The closing of the Wild West and the impact of encroaching civilization on cowboys and gunslingers have been frequent subjects in American movies, sometimes in rambunctious, high-energy efforts and sometimes in more ruminative, elegiac style. The Japanese equivalent is the tale of the decline of samurai culture in the nineteenth century with the imperial restoration and its attendant administrative modernization. (The period was recently treated in Hollywood fashion, of course, in “The Last Samurai.”) This film by Yoji Yamada clearly falls into the genre, and most definitely into the elegiac subset of it. But while it may not break new ground in the broadest sense, “The Twilight Samurai” is unusual in stressing domestic rather than wider political affairs, evoking a serene, evocative mood that’s remarkable for a film of this sort.
Hiroyuki Sanada plats Seibei Iguchi, a low-level attendant of an aristocratic clan in the feudalistic structure of Japanese society in the mid-1800s. He’s one of a group of clerks who spend their days keeping elaborate records of the clan’s stores of foodstuffs and other essentials, but his modest stipend and burdensome family responsibilities–he’s a widower with two young daughters, as well as an aging, mentally-impaired mother–make his life a constant struggle. He’s reluctant ever to join his colleagues for a drink after work, leading them to deride him behind his back; his clothes are tattered and he himself unkempt, as the visiting clan leader notices; and he makes baskets–hardly a martial activity–to supplement his income. Yet when his uncle, concerned with the family reputation more than his nephew’s well-being, approaches him with a arranged marriage, he declines.
The rationale behind this decision is undoubtedly complicated, but part of it involves the fact that the only woman who really interests Seibei is Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa), the beautiful sister of his closest friend Michinojo Iinuma (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), whom he’s known since childhood. Tomoe was married, but has just left her husband Toyotaro Koda (Ren Osugi), a drunken, abusive nobleman; and when Koda shows up to reclaim her, Seibei accepts the challenge Koda flings at Iinuma, showing unexpected physical prowess by summarily dispatching the clumsy, sword-wielding aristocrat with nothing more that a wooden pole. The divorced Tomoe grows closer to Seibei’s family, but when Iinuma offers him her hand, Seibei refuses because of the smallness of his income. Soon, however, he is called upon to take up his sword to resolve a crisis within the clan. The death of the lord has created an internal power struggle, in which an official, Zenemon Yogo (Min Tanaka), ordered by clan leaders to commit suicide, refuses to do so and holes up in his house, dispatching those sent against him. Seibei is directed to take up his sword and confront Yogo, and though he’s reluctant to resume his martial activities, he’s compelled to accept the mission, leading to the only extended battle sequence in the film. Like the earlier encounter with Koda, however, it’s an atypical affair–protracted, to be sure, but set in a very confined, dark area and hardly settled by any nimbleness on the part of the confused (in one case, drunk, and in the other terrified) combatants. An brief epilogue outlines the remainder of Seibei’s career.
The heroism in “Twilight Samurai” is obviously not of the kind usually found in films about Japanese swordsmen–it’s the heroism of ordinary life rather than of martial arts, of family responsibility rather than public machismo. The effect is to humanize the sort of character who’s ordinarily treated as a type, and while that might disappoint viewers looking for lots of slick action and genre cliches, it will satisfy those wanting something deeper and more emotionally affecting. There are flaws in the picture–it moves very deliberately, sometimes sacrifices subtlety for the sake of immediate effect (the characterization of Seibei’s mother is too calculated, for instance), and at times (as in the climactic combat) isn’t carefully enough staged. The epilogue, which relates things from years later, has a saccharine taste, and the sappy-sounding song slapped over the final credits breaks the mood that’s been so carefully built. But Sanada anchors the picture with a performance of quiet strength and resolve, and Miyazawa is lovely and full of life, even if Tomoe sometimes comes a mite too close to being depicted as a modern liberated woman. “Twilight Samurai” is far more confined and focused than “The Last Samurai,” but in virtually every respect it puts that Hollywood treatment of the period in the shade.