The mid-19th century was an unimaginably chaotic time in Japan. The Tokugawa era had come to a close and the Meiji period was taking its place as the country experienced economic trouble, class upheaval, and an ever-increasing influx of Western ideas. The rigid Tokugawa class system had been ruled by the samurai, but now that proud class was faltering, many of them now answering to the once-lowly merchants. Additionally, as the merchant class rose and the influence of the West increased, the neo-Confucian values of the Tokugawa period were brought into question. Since the class system had been shown to be unstable, how important was the education that had previously been so valued? And what was the use of a strict moral code, if it didn’t raise one of our poverty?
Trade with the west was not only making merchants rich. It was also opening their eyes to European technological advances, particularly when it came to science and the military. This knowledge only increased Japan’s internal conflicts. Some felt the only way to take full advantage of what the West had learned was complete openness, while others clung tightly to the old ways, believing that openness would lead to corruption.
Beneath all of this lurked thousands upon thousands of small stories about individuals who dealt with personal questions just as profound as those the nation was facing. Yoji Yamada’s The Hidden Blade, which opens the New York Film Festival’s Shochiku Company sidebar, tells one of those stories. Though the great majority of Yamada’s 80+ films have taken place in the present-day middle class, he nevertheless is at home in early Meiji Japan, having set 2002’s Oscar-nominated Twilight Samurai in that era.