Laura Clifford Robin Clifford
In 1860's Northwest Japan, a '50 koku' samurai who has just lost his wife to consumption struggles to support two young daughters and a mother with Alzheimer's. Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada, "The Last Samurai," "Ringu") works all day administering to his lordship's provisions, but hurries home at dusk, refusing to have a drink with his colleagues. Behind his back, his coworkers call him the "Twilight Samurai."
The title, of course, also refers to the end of the Edo period, the same era recently featured in the Tom Cruise vehicle, "The Last Samurai." Hiroyuki Sanada impressed in that film as Cruise's combative instructor, but this film should make him an international star.
The stage is set by narrator Ito (Erina Hashiguchi), Seibei's five-year old daughter, who never got to know her mother, but clearly adores her dad. Yet he brings shame upon the family when the lord notices his unkempt robes and body odor. Seibei works so hard, including farming for his family, that he neglects himself. This brings a visit from Great Uncle, who offers Seibei an ugly bride and makes his sister, the girls' grandmother, cry. Seibei refuses the offer and admits to his astonished and delighted daughters that he does not like his uncle. Seibei's good friend Michinojo Iinuma (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) suggests becoming an emperor's guard in Kyoto, but Seibei is not an ambitious man. More importantly, Seibei discovers that Iinuma's sister, his childhood love Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa, "47 Ronin"), has divorced her high-ranking samurai husband. Amusingly, when Tomoe appears at his home, Seibei's mother, who fails to recognize her own son, knows Tomoe immediately.
Tomoe's emergence, besides beginning a beautiful love story, sparks the first of Seibei's two great challenges. One night she returns to her brother's home late and finds her drunken, abusive husband there. Seibei protects her and is challenged to a duel, which is forbidden by samurai law. He gets around this by fighting Koda with only a wooden practice stick. Iinuma gently suggests that Seibei marry Tomoe, but Seibei refuses, believing that she needs the wealth of a 400 koku samurai (his own wife, used to a 150 koku lifestyle, could never adjust to his lowly 50). Tomoe, who has become part of Seibei's family life, ceases her visits.
His reputation having grown from beating Koda with only a wooden stick, Seibei is assigned to assassinate Yoho (Min Tanaka), a renegade Samurai. Tomoe, now unrecognized by his mother, appears to prepare Seibei for battle, convinced that he will not return.
Cowriter (with Yoshitaka Asama)/Director Yoji Yamada is well known in Japan for directing 46 of the 48 contemporary Tora-San series, but this divergence into period garnered him a 2003 Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination (this film is far more worthy than the eventual winner) and twelve Japanese Academy Awards. The film is not a flashy visual piece (shot in 1:85:1 aspect ratio by cinematographer Mutsuo Naganuma), although the final battle is quite stylish with its short and long swords crosshatched against vertical wooden slats. Instead, "Twilight Samurai" focuses on telling a wonderful story with complex characters, beautifully acted.
Although it takes place in the 1860's, Seibei and Tomoe's problems are quite modern. He is a single parent struggling with both child and elder care who is forced to take unwanted tasks on the job. She is the victim of an abusive marriage who has made the decision to get out of it. Tomoe's character represents the next era. She has a forward thinking way of viewing the present, commenting at a peasants' festival (which samurai were forbidden to attend) that it was the peasants that made the samurai possible.
Hiroyuki Sanada is outstanding in the lead role, a humble man willing to work hard for a simple life. His highly sympathetic portrayal is augmented by his physical abilities in the swordplay scenes and a depth of acting that allows myriad emotions to play over his face in the matter of seconds. Also good is Rie Miyazawa as the gentle Tomoe. It's been a while since two actors made me care so much about their characters getting together. Mitsuru Fukikoshi displays great warmth and tact as Seibei's friend, Tomoe's brother. Apple-cheeked Erina Hashiguchi is adorable as little Ito.
"Twilight Samurai" is an unconventional look at a bygone way of life. Yoji Yamada has delivered a timeless film, rooted both in past and present.
It is the waning years of the feudal Edo Period in Japan (1603-1867) and the militaristic ideals of the Samurai are being replaced by the commercial needs required for the country to become a part of the modern world. Once-were-warriors are now clerks in the clan businesses and one such Samurai, Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada), is also a widower raising his two daughters alone and caring for his senile mother. The world is changing fast as the past and future collide in “The Twilight Samurai.”
Seibei, with all of his troubles and responsibilities, has become an unkempt recluse, of sorts, as he does his work as a petty member of the Unasaka clan then rushes home to his family. His fellow Samurai make fun of him behind his back, giving him the nickname “Tasogare Seibei,” Twilight Seibei. Seibei’s solitary ways and lack of good hygiene bring him to the attention of the clan’s lord who is repelled by the smell emanating from one of his retainers. Clean up your act or else, he is told by his immediate superior.
Seibei is a low-level Samurai, it is true, but he is also a loving father who cares deeply for his tiny family. Things are about to change for the single parent, who lost his wife to tuberculosis when his daughters were small, when his childhood friend asks his help with his recently divorced sister, Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa), who is trying to break free from her loutish brute of a husband. Seibei, knowing Tomoe since they were kids, gladly takes her in, even if he must confront her ex in combat.
Mr. Twilight surprises everybody, nay-saying coworkers included, when he challenges Tomoe’s husband armed with only a bamboo sword. His better armed, drunken opponent sees this as an easy kill but is unpleasantly surprised when Seibei bests him in battle, humiliating, rather than killing, the lout. Once we are presented with Seibei as heroic, and not humble, the story takes a different turn.
Veteran helmer Yoji Yamada, one of Japan’s most popular directors for his famous “Tora-San” series of films, has crafted together a seemingly simple, but extraordinarily complex, story that focuses on one man, Seibei, and those around them. But, this unpretentious little tale is set against the backdrop of major events occurring in Japan, at the time, which resonate into the lives of even the most humble. Without realizing it, the viewer gets a fairly comprehensive history of Japan lesson and learns about the end of the Shogunate period where the medieval feudal system reigned and the Samurai would declare fealty to his lord. When we meet Seibei, the end of this system is near and the role of the Samurai warrior is changing from combat to commerce. We are shown the very birth of the industrial might of the Japanese.
Hiroyuki Sanada is marvelous as the film’s title character, commanding the screen like a modern day Toshiro Mifune or Takashi Shimura. Though poor and struggling to feed his family on his tiny retainer, Sebei carries himself with dignity and quiet capability that slowly comes out as the story progresses, especially when he must come to aid Tomoe’s damsel-in-distress. When the beautiful divorcee arrives on the scene, played with great poise by Rie Miyazawa, the connection between her and Seibei is palpable. From when their eyes meet you are rooting for them to be together in the end but they have some pretty formidable obstacles to face along the way – and you’re never sure which way it will end. Until the end.
The supporting cast helps flesh out the background, especially by Min Tanaka as Yogo Zenemon, a rugged, skilled Samurai who falls on the wrong side of clan politics and must either commit seppuku (ritual suicide) or die under the blade of another. Yogo, of course, will not turn his blade on himself and his Lord sends another to kill him. The ensuing fight is almost poetic and is the antithesis of such similar scenes in the “Kill Bill” films or the horde of martial arts films that preceded it. The choreographed grace with which helmer Yamada depicts the Samurai duels is remarkable and unexpected.
The screenplay, by Yamada and Yoshitaka Asama adapted from the novel by Shuhei Fujisawa, nicely weaves the historical upheaval in Japan in the later half of the 19th century with the simple, well-told story about a man who is satisfied with what he has, without envy of others. Seibei might be considered “the richest man in Bedford Falls” in the near Capraesque character he portrays. The capable combination of epic backdrop and personal story is well handled. There is a modern feel to the period tale with concepts such as education, single parenthood, divorce and suffrage thrown into the mix
“The Twilight Samurai” is a beautiful looking film, too. Lenser Mutsuo Naganuma captures the look of Samurai films that harkens back to Akira Kurosawa’s warrior tales from the 1950’s. Kazuko Kurosawa (who happens to be related to the majordomo of Japanese films) does an expert job in creating the period look of the transitional time just before western influence gained a foothold in Japan. Production design by Mitsuo Degawa also makes the period set feel real. Other techs are also uniformly superior.
“The Twilight Samurai” isn’t a Tom Cruise action clone a la “The Last Samurai” (thankfully). It is a brilliantly conceived and executed epic tale that brings it down to a personal level, allowing the viewer to sympathize with and root for Seibei. I give it an A.
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