|Cast:||Hiroyuki Sanada, Rie Miyazawa, Mitsuru Fukikoshi, Reiko Kusamura, Erina Hashiguchi, Miki Ito, Hiroshi Kanbe, Min Tanaka|
|Screenplay:||Yoji Yamada & Yoshitaka Asama from Shuuhei Fujisawa novels Tasogare Seibei, Chikkou Shiatsu and Iwaibito Sukehachi|
Humanist director Yoji Yamada’s return to the samurai genre couldn’t have come at a better time, as recent warrior period pieces have degenerated into pointless stylistic exercises where modern filmmaking technology has become the be all and end all of the action oriented popcorn picture. Yamada’s traditional genre entry feels as though it were made at the peak of the samurai genre half a century ago in every positive way. It’s a calm, serene, intelligent, and patient work that values character and is unafraid of silence. This isn’t one of those pastiches of brief violent movements cobbled together then run at quadruple speed that passes for a movie these days. Story, character, and believability are the strengths of this novelistic work that’s rendered with cinematic grace and lyricism but without the chaotic battles, special effects, and gimmickry that have destroyed genre films.
The first entry in a brilliant trilogy (followed by The Hidden Blade and Love & Honor) emphasizing life, love, and family over swordplay, Yamada evokes genuine emotion through his credible tales of petty samurai struggling to support their family and maintain their dignity. With mass murderers who “heroicly” fly around killing countless undefined baddies being in vogue, its easy to forget the term samurai means servant of the lord rather than violence glorifying killing machine. Samurai were actually influenced by the philosophies of Buddhism, Zen, Confucianism, and Shinto, with some discovering the futility of violence and becoming Buddhist monks. Twilight Samurai’s hero Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada) doesn’t go quite that far, but realizing his family is more important than the “great” leader he has become detached from the way of the warrior and moved to pacifism. The low ranking samurai has gone deeply in debt paying for the funeral of his wife, and is now left with a senile mother and two young daughters to care for. He can’t afford much these days, particularly to be killed as his dependents would likely join the peasants in starving to death.
Though Seibei’s current duties are bureaucratic, he’s a scribe, his ethical dilemma stems from the fact he only has so much time. He must not only complete the full days work that earns him his 50 koku pittance, but also run the farm and sell insect cages to supplement that income to the point he doesn’t see the bottom of his rice bowl, and do all the duties the women of the house used to. He’ll either be a poor samurai or caretaker, and he chooses the later, resulting in him rarely bathing and coming to work in torn clothes.
To his peers, who give him the derisive nickname Twilight because he always rushes home rather than going out drinking with them, Seibei is a loser. Iguchi doesn’t desire to be revered or consider fighting acumen to be the measure of a samurai, much less a man. He also doesn’t seek glory, attention, or increased rank like the others. Seibei’s answer to the system he’s trapped in and cannot influence is always to withdraw. He’s not doing anything shady, but his values are not in fashion and his ideas are looked down upon, so the best he can do is attempt to avoid torment by keeping a low profile. Everything Seibei does is for his family, and that shows his honor and integrity even though it brings societal dishonor. Essentially no one outside his house (only Tomoe & Michinojo Iinuma seem to like or respect him) sees any good in a simple man who would rather farm than fight.
Seibei is a wounded man who would like to meet certain expectations, but he’s forced to choose what’s most important. He’s content with his way of life, and that’s the best he can hope for, so he doesn’t plan to change for anyone. He never wanted much, retaining his honor and self-respect through the realization they are personal matters, a mindset, which allows him to ignore the snide remarks. He believes his life is dignified, and that’s all that matters.
Many of his problems could be solved by simply taking a new wife, but Seibei’s not only stubbornly independent, his primary characteristic is selflessness. He’s down on marriage because it was his constant cause of regret, as his wife was never able to adjust to the fact his salary was just 1/3 of the family she came from. Unable to accept this was all there was to life now, she made her decline in class a constant source of misery for all. Seibei now assumes marriage can only be a temporary solution that invariably creates a problem, overall doing more harm than good. He refuses to bring such poverty to another woman, as it will not only ruin her life, but bring strife and discord to all those around him.
