The Twilight Samurai


Hiroyuki Sanada as Seibei Iguchi
Rie Miyazawa as Tomoe
Nenji Kobayashi as Hisasaka Choubei
Min Tanaka as Yoho Zenemon
Tetsuro Tamba as Tozaemon Iguchi
Michinojo Iinuma as Mitsuri Fukikoshi
Miki Ito as Kayana Miguchi

Seibei Iguchi is a low ranking samurai whose wife died, leaving him to pull double duties as a parent by taking care of his young daughters and senile old mother. His colleagues treat him like a joke due to his shabby appearance and social inadequacies, giving him the nickname “Twilight”. When he protects his childhood friend, the beautiful Tomoe, from her violent and drunken ex-husband, word gets around of his fighting prowess, getting him assigned to a dangerous mission that could help elevate his financial status, if he isn’t killed.

Japan’s feudal period has long been a rich resource for evocative filmmaking, exemplifying the samurai lifestyle with bloody sword fights and epic battles. For many movie lovers, the history of the genre begins and ends with Akira Kurosawa and his frequent collaborator Toshiro Mifune, but the Independent Film Channel’s “Samurai Saturdays” has brought attention to popular cult characters like Zatoichi, the blind swordsman. The genre has gotten an even bigger boost this past year from movies like Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill and Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai, and many Japanese directors are returning to their cinematic roots. (Even Japan is not safe from the dreaded remake, as a new version of Zatoichi will hit American shores in early June.)

For thirty years, director Yoji Yamada made 48 films starring his hapless character Toro-San, so his first foray into feudal Japan focuses on the human side of living rather than the fighting and warfare. Because of this unique approach, Yamada creates a robust tale about Japanese life that mixes politics, romance and class values. The movie is beautifully shot with sets and landscapes on a par with Kurosawa’s best work, but Yamada also understands how important it is to create fully realized characters, developing strong relationships between them.

Seibei Iguchi makes the perfect sounding board for the times like many of Kurosawa’s flawed protagonists. The samurai credo of honor and pride greatly impacts Seibei’s existence, since it’s hard to keep up his appearances while juggling his family and housework with his clerical duties. This becomes apparent when a high-powered lord chides him for his disheveled appearance and his lack of personal hygiene.

If Mifune were alive today, he would have made Seibei his own, but Hiroyuki Sanada, who starred in Japan’s hit Ringu series, proves himself to be Mifune’s equal, bringing sorrow and pathos to Seibei, so that the viewer immediately empathizes with him. It’s a difficult role that few American actors could muster, but Sanada proves himself to be one of Japan’s finest actors by making this tragic character so interesting.

Seibei’s relationship with his childhood friend Tomoe, played by Rie Miyazawa, is the only saving grace in his miserable life of poverty. She’s a joy to watch on screen, displaying a wide range of emotions, and her moments on screen with Sanada are beautiful and touching. Despite the urging of those around him, Seibei feels unworthy to marry Tomoe, because of her wealthy background that would make it hard for her to adapt to his simple living. This inner dilemma adds a touching O. Henry like quality to the story, as Seibei tries to find a way to overcome his lowly place in life and find the courage to wed Tomoe, an opportunity constantly in danger of being missed.

Fans of the samurai genre hoping for wall-to-wall action may be disappointed, but the sublime approach to storytelling makes the two pivotal swordfights, beautifully choreographed and filled with grace and tension, the movie’s high points. The climactic conversation between Sanada and Min Tanaka, making a stunning film debut as a rogue samurai, is on the par with the Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen face-off in Apocalypse Now; it leads to one of the movie’s crowning moments.

Set in the same time period as The Last Samurai, the transition from ancient feudal times to the modern technological era of Japan is also covered. Yamada’s local perspective brings more credibility to the subject, as it shows that there is more to the lifestyle than fighting and warfare without trying to cater to American sensibilities. The movie is also refreshing in the way it touches upon the woman’s place in society and their attempts to break away from tradition, something that is rarely seen in Japanese films.

With a narrative voice-over, Seibei’s daughter provides the movie’s point of view, telling the story of her father from the future. This leads to the only real fault in what is otherwise a perfect movie, as Yamada tacks on an unnecessary epilogue to try to wrap up her story. It keeps the movie from ending at its peak, a forgivable faux pas since the rest of the movie is so strong.

The Bottom Line:
Working in a genre that has presented some of the most memorable moments in Japanese cinema, Yojo Yamada uses a unique approach to tell a grand story of honor and pride. The beauty and perfection of Sanada’s performance makes The Twilight Samurai one of the best Japanese exports in recent memory. It’s little surprise that it swept the Japanese Academy Awards, but it should have won its American foreign language counterpart, since it is simply the most wonderful cinematic experiences of the year.

The Twilight Samurai opens in New York and Washington DC this Friday, April 23rd, opens in California on the 30th, and then will make the rounds nationwide. Find out when it’s playing in your area here.