As in The Twilight Samurai, director Yoji Yamada is again more interested in the domestic codes and frayed feudal practices of the late 19th-century shogunate than in spectacular swordsmanship. Blade is a satisfyingly sentimental, almost Dickensian love story between minor samurai Munezo (Masatoshi Nagase) and his family's servant girl, Kie (Takako Matsu). It's bad enough that this provincial knight should be unmarried, worse when he later rescues Kie from an abusive marriage and takes her back home. Love across class lines threatens the order of this rigidly hierarchical society. ("The master and I are of different castes," says Kie, who, like Munezo, dares not admit her feelings.) Meanwhile, Munezo and his comrades-in-arms are being forced to learn newfangled military techniques—including artillery and running like Westerners, with arms swinging opposite to legs. Sensibly, the samurai wonder why would they want to run faster into dangerous combat? Why not take your time about facing death? These scenes are like The Keystone Samurai, both comical and humiliating; no wonder Munezo wants to quit the clan and retire.
Yet like Al Pacino in The Godfather, Part III, he gets pulled back into the corrupt shogunate, which orders him to perform one last mission. A member of his clan rebels against station, gets arrested, escapes, and needs to be killed. But first Munezo's superiors ask him to name names of other possible mutineers. He spits back, "A samurai does not inform on his fellows." What's the point in the samurai code when the system being defended has no honor left to it?
But fight he must, and the final duel—after a little coaching on the "hidden blade" technique from Munezo's old sensei—is a marvel of slow, meticulous footwork and long camera takes. Here's where Yamada, the old master, shows how a proper samurai should never rush into anything as fatal as a sword fight. And he takes his time, too, with Munezo and Kie's romance, which is no less deliberate, well-timed, and conclusive.