Set in feudal Japan, Love and Honor opens in the summertime. But as hara-kiri, crippling, infidelity, domestic abuse and divorce ensue, the film moves into fall; autumn intensifies in step with the characters’ troubles until, at the end, falling leaves flood the screen. Ostensibly, this is a samurai film but, with its changing-seasons-as-metaphor, as well as its teary close-ups, Yamada’s latest owes as much to Douglas Sirk as Akira Kurosawa.
Completing a trilogy of films based on stories by Shûhei Fujisawa, Love and Honor fits neatly alongside Twilight Samurai and The Hidden Blade as a revisionist samurai picture long on character and short on swordfights. Love and Honor centers on Shinnojo (Takuya Kimura), a low-level samurai who tastes the daimyo’s meals for poison, and his noble dreams — manipulation alert! — of classlessness and individuality. Those dreams are cut down when toxic fish makes him blind, rendering him unemployable. Furtively, his wife (Rei Dan) offers herself to a high-level officer in order to maintain her husband’s meager rice ration.
Yamada employs a sophisticated visual sense in the tradition of his master forebears: his camera often whirls around its subject, à la Mizoguchi, while domestic scenes are frequently shot, in long takes, from outside, providing an impression of intimate privilege à la Ozu. But Yamada also instills the film with an anachronistically contemporary flavor: at one point, Shinnojo says, to his elderly servant: “shut up you old fart,” which feels more reminiscent of Apocalypto’s early good-ole boy scenes than of any Nipponese classic. Along with an alternately twangy and flute-heavy musical score (which screams “Japanese!”), Love and Honor feels like a Japanified Hollywood period-piece pastiche.
But the dressings could be a ploy to ensnare mainstream audiences in the film’s bleak story, which aims to strip history of its romantic veneer with a warts-and-all approach; here, for example, men groan and stumble when rising from the conventional kneeling position. With the tropes of the melodrama and a languorous patience, Love and Honor tackles themes like, uh, love and honor (the Japanese title translates as something more like “The Samurai’s Duty”), as well as generational transition. “These days you’ll never get ahead with the sword,” one character says. “You need learning.” Still, the film builds to one duel, unsurprisingly anticlimactic in its brevity. This is, after all, not a sword story, but a love story — a samurai weepie.