This is my second Yoji Yamada film (the first being THE TWILIGHT SAMURAI) and I might be going out on a limb here, but based on these two films I think that when it comes to samurai movies he's as talented as Kurosawa. Yamada's style is different: less fighting and more about the character of the samurai, his place in society and his dedication to family. But because of this when the fighting finally does happen you'll be so emotionally invested in the character that you'll be on the edge of your seat!
Like TTS, THB is based on the writings of Shuhei Fujisawa (and thanks to Yamada I bought the only book he has in English and it's wonderful!). This time the samurai is single and lives with his elderly mother. They once had a servant girl that he secretly (even to himself?) loved but she was married into a merchant family at the beginning of the film. Fast forward three years and his mother is dead and by chance he bumps in the ex-servant girl in the market. She tries to put on a happy face, but you can see she's hurting inside. Months go by and he continues his day-to-day activities as a lower samurai, which includes learning modern Western weaponry, then while hanging out at his sister's home he overhears her talking about how the ex-servant girl has be mistreated by her family and sick for two months. Infuriated by this news he goes to her home and finds her suffering from malnutrition and neglected. He takes her home and nurses her back to health. This doesn't sit well with the higher ups, so when an childhood friend of the samurai is found to be secretly plotting against the shogunate our hero is ordered to go kill him.
Of course, I skipping over a lot of stuff, as not to ruin the film for you, but I will tell you there is an assassination scene towards the end of the movie that is the slickest shit I've ever seen in my life! It was awesome! It actually reminded me of the scene in the "Hannibal" novel (not the shitty movie) where this guy is paid to fuck with Hannibal Lecter but ends up dead without realizing that he'd been stabbed.
Anyway, this movie's great, almost as good as THE TWILIGHT SAMURAI, but not quite. I think Hiroyuki Sanada's performance in that film was so perfect that it was impossible for Masatoshi Nagase to match it. Also the samurai in TTS had two adorable daughter's that would have been orphaned if he died, so that really ratcheted up the tension. All said and done THE HIDDEN BLADE is a excellent film and just makes me even more excited to see what else Yoji Yamada has done.