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MOVIE REVIEW

Smart, heartfelt `Blade' has a humorous edge

Yoji Yamada's enormously enjoyable ``The Hidden Blade" is a movie that deftly balances the obligations of samurai history with love story. Actually, neither part seems possible without the other. Not far into the action, our hero, a gentle, low-level warrior named Munezo (Masatoshi Nagase), sums up the movie's basic spirit in a throwaway moment. I can't stop thinking about this woman, he says. Then without missing a beat: And I can't figure out these newfangled cannons, either.

``The Hidden Blade" is set in 1861, near the demise of Japan's samurai culture. The shogun warriors in the movie's small town are in the midst of a shameful but comically captured Western upgrade. Centuries of spear- and swordplay are about to bite the dust. The military has sent a pesky fellow in from Edo to show the samurai Western moves: marching, running, firearms.

It's all got Munezo down. Worse, the woman he's loved for years, Kie (Takako Matsu), his family's former maid, is miserable in her marital arrangement. Rumor has it she's working like a dog and ill from it, too. So Munezo, apparently getting the hang of Western ways, barges into her home and snatches her from her sickbed, causing a minor scandal. ``A samurai carrying a girl on his back in broad daylight?"' someone asks with disdain. ``People will talk," says someone else.

But soon people will be talking about the arrival of Munezo's disgraced former comrade, Hazama (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), who's caught up in a plot to overthrow the shogunate. Since Hazama and Munezo were trained by the same master swordsman, Munezo is suspected of having inside knowledge of further insurgency. All he's really guilty of is having been taught the secrets of the hidden-blade swordsman technique.

This is similar terrain to Yamada's 2004 foreign-film Oscar nominee, ``The Twilight Samurai." That was an emotionally richer film, but ``The Hidden Blade" is more fun without being frivolous. For decades, Yamada's been making pleasing and smart movies about the socially disenfranchised. (The best are 1977's ``The Yellow Handkerchief" and his superb four-part ``Gakko" series from the 1990s, which is still not officially available here.) But he's hit his stride in his 60s and 70s. These latest pictures, including the ``Gakko" films, have a wisdom that seems to run from the director into most of his characters.

Remarkably, in ``Hidden Blade," that wisdom doesn't burden the movie's essential joy. Wild bursts of hilarity break through the melancholy and wistfulness. When Hazama twists a poor functionary's arm, the pained run the injured man makes down the road is eloquently funny. Yamada wants us to feel for these aching characters. And given the warmth he imbues them with, it's impossible not to.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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