Dir/Scr Yoji Yamada.Jap. 2004. 131 mins.

Best known in Japan for his 48 Tora-san films about a wandering peddler who is forever falling inlove, Yamada has scripted or directed several other successful series for theShochiku studio -- and single-handedly saved it from the financial brink.

Two years ago Yamada released his first samurai drama -- The Twilight Samurai. Based on threenovellas by Shuhei Fujisawa, this portrait of a low-ranking samurai who wasboth a devoted family man and death-dealing swordsman swept the JapaneseAcademy Awards and was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar.

Yamada's follow-up, TheHidden Blade, is not only based on two short stories by Fujisawa, but has astory strikingly similar to The TwilightSamurai's. Another series in the offing' Don't bet on it -- but The Hidden Blade, now on release inJapan, looks likely to equal or better TheTwilight Samurai's $11.4m local gross. Internationally, the film shouldinterest the audiences who boosted Twilightto modest success -- but its sameness will not be the box office advantage thatit is in Japan.

Once again the hero, Munezo Katagiri (Masatoshi Nagase), isa low-ranking samurai who is a dab hand with a sword, having the learned thedeadly 'hidden blade' technique from his fencing teacher. And onceagain the hero falls in love with a woman, the chaste-but-lovely family servantKie (Takako Matsu), whom he considers untouchable because of the classdifference between them. (The hero's platonic love in The Twilight Samurai was from a higher-ranking samurai family.)

Yamada films this story in the same subdued and realistic,if emotionally charged, style his used in Twilight.The sword duels look sweaty, tiring and dangerous, while the clothes, houses and even the people's faces have alook of period-authentic poverty.

The Hidden Blade,however, is not a two-hour exercise in gloom and doom. Serious though he may,Yamada is first and foremost an entertainer, dedicated to giving the audiencewhat it wants.

What it gets first is a scene of two samurai friends, Munezoand Samon Shimada (Hidetaka Yoshioka), bidding a third, Yachiro Hazama(Yukiyoshi Ozawa), good-bye as he sails for Edo (today's Tokyo) to work fortheir clan and seek his fortune. The two stay-at-homes are not about to followhim. Samon is looking forward to his marriage to Munezo's younger sister Shino(Tomoko Tabata), while Munezo is living contentedly with Kie and his elderlymother.

Three years pass. Munezo's mother dies and Kie marries a sonof the Iseyas, prosperous oil sellers in town. Meanwhile, waves of politicalchange are surging through the country -- and Munezo's clan is not exempt. Hestarts to learn the foreign arts of war. The age of the sword and samurai isending.

Then Munezo learns that, far from the happy life he hadimagined for her, Kie has separated from her husband and is wasting away fromillness. He brings her home, where he slowly nurses her back to health.Meanwhile, her feelings toward him change from gratitude to something more.

Then Yachiro is discovered leading a plot against the clanleaders -- and is imprisoned instead of being allowed to honourably commitseppuku (ritual suicide) like the other plotters. Because of Munezo'srelationship to Yachiro, his loyalty is doubted by the clan's wily chiefretainer (Ken Ogata). How can he prove it'

Masatoshi Nagase's modest-but-proud Munezo is a brother toHiroyuki Sanada's Twilight Samurai.But while the martial-arts-trained Sanada impressed more with his sword skills,Nakata is more convincingly the pacifist-at-heart who turns to violence onlyout of extreme necessity - but knows how to use it. Also, now pushing forty andthe wild kid of his early films no longer, Nakata seems to mean it when he sayshe wants a quiet life with the woman he loves. Can he find it in a world gonemad' Yamada's answer is one a lot of viewers, samurai movie buffs or not, willwant to hear.

Prod cos: Shochiku,NTV, Hakuhodo, Nihon Shuppan, Eisei Gekijo

Japan dist: Shochiku

Int'l sales: Shochiku

Prod: HiroshiFukasawa, Icxhiro Yamamoto

Cine: MutsuoNaganuma

Prod des: MitsuoDegawa

Ed: Iwao Ishii

Music: IsaoTomita

Main cast: MasatoshiNagase, Takako Matsu, Hidetaka Yoshioka, Yukiyoshi Ozawa, Ken Ogata