The Twilight Samurai たそがれ清兵衛 (2002)

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The Twilight Samurai                                     The Twilight Samurai Film Poster

Japanese Title: たそがれ 清兵衛

Romaji: Tasogare Seibei

Release Date: November 02nd, 2002 (Japan)

Running Time: 129 mins.

Director: Yoji Yamada

Writer: Yoji Yamada, Yoshitaka Asama (Screenplay), Shuuhei Fujisawa (Novels)

Starring: Hiroyuki Sanada, Rie Miyazawa, Nenji Kobayashi, Ren Osugi, Mitsuru Fukikoshi, Min Tanaka, Miko Ito, Reiko Kusamura, Setsuko Tanaka, Erina Hashiguchi, Keiko Kishi, Hiroshi Kanbe, Tetsuro Tanba, Kanako Fukaura, Atsushi Maeda

When the film opens we catch things in media res, a funeral taking place, a family mourning. A narrator, an old woman, chimes in, “After a long illness my mother died when I was five.” We discover that she is the young girl in the opening scene, her name is Ito and she is the daughter of a samurai named Seibei Iguchi (Sanada).

It is a time of famine and tumult. The end of the samurai era is in sight and we are The Twilight Samurai Seibei (Sanada) and His Girlsnearing the beginning of the Meiji restoration. Not that this matters to Seibei as taking care of his sick wife, two daughters and a senile mother and then paying for an elaborate funeral for said wife has left him in debt. As a result he spends a lot of time wielding a hoe instead of a sword and constructs insect cages to sell. Whenever he finishes work in the castle store house and is asked to go for a drink by co-workers Iguchi turns the offer down as he has to hurry home to look after his family, earning him the nickname Twilight Seibei (Tasogare Seibei). Not that he minds as he has lost his taste for combat and values time spent with his family.

A chance encounter with his good friend Michinojo Iinuma (Fukikoshi), who is back from a visit to Edo on clan matters, brings news that Seibei’s childhood love, Iinuma’s sister Tomoe (Miyazawa), is divorcing her husband Toyotaro (Osugi), a mean drunk who beats her. Tomoe pays Seibei a visit and it is clear that Tomoe harbours feelings for him just like he does for her. She is a natural with Seibei’s girls Ito and Kayano and brings life to his house. Tomoe’s ex Toyotaro finds it unacceptable that he is being divorced and feels humiliated so he threatens Tomoe. Seibei defends her honour and accepts a challenge to a duel with Toyotaro the next day. He easily beats his opponent and word of Seibei’s skills with the short-sword travels. It soon proves to be an asset for a faction in the clan who ask him to settle a matter of great importance. The task goes against Seibei’s new peaceful lifestyle and puts his role as a father at risk but he cannot duck his responsibility as a samurai and it may get him out of debt and even offer him a shot at winning Tomoe.

The Twilight Samurai is not shot through with the hyper-macho, honour and testosterone driven style that samurai films like 13 Assassins or Lone Wolf and Cub or even the more refined but still very masculine cool posing of something older like Yojimbo or Sword of Doom. It is a quiet and focussed film that patiently lays out the story of Seibei and Tomoe and the changing face of Japan. It shows up the absurdity and the restrictions placed on people by society and the flaws in the increasingly outdated elements of the samurai way of life like duty and honour. This turns the film into a dramatic story where human