Yamada takes great care in evoking the period for this elegiac film on the end of the samurai era, not only through the costumes by Akira Kurosawa’s daughter Kazuko, but going so far as to teaching his actors to walk as they did in the mid 1800’s. That being said, Twilight Samurai isn’t the least bit reverential, showing the honor and codes of the period to be bunk, the hierarchical system to be a hypocritical deliverer of misery. The english title Twilight Samurai is actually a better name than the original Japanese title Tasogare Seibei, which means Twilight Seibei, as it also functions as a comment upon the end of the Edo period and samurai era. For a samurai, witnessing rifle practice is viewing your own irrelevance, and likely foreshadowing your death in the not too distant future. Samurai were quickly losing their luster before technology did them in. A key aspect in the decline of their respectability was bushido, an addition to the samurai code of conduct made by the Tokugawa Shogunate for the purpose of controlling the samurai. Bushido made it more difficult for samurai to use their own judgement, as even righteous disloyalty was now grounds for seppuku, hence the famous 47 Ronin incident. Yamada makes subtle comparisons between Seibei and the lord, slyly showing Seibei to be the righteous one despite the ridicule he’s subjected to and wretchedness for the lesser to be the backbone of the feudal system.
Twilight Samurai is irreverent for incorporating more modern attitudes, depicting free spirits bound by a rigid system. Seibei’s childhood friend Tomoe Iinuma (Rie Miyazawa), who played with the boys until her mom forbid it, is an early feminist. A highly unconventional woman for a samurai film, she isn’t docile or subservient. While Seibei disrespects his elders and higher ups by speaking freely and attempting to get them to see his side (and leave him alone), he’s a thoughtful character who can be his own worst enemy for vocalizing his constant internal struggle. Tomoe is more defiant, questioning elders, breaking rules of etiquette, and not knowing her place. She hangs out at Seibei’s every day doing the chores and teaching his daughters as if she were his wife, and doesn’t mind going to a peasant festival even though they are expressly only for peasants. Having been abused by a drunken lout her brother set her up with, the recent divorcee is concerned with what will bring her happiness this time, having a better idea of what she wants for her future. Tomoe is anything but a selfish character though; she’s very kind, dedicated, and giving to those who deserve it.
Yamada’s visual scheme shows Tomoe to complete Seibei. She is light, bringing happiness to him and his family. Tomoe is generally shown in bright natural settings, while Twilight, who always works well into the wee hours, is shown in interiors with dark hues.
Twilight Samurai is a very subtle film where the technique is symbolic, metaphoric, and reflects the mood, just never in an obvious fashion. Unlike Zhang Yimou, who puts all his effort into overloading the screen with supposed beauty, not only tossing aside story and plausibility in the process but overdoing the lone would be strength to the point it’s suffocating, Yamada’s rendering is very detailed but doesn’t wreak of stylization like someone who just left the hair salon. Twilight Samurai’s style matches the main character: laid back, unobtrusive, and unassuming.
Instead of creating a highlight reel, Yamada conveys the rhythm of daily existence. The pleasure of this burdensome toil may be catching a glimpse of your daughters scurrying off to school or having the older one engage you on what she’s learned, realizing she’s growing up through her newfound semi-grasp of some of Confucious’ teachings. Though most of the characters are less than satisfied with societal customs, expectations, and obligations, it’s all in what you focus on, and Seibei is content as long as he can spend his time taking care of his family. That being said, Twilight Samurai is a rare entry in the genre that’s more romance than action, and a beautiful one at that. In Japanese can’t utter your true feelings fashion, Seibei and Tomoe’s love, like everything else that’s on their mind, is completely unstated so the audience is forced to read between the lines.
As in the follow-up The Hidden Blade, the hero is involved in rescuing his love from an abusive marriage. When Michinojo Iinuma (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) jokingly suggests marrying Seibei, Tomoe finally takes the initiative. Iinuma invites Seibei fishing in one of the symbolic but convenient scenes in the film, literally trying to bait him, but when Seibei realizes Michinojo isn’t teasing him he refuses due to his poverty. As was the custom, it was Tomoe’s family, in this case her brother since their father is dead, who got her divorced. Bombed as usual, ex-husband Toyotarou Kouda (Ren Osugi) demands a duel with Michinojo to regain the face he’s lost. Seibei’s there when Kouda is acting up, and though he could easily stay hidden away, being anti-violence doesn’t mean you’re a complete coward who allows your friends to be slain. He takes Iinuma’s place in the duel because he’s a far superior fighter, but as dueling is forbidden he knows he’ll get the shaft if the contest is discovered, as it obviously would be if one is killed. More importantly, he wants no attention called to his combat skill, so he uses wood. In Seven Samurai, Kyuzo tells his opponent he’ll kill them if he uses a real sword, and proceeds to do just that. Seibei actually does spend the duel trying to avoid hurting the man who would certainly deserve it and is trying to slice him in half. He wouldn’t even hit Kouda if he’d quit while he was ahead, but Seibei has to knock him out to end the duel.
