Judge Erick Harper reviews this highly-acclaimed Japanese drama, which shows that samurai life really wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
The times are changing.
Tasogare Seibei, known in English as The Twilight Samurai, won twelve Japanese Academy Awards upon its release in 2002, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress. It was nominated for an Oscar in 2004 for Best Foreign Language Film, ultimately losing to Canada's Les Invasions Barbares. It helped to spark a revival in both historical filmmaking and the samurai genre in Japan, where such things had fallen out of fashion.
Facts of the Case
Being a samurai isn't always all it's cracked up to be. Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada, The Last Samurai, Ringu, Shogun Samurai) serves as one of his clan's lowest-ranking samurai. There's not much fighting to be done at present, so he works with a group of samurai who function as clerks, keeping track of the castle's provisions, which would be crucial if battle should come to them.
Seibei lives with his aging, senile mother (Reiko Kusamura, Shall We Dansu?) who recognizes him only intermittently. He also struggles to raise two young daughters (Miki Itô and Erina Hashiguchi) as a single parent. Seibei's wife died of tuberculosis, and giving her the lavish funeral that her family demanded has put him deep into debt.
Seibei works for the clan keeping track of stores by day, and works tending his crops or making small insect cages for extra income by night. He has little time to take care of himself, and becomes dirty and disheveled, with a torn kimono and an unpleasant odor. He has no time or money to socialize with his fellow samurai, so they brand him Tasogaro (Twilight) Seibei, the samurai who has to run home right away after work, at twilight.
Through all this, Seibei does not become the miserable, unhappy man that others might in similar circumstances. He takes great delight in watching his daughters grow, and he enjoys the physical labor that his low rank requires. He knows that times are changing, and that the days of the samurai and the sword will soon be over, and he doesn't mind that one bit—he'd rather be a farmer anyway.
As Seibei ponders his future and that of his family, he finds out that his childhood friend Tomoe Iinuma (Rie Miyazawa, 47 Ronin (1994), Musashi) is back in town, having divorced her drunken, abusive husband. A tentative romance sprouts between them, despite Seibei's concerns over his financial condition and ability to support her at the level to which she is accustomed.
Just as it seems that life might be looking up for Seibei, his masters send him on a mission. The turmoil between various samurai clans, the Shogun, and the Emperor is growing. In Seibei's clan, this leads to a change in leadership and a purge. Seibei must kill Zenemon Yogo (Min Tanaka, in his first screen role), a man whose only crime was carrying out the orders given him by the former clan leaders. Seibei is reluctant to go, as Yogo is renowned as a master swordsman, and, as Seibei learns, has led a life of hardship not much different from his own.
For fans of the samurai genre, The Twilight Samurai will come as something of a surprise. This is no Kurosawa or Inagaki sword-swinging jidai-geki epic. Instead, it is an intimate, almost claustrophobic, drama about the life of a samurai and his family. There is little glory to be found here. Instead, this film examines the conflicting social and moral pressures and obligations Seibei Iguchi faces. Samurai status is considered an elevated position in society, and with this status comes an expectation that one will keep up appearances and conduct oneself in an accepted manner. Seibei's life is a constant conflict between the social obligations of a samurai and the reality that his station is not so elevated after all. Indeed, it is this need to keep up appearances that is responsible for his poverty now; the demands of the clan establishment forced him to provide his wife with an extravagant funeral, and the resulting debt continues to crush Seibei and make life difficult for his daughters. On the other hand, Seibei knows that he cannot afford to give up the samurai life; he needs the income, small though it may be, that comes from being a clan retainer. His only other option would be to live as a peasant, and he knows that would be no life for his daughters; the starved bodies that float down the river on the spring meltwaters are a constant reminder of the even greater hardships of peasant life. He stays in an occupation and status for which he has no love because he has no other means of supporting himself or meeting his obligations to his daughters and aged mother. He has no prospects for advancement or increased salary, because he has no ambition and no love for his position. As a result, he struggles on with half a loaf because it's better than none.
Other major themes of the film are changing times and missed opportunities. The hints are all around, such as clan soldiers practicing with firearms, rather than swords. Seibei senses this, and he has a remarkably modern outlook in many ways, for example his insistence that his daughters acquire book learning as well as learning a trade. The times are changing, but they never seem to change quite fast enough to help Seibei. Tomoe's divorce too is a sign of changing times, but again it seems that the times will not change fast enough, the place of the samurai in the world will not change fast enough, and Seibei may miss out on this opportunity for romance.
Writer/director Yoshi Yamada incorporated these major themes into his film as a commentary on contemporary Japanese society. Seibei's situation is not far removed from the lives of many lower-ranking workers in Japanese corporations; social pressures demand their loyalty, and economic forces demand that they stay at jobs for which they have no love. They stay at jobs they hate in order to keep their bodies alive while killing their souls. Even for the ambitious, or those who have some zeal for their jobs, there is little opportunity for advancement; far from being the economic powerhouse of the 1980s, Japan has endured several years of bad economic news and uncertain prospects for the future. Yamada brings out the similarities between this uncertainty and the uncertainty the samurai must have faced in the tumultuous years leading up to the Meiji Restoration.
