Samurai have never been strangers to film; in fact, an entire genre has sprung from their legend, with plenty of attendant offshoots, cross-pollinators and beneficiaries (Westerns, slasher films, Star Wars). Lately, the feudal Japanese warriors have enjoyed a particular bounty of screen time: Last year brought us The Last Samurai, in which a sword-wielding Tom Cruise studied the way of the samurai even as they faced extinction, as well as slashing bride Uma Thurman, slicing and dicing her foes in the samurai-influenced Kill Bill. Meanwhile, Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, made in 1954, remains one of the most accomplished, admired and influential films of all time.
So we are not short on samurai. And upon learning of another film -- this one from Japan and running at a little over two hours -- that catalogues the end of the samurai era, you might hesitate to purchase a ticket. But Twilight Samurai is a gorgeous, emotionally rewarding masterpiece that invites compassion, reflection and, at least from this reviewer, a great deal of admiration. It's no wonder that it won twelve Japanese Academy Awards.
The film is set in the nineteenth century, as the feudal Edo period is giving way to the Meiji Restoration, and samurai are forced to live in castle towns, accepting income in the form of rice from their lords. Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada) is a low-ranking ("petty") samurai with a dismal salary and a host of burdens. His wife has died of tuberculosis, leaving him with an ailing mother and two young daughters. Somehow, he must summon the wherewithal to keep up with his studies and tend to his household, serving as provider and parent to both the older and the younger generation. (Something has to give, and it turns out to be personal hygiene.) His fellow samurai, amused by -- and perhaps pitiful of -- his domestic, un-samurai-like ways, refer to Iguchi as tasogare seibei, or "twilight samurai."
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True, Iguchi is a domestic man. He is tender with his daughters, bestowing kisses and encouraging them in their studies with a gentle hand. He's kind to his mother, who suffers from benign (if burdensome) dementia. Iguchi even does piecework -- women's work, surely -- fashioning insect cages to earn extra income. But the Twilight Samurai isn't as soft as his peers believe. When the violent ex-husband of a childhood friend returns with a vengeance, Iguchi-as-swordsman is the picture of embodied grace, besting the beast with little apparent effort. Unfortunately, Iguchi's success in defending his honor, as well as that of the beautiful Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa), his friend, levies a price.
At this point, the film really takes off, into the riveting territory of societal duty versus personal truth, pitting the demands of a community against one of its individuals and forcing that individual to confront the aching, vulnerable depths of his own heart. As the movie progresses, the conflict deepens to a sorely real, human place, where every action is freighted with its far-reaching consequences.
The role of Seibei Iguchi is a fiercely demanding one, requiring softness and resolve, sweetness and a core of ramrod strength. Apparently, it was a dream and a delight for actor Hiroyuki Sanada, who has traditionally played comedic parts and longed for a dramatic challenge. And his performance here is seamless; there is no separating him from the character. Instead, there is only the palpable parsing of the character's feeling. You can read in Sanada's face that Iguchi is feeling both cursed and blessed at the same time; you can feel the weight of his life and also the light in it, the joy that is his family and his home, however humble.
The script, too, is poetic, using images as much as (maybe more than) words to convey both feeling and meaning. In one scene, ashamed of his meager lot, Iguchi refuses the opportunity to marry the woman he loves. He is racked with frustrated emotion, hiding behind a stoic face and refusing to acknowledge his grief. Moments later, a nearby fisherman notices the body of a peasant girl, dead from starvation, floating in the stream. It is a breathtaking juxtaposition, giving voice to everything -- the pain, the poverty, the senseless loss -- that cannot be said. Director Yoji Yamada speaks openly of his debt to Kurosawa and of their shared goal of portraying a grittier, less romanticized version of samurai life. It would not be going too far to say that Twilight Samurai feels like a sequel to The Seven Samurai, or perhaps a companion film, offering an equally nuanced and far from uniformly positive view of the samurai's lot. This later film also shares its predecessor's patience, taking time to fortify the conflict, develop the characters and turn the screws of the plot. While some contemporary movie-goers may not be able to summon the attention needed to sink into this film, those who can will be well rewarded.