Even though the world is collapsing around him, Seibei is left out of fray for the most part due to choosing to remain inconsequential. Though Seibei tries his best to keep his victory a secret, word gets out that he embarrassed his superior, bringing undesired attention and respect as a short sword master. When the lord dies, a rogue samurai Zenemon Yogo (Min Tanaka) refuses to commit seppuku, holing himself up in his house and slaying the warriors who come to take his life. Seibei’s newfound notoriety, which as he expected hasn’t improved his life in any way, gets him elected to risk his life. Yamada shows heroism is doing right by your family, being selfless and caring, but Seibei is forced to have one legitimate fight as though he risks being asked to kill himself trying, he predictably fails to talk his way out of the order. One could argue a true pacifist would have resigned his post, which always bears the potential for death even though his day to day job is clerical, but even with his job he’s in debt. It would be irresponsible to his family to drop to the rank of starving peasants.
In movie from the western world, Tomoe rejecting Seibei’s marriage proposal prior to going into battle would be a certain death sentence, as he’d have nothing to live for. However, by eastern logic she does it to give him a better chance to come out alive. A warrior must have animal ferocity and calm disregard for their life, and a man whose mind is on a woman lacks both. Seibei trusts the man who says his family will be provided for if he dies, and freed of that obligation he can overcome death by embracing it. Normally Tomoe would be safe as she has a home with her brother who makes 8 times what Seibei does, but with the leader dead he’s been summoned and may lose his life in the power struggle. If Seibei is suddenly responsible for Tomoe he may fight too cautiously or hesitate for a split second. Her telling him she’s found a suitable high salary suitor, which may even be true but we’re allowed to wonder, sets Seibei free.
Yamada mostly uses natural light, scenery, and weather to paint his portrait of the everyday toil in an unobtrusive manner. The only obvious visual stylization in Twilight Samurai comes during the climactic battle, as floods of color illuminate portions of the dark interior of Yogo’s home. The colors are very muted compared to the lush colors Mario Bava used for atmosphere, but more importantly the point is the conversation Yogo has with Seibei prior to the battle rather than the fight itself.
Top long swordsman Yogo is in no hurry to duel, wanting to learn what type of man Seibei is to see if it’s acceptable to be slain by him. Yogo reveals his life has actually been harder than Seibei’s, his wife and daughter didn’t survive the 7 years he spent as a masterless samurai farming and begging. Seibei is no cool cocky hero, he’s tense, jumpy, and scared and would prefer to let Yogo run away though I’m not sure how seriously he considers it. We never see Yogo clearly through the shadows, but Yogo is entirely calm and seems to have the more heroic demeanor. It’s silly that Seibei remains such a good fighter considering he hasn’t practiced in ages, but Yogo might actually have allowed Seibei to kill him. He makes a terrible mistake swinging his long sword into the rafters, but this is another example of the mystery that makes Twilight Samurai much more compelling than the typical film that hoists answers upon us. In any case, Yogo can rest easy once he discovers he can relate to and respect Seibei, a fellow pawn who has suffered from a system that renders existence a struggle.
Yamada elicits tremendous understated performances from his entire case. The acting is critical because the plot doesn’t define the characters in a movie of any quality and in a nation where the truth is unspoken, their actions and inactions, gestures and restraints must say it all. Hiroyuki Sanada’s performance exemplifies the same qualities as the film itself: nuanced, sensitive, calm, and content to never call attention to itself. It’s repression, suppression, and silence, yet it conveys what’s not there rather than simply removing it. He’s humble and modest, but if you take the time to notice you’ll realize he’s always much more and better than he lets on. Sanada’s performance is very honest, and Rie Miyazawa just glows as Tomoe, but even though their values are ahead of his time, we never question the plausibility of their characters. Yamada’s mistake in that regard comes through occasionally takes you out of period by using a modern instrument or vocal style.
Reiko Kusamura does an excellent job with Seibei’s mom, who’s actually a legitimately portrayed Alzheimer’s victim. The disease is about not being cognizant of your minute to minute reality, you’re alive but dead, just kind of are because you have no idea if you’re happy or sad, hungry or just ate. She is not reliable for anything, and needs assistance to perform even the most basic functions, just like a baby. She’s a tragic character whose cluelessness we must find humorous, as to take her childishness and forgetfulness any other way is to have your heart town out and be driven crazy by them. Her character shows more about Alzheimer’s in 30 seconds than Sarah Polley’s lamentable fantasy Away From Her does in the entire joke of a film that’s seeks dignity in a disease that robs it and is more about seeing Julie Creepy light up and test the seams of her stretchface. Creepy’s typical superficial performance is all about her glowing and shining, nothing beyond the brand of look at me I’m overacting stuff that calls so much attention to itself some lame awards voters are likely to notice. Based on what’s shown, her character would be “lucky” to be diagnosed as having the earliest stages of dimentia. Even still, taking care of a fellow patient? You’re lucky if you aren’t going to the bathroom in your pants because someone took too long to prod you to go sit on the toilet.