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The Twilight Samurai

Director: Yoji Yamada
Cast: Hiroyuki Sanada, Rie Miyazawa, Nenji Kobayashi, Ren Osugi, Mitsuru Fukikoshi

(Empire; US DVD: 28 Dec 2004)

The Quiet Man

Yoji Yamada’s The Twilight Samurai presents a powerfully de-romanticized view of samurai life. Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada) is not the swashbuckling, larger than life figure cut by Toshiro Mifune in a thousand Kurosawa films. Rather, he’s closer to the kind of middle-class functionary that would be played by Paul Giamatti or Philip Seymour Hoffman in an American movie.  The story takes place during the last gasps of the samurai age, before the Meiji Restoration brought Japan into the modern world, and one of the contrasts in the film is between the banal circumstances of the characters and the grandiose codes and rituals that still surround them.

A retainer of the Unasaka clan in the mid-19th century, he is what is referred to as a “petty samurai”. He works during the day with other low-level bureaucrats, tabulating accounts in one of his clan’s grain storehouses. At the end of the day, his co-workers urge him to come drinking with them, but he politely declines and trudges on home. On the weekends, he and his fellow samurai “train” rather ineffectually, but essentially they’re fighters in name only, unprepared for any real combat.

Seibei is a figure of almost impossible pathos and misfortune. Having nursed his wife through a long illness, only to finally lose her, he is now saddled with two young daughters to raise on his modest salary, a house to maintain all by himself, and a senile mother who never remembers who he is. He’s so overworked he never has time to bathe or pay attention to his personal appearance; his co-workers make fun of him behind his back, nicknaming him “twilight” for his melancholy disposition. At one point, the son of the clan’s lord comes to inspect the office and chides Seibei for his smell and appearance; Seibei’s boss is apoplectic with shame, and notes that if it had been the lord himself Seibei probably would have been ordered to commit hara kiri as punishment.

It would be easy to overdo the awfulness of these circumstances, but both the filmmaking and the performance keep melodrama and easy pathos at bay. Yamada relies heavily on long shots and dark, cramped interiors (indeed, at first the movie may seem overly dense and obscure, as if it’s taking place far away from the viewer, off in another room). But there’s a lovely nighttime shot that at first seems to show nothing but the outside of Seibei’s house on a country road; only after we squint and adjust to the dark do we see, tucked away in a corner, Seibei, chopping wood late into the night.

Sanada, a veteran of the original Japanese Ringu films, emphasizes Seibei’s quiet strength and intelligence, his refusal to wallow in self-pity. At one point, his eldest daughter, whom he is tutoring in Confucius, asks him if book learning is as important as her needlepoint. He admits that, for a girl, needlepoint is much for useful, but then goes on to explain, in halting, searching words, that book learning can bring you a kind of “power”, and “no matter how much the world might change, if you have the power to think, you’ll survive.”

When his wealthy uncle sweeps in and peremptorily announces that he’s found a good, solid child-bearer/servant to take some of the strain off his nephew, adding that in Seibei’s depleted circumstances, he can “hardly ask for beauty”, Seibei politely declines the offer. He tries to explain to his uncle that he’s not nearly as wretched as he seems, that he’s quite happy raising and tutoring his two little girls, and doing all the labor of both a mother and a father. And Sanada convinces you that this is true, that Seibei is not lying to plaster over his pain, but that he has found a small measure of contentment in his lot.

But of course, things could be better. And when Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa), the sister of one of Seibei’s friends, returns to town, divorced from her abusive husband, things do begin to change. Tomoe and Seibei were close as children, but a future was impossible because of their differing economic status. Now they fall back into an easy rapport, and Tomoe, without making much ado about it, begins to assume some of the motherly responsibilities for Seibei’s girls. But when her lout of an ex-husband shows up, Seibei steps into defend her and finds himself challenged to armed combat. His samurai skills long made flaccid by disuse, Seibei has sold his sword to pay off debts and has only a wooden stick with which to fight. But against all odds, he triumphs in combat.

Again, the film’s subdued restraint and sense of the everyday legitimatize this potential fantasy premise: the love of a good woman transforms a drudge into a warrior. Tomoe doesn’t alter Seibei’s essential nature; rather, she awakens and re-energizes him, giving him a direction in which to channel the intelligence and sensitivity that were there all along. And the fighting scenes are submerged in dailiness. Before both of the two main combat sequences in the film, Yamada gives us extended scenes of routine life; of Seibei and his daughters preparing breakfast in their house, and of the daughters heading to the village schoolhouse. The film is not about the grand gestures of most samurai films, but about the tiny, human-scaled cracks between those gestures; it’s about the sound of the chickens that Seibei sits and listens to as he awaits an important decision by Tomoe late in the film. 

News of Seibei’s unexpected prowess in battle begins to spread around the village, but he refuses all offers to further himself in the clan. He also turns down the opportunity to marry Tomoe, believing that she would eventually succumb to the same disenchantment as his late wife, who also came from higher birth. Sanada and Miyazawa give luminous performances that fully convey the repressed ardor of their damaged, no longer young characters. Their climactic scene, in which all the emotions and misunderstandings that have plagued them during the movie come tumbling out, is staged by Yamada so that the couple is not only facing away from each other, but displaced further by arches, distance and camera angle. They could be a million miles apart.

The last act of the film recalls Apocalypse Now, but less self-indulgent, more focused. In the shadowy, claustrophobic confrontation between Seibei and his “target”, it seems as if both men are irrevocably torn between the honor code they’ve been taught and the reality of the world they live in. Seibei both is and is not a model samurai. His intelligence and sense of self—qualities that would be a given in a Western society—are out of place in this world of honor and self-abnegation. When he eloquently voices his resistance to a request made by a superior, his lucid argument is shrilly decried as “madness” a samurai with a mind of his own is like a talking dog: an aberration. At the same time, his repression, self-effacement and intense discipline are clearly the products of bushido training.

The picture is not flawless. It’s marred by a rather obvious, sentimental score, and some frankly irrelevant narration by Seibei’s eldest daughter. The girl hardly has anything to do with the main thrust of the film, and drops a few too-neat aphorisms into the final scenes. Given how rigorously underplayed everything else in the movie is, I’m not sure why Yamada felt the need to apply this glazed, I Remember Papa veneer. But these are just minor misjudgments in a film that, like its protagonist, is quiet, unassuming and shimmering with depth.

Extras are modest, mainly consisting of interviews with Yamada and Sanaka. The former outlines the essential de-romanticizing impulse behind the film, while the latter is more verbose and engaging, recounting, among other things, his experience working in Hollywood on The Last Samurai and his English-language stage debut as the Fool in King Lear.


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