If Yamada's story is a far cry from other samurai films, so are his visuals. For the most part he avoids the grand, panoramic compositions of a Kurosawa, preferring to concentrate on Seibei and his intimate surroundings. The few times he does show us some broad vistas, an interruption always appears; some sign that Seibei is not free to do as he wishes. This is most clear very early on in the film, beginning at 3:36 in its running time. A shot begins with an impressive, scenic view of a majestic mountain as seen from the roof of a castle. As the camera pulls back we realize that we are looking through the bar-like slats of a window, and that the free and open view is really the view from an almost prison-like environment. Reinforcing the image is a drummer, beating a slow, monotonous rhythm; it reminds the viewer of those old films showing galley slaves rowing to the beat of a kettle drum. This is our introduction to Seibei's world, and this ten second shot speaks volumes about what to expect.
With such a personal story to tell, much rests on the capable shoulders of Hiroyuki Sanada as the hapless Seibei. Sanada got his start in films at a very young age, and became a member of Sonny Chiba's Japan Action Club. He graduated to a number of pulpish samurai and yakuza pictures, and also has an impressive career as a stage actor. While playing Hamlet (in Japanese) on tour in the UK, he was invited to join the Royal Shakespeare Company, and became the first Japanese actor ever to appear with them on stage. Sanada is excellent as Seibei, the gentle-souled, introspective samurai. He avoids the histrionics of other well-known Japanese actors, giving a performance that is simple, subtle, and moving. His experience with the Japan Action Club certainly stands him in good stead when it comes time to draw a blade, but it is the emotive, gentle side of his performance and of Seibei's character that prove so enthralling.
These two main contributors appear in interview segments on the DVD. Yamada's interview runs eleven minutes and discusses many of his influences and aims in making The Twilight Samurai. Sanada talks for sixteen minutes (in remarkably good English) about his experiences, and also takes some time to compare the making of this film with his experiences making the Tom Cruise vehicle The Last Samurai. In addition to these special features there is a trailer (which loses all credibility by featuring a quote from Harry Knowles), as well as trailers for Three Marias and Almost Peaceful.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Twilight Samurai may be a beautiful film, but the DVD from Empire Pictures isn't at all pretty. Picture quality is pretty horrible. The transfer is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, but in a non-anamorphic, hard matted letterbox transfer. The image is a murky mess, softer and fuzzier than a baby duck, with very little definition of fine details. Colors are muted, with a sickly greenish pall over the film much of the time. Shadowed scenes are tough to make out, with characters swimming in a charcoal-gray stew that shows little detail but never quite makes it to true black, either. Compression errors and other digital nasties abound, such as pronounced strobing around the brightest area or light source in any given frame. To add insult to injury, the English subtitles are burned in. Now, most of us probably don't speak Japanese and would need the subtitles anyway, but burned-in subtitles are tacky and indicative of the overall lack of care taken with the video transfer.
The audio fares much better than the picture quality. Dialogue, music, and sound effects are all reproduced nicely, and there is some attempt at channel separation to create a more lifelike sound environment. It is only a 2.0 mix, so the results are not overly impressive; but then again, this is not the sort of film that needs a lot of wall-rattling audio.
Finally, one complaint. For all its wonders, The Twilight Samurai is not a perfect film. Its main flaw is its ending. Instead of ending his film at the end, writer/director Yamada chose to add the most unnaturally tacked-on, manipulative, poorly-conceived voiceover epilogue in the history of cinema. This ending very nearly undoes all the good will that the film has earned up to that point and brings the entire enterprise crashing down. It's a shame, really, that such a beautiful film had to be marred by such a stunt at the end. I loved The Twilight Samurai, but that final voiceover leaves a bad taste in my mouth even now as I reflect on it.
While The Twilight Samurai deals with Japanese culture and the socioeconomic pressures faced by ordinary Japanese, be they nineteenth century samurai or twenty-first century corporate functionaries, the themes certainly resonate on this side of the Pacific. The film spoke to me personally because I too know what it is like to endure in a job I dislike too much to do well and earn advancement, yet fear to leave. I know what it is like to work under a power structure that demands loyalty yet treats underlings as expendable, especially when there is a change in leadership. This being the US and not Japan, and me being a banker rather than a samurai, I was able to break out of that situation, but I can certainly sympathize with the worker or samurai trapped in a more rigid system. I'll wager that a number of other viewers will understand this film on a personal level as well.
This court finds The Twilight Samurai not guilty, and releases director Yamada and star Sanada with our thanks. Empire Pictures does not get off so lightly, however. The most critically-acclaimed Japanese film in years, and they put out a crappy-looking DVD like this? I hereby order them to commit seppuku to expunge the dishonor they have done to this film and cinema in general.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Empire Pictures
• Interview with Director Yoji Yamada
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