The Twilight Samurai
Running Time: 125 minutes
UK Certificate: 12
The word ‘samurai’ encodes a whole system of historical Japanese values which may now be part of an era long past, but still has power to inspire strong feelings of nostalgia. The samurai class were nobles bound by a sense of duty to their feudal lords above all else (including their immediate family), and willing, in the name of their own or their clan’s honour, to kill, or even to die. Or so the myth goes – for while the samurai really existed, they have, much like the pioneerings cowboys of the West, been subjected to a great deal of cinematic idealisation. Yoji Yamada, however, is a director who likes to challenge the ideologies underlying Japan’s self-image, and the popularity of his many films in the contemporary ‘Tora-San’ series – about a loveable rogue dedicated to evading hard work rather than toeing any company line – suggests that there is a market in Japan for such iconoclasm (so far there have been 48 successful ‘Tora-San’ films). With ‘Twilight Samurai’, adapted from the novel by Shuuhei Fujisawa and set in the late nineteenth century (the same turbulent period as The Last Samurai), Yamada exposes the clash between the traditional samurai code and a more modern form of heroism, while telling a moving (and gripping) story.
By day, recently widowed Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada, who played the doomed hero of ‘Ringu’) is a low-ranking samurai who keeps records in the stores of his clan’s castle – but when night falls, instead of going out on the town with his colleagues, he rushes home to look after his two young daughters (one of whom is the narrator) and demented mother, thus earning himself the nickname ‘Twilight’. Working through the night to pay off debts accrued during his wife’s long illness, he neglects his own appearance and hygiene, making him something of an embarrassment to the other samurai – but he wins new respect when, defending the honour of childhood friend and old flame Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa), he bloodlessly defeats her belligerent ex-husband using only a wooden sword. Word gets round of Seibei’s long hidden skills with a short sword, and after a bitter powerstruggle following the death of the clan’s lord, the man who emerges as leader orders the reluctant Seibei to go and kill the losing faction’s last surviving retainer Yogo Zenemon (Min Tanaka), who refuses to commit suicide for a meaningless cause – and who, apart from his great pride, is very much like Seibei.
In Yamada’s carefully restrained style, reminiscent of classic directors like Kenji Mizoguchi or Akira Kurosawa, it is the subtlest of gestures which carry the mightiest impact. In any other contemporary director’s hands, the two duel scenes might have been all high-flying wire work and explosive pyrotechnics, but Yamada prefers character to action, relying on the viewer’s emotional investment in his players to bring intensity to scenes that are visually as quiet, understated and drab (or is that twilit?) as Seibei himself. After all, Seibei’s heroism resides not in his mastery of swordplay, but on the contrary in his humility, his decency, his intelligence, his aversion to violence, his egalitarian views on women, and his self-sacrificing devotion to his mother, wife and daughters. Where his colleagues seek patriarchal advancement, the unambitious Seibei finds paternal contentment, making him like no other samurai, and ‘The Twilight Samurai’ like no other samurai film. It is, after all, not a male epic, but a personal memoir narrated by a woman, Seibei’s own daughter Ito – and from her unconventional perspective (as well as Seibei’s own), his conduct as a samurai is of marginal value when set against his qualities as a father, a husband and a teacher of new and unorthodox wisdom.
It's Got: Wonderful performances; an achingly awkward love story; a suspenseful climax; an allusion in the final confrontation to the ending of Apocalypse Now ("Youre the clans errand boy out to claim a reward") that economically colours the behaviour and motivations of the combatants and their superiors alike; and an excellent minimalist score by Isao Tomita that sounds like a (very) Japanese remix of Ennio Morricones soundtracks for Sergio Leones westerns.
It Needs: To be seen in preference to The Last Samurai though set in exactly the same period, it is a far better film.
DVD Extras Scene selection; choice of Dolby digital 2.0/Dolby digital 5.1/dts 5.1; optional English subtitles; original trailers (theatrical/teaser); trailer reel of other Tartan titles (Respiro, Basque Ball, Beijing Bicycle, In the Mood for Love, Lovers of the Arctic Circle, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter...and Spring). DVD Extras Rating: 3/10
Alternatives:The Last Samurai, The Seven Samurai, When the Last Sword is Drawn, Zatoichi
A refreshingly domesticated and feminised tale of changing values in the twilight of Japanese feudalism.