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Twilight Samurai (Yamada Yoji 2002)


Twilight Samurai
[Tasogare Seibei]

Genre: Historical Samurai Drama

review in one breath

Japanese actor Sanada Hiroyuki is becoming widely recognized as Japan's most prominent contemporary action hero. Though given a moderately visible role as Uijo in the lamentably caucasian-centric Last Samurai (2003) (he's the angry samurai who gives Tom Cruise a well-deserved thrashing), Sanada has appeared in numerous leading roles throughout a great number of popular Japanese films. Readers of my reviews will be most familiar with his role as Ryuichi in Ringu (and thereby also Rasen and Ringu 2).

The majority of director Yamada Yoji's accomplishments has been in ongoing series of popular traditional stories, perhaps the most well-known of which are the Otoko wa Tsurai Yo films. Here, Yamada has himself written the screen play of the 2002 novel Tasogare Sebei (Twilight Seibei) by author Fujisawa Shuhei.

With author Fujisawa's moving narrative in hand, director Yamada shows a remarkable eye for picturesque depictions of dramatic landscapes and backdrops. Though much of the tale itself is confined to only a few small sets, the visual horizons which Fujisawa provides force the audience to understand this story as taking place within the vast, natural wilderness of northern Japan. The visuals alone will make this film a favorite with contemporary Western audiences. (By the way, one aspect of this film which will undoubtedly be lost upon those relying on subtitles is the great effort with which the entire cast attempts to speak in the far-northern dialect of Yamagata prefecture.)


To his co-workers, Iguchi Seibei is known as "Twilight Seibei" due to his enduring habit of returning home before the sun sets despite repeated invitations by his comrades to go out for an evening and enjoy himself. Seibei, however, ignores the derogatory nickname and the giggles it brings, and hurries home to where his two young daughters and his senile mother await him. Many years prior, Seibei, a skilled though lowly paid samurai guard, had happily married a woman of higher social position than he, and spent all his effort raising and nourishing his family. When his wife suddenly died of consumption, he was left with two young children and the significant debt of the funeral requested by her parents. In order to pay for the funeral, Seibei had sold his most valuable possession, his sword, and thereby relinquished his position as samurai guard. Now, Seibei works in an accounting firm owned by his kinsmen, while slowly sinking deeper into debt.

Despite Seibei's declining social position, his good friend Iinuma has asked that he wed his recently divorced sister Tomoe (Miyazawa Rie !!). Although Seibei and Tomoe had been very close friends throughout childhood, and Seibei can think of nothing better than to marry Tomoe, his lowly financial position and his fears of an eternally dissatisfied Tomoe result in his decline of Iinuma's offer. (Alas, if only there were some way to earn more money...)

During this time, political unrest abounds. Prominent leaders of the northern clans, to which Seibei belongs, have unwisely aligned themselves with Hasegawa Shima's forces opposing the shogunate. Hasegawa's defeat has meant forced seppuku by him and his officers. In the attempt to set things right with the shogunate, the town's leaders have demanded that Seibei fight a sole Hasegawan officer, Zenemon Yoga, the town's police official. Rather than agree to the socially required suicide, Zenemon asserts that he has only done what he was ordered to do. Seibei has been called in due to the discovery that he held the rank of instructor at the Toda school of short sword fighting. (And short swords are advantageous in confined spaced such as the house in which Zenemon has shut himself.) When Seibei requests to be excused from this duty due to the necessity to care for his family, he himself is ordered to kill Zenemon. In return, the clan promises to compensate Seibei significantly. Such compensation, Seibei realizes, will provide the means whereby he might honorably marry Tomoe (if she is still available!??) and raise his children in security.

commentary (spoiler warning)

In remarkable ways, Twilight Samurai comes across as a Japanese version of director Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992). In Unforgiven we are introduced to a seemingly docile main character whose formidable past is shrouded by the influence of his (dearly) departed wife. Now dedicated solely to providing for his children, our protagonist find himself in a stalemate of insufficiency and wont. Thus, when an opportunity arises wherein he is able to, perhaps, exploit the dangerous skills of his youth and thereby gain enough financially to secure the future of his children, he takes it, with consequences he did not foresee.

This formula, which is so palpably explored in Unforgiven is virtually recreated, though with a few small (Japanese) twists in Twilight Samurai. In similar fashion Seibei is a character with a formidable, hidden past who, at a crucial point in time, wields his weapons to save, not only himself, but all who depend upon him. The conclusions of the two films, though similar, are not identical, since the Tomoe character introduces a new wife/mother figure (accomplished only after the final battle), whereas Eastwood's hero declines such a replacement.

Quite notably, Twilight Samurai seeks to straddle both (Western) happy endings and more traditional (Japanese) existential endings by allowing Seibei and Tomoe to blissfully wed in the end, and then telling the audience (via a one sentence narration) that this bliss is fatefully and sadly curtailed after a mere three years by a bullet shot to Seibei.

But most fundamentally lacking, perhaps, is serious engagement with the central issue which Twilight Samurai itself raises to the utmost fore yet never attempts to resolve. This movie, if about anything, is about what men are forced to do in the name of duty. It is utterly clear to (Japanese) audiences that Zenemon Yogo, the climactic "bad guy", is a mere pawn who, through sheer intent to provide for his daughters, aligns himself on the wrong end of a meaningless political standoff. Once hearing the details of the story, Seibei himself recognizes that this is an innocent man, and yet he is "ordered to kill", in the same way Zenemon was "ordered to kill".

This narrative situation, wherein both the antagonist and protagonist are unwilling subjects of the same questionable social forces, is clearly the stepping stone from which a truly remarkable social commentary could have been drawn. At the very least, I would expect some reference to the "social force" driving the entire episode. But there is nothing here as regards this theme, and I can only ask WHY? This glaring curtail of the most important issue raised in this film is sadly unforgivable. All hail the mind-numbing simplicity of hollywood. Instead of meaningful, intellectual engagement, audiences get a tearful Tomoe awaiting Seibei's return, without explanation as to how the supposedly insurmountable (prior) obstacle to their union had been overcome.

Rather than a simplistic happy ending, I would have liked to learn: What becomes of Zenemon's (previously) noble character? What becomes of Seibei's moral stance once he raises his sword against Zenemon for financial gain? (I mean, didn't Seibei give a passionate, candle-lit speech against this?) What is the result of these two minds' meeting, Zenemon and Seibei, when both confess their similar position? What is the meaning of Seibei's decision to fight Zenemon while he thinks he cannot possibly wed Tomoe? (In other words, why kill an innocent man when it serves no purpose?)

Twilight Samurai unfortunately avoids any hint of complexity by suggesting that, in the end, Seibei's ability to wed Tomoe not only rights all wrongs, but also eradicates all deeper complexities. Though visually stunning and dramatically entertaining, lets sincerely hope that director Yamada's hollywood approach does not infect future Japanese film projects.

Version reviewed: Region 0 DVD (includes English subtitles)

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Panoramic tale of Yamagata chivalry, Edo Jidai. Minimal display of blood. Zero. Nada. Saru no Maru (!?) Nothing strange here other than director Yamada's UNWILLINGNESS to confront/exploit an amazing opportunity. (!!!)

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