the other characters repeatedly ignore and as such he becomes the thematic hub of the story.  A lesser actor might try too hard to be seen in the role, but Sasano, a veteran of 133 roles, is reserved and inhabits the character to such a degree that Tokuhei becomes a real person even though he has very few lines.

Also noteworthy is the beautiful score by Isao Tomita.  I’m familiar with Tomita’s work from the 1970’s when he pioneered the use of synthesizers to recreate classical favorites, but I never liked it very much.  I have no idea if synths were used here, but he’s created a moving score that balances the emotional content of the film with cues that help indicate the period and place.  I found his synth work to be somewhat academic and cold, but this work is lush and filled with feeling.

Oddly, a cinematographer isn’t credited on the film’s IMDB page.  The film is photographed very nicely but I could have lived with less clearly artificial lighting in some shots.  It was the one thing that took me out of the story.

L&H has  everything good storytelling requires: an interesting plot, well-developed and sympathetic characters, tragic turns and splashes of honest humor.  Very highly recommended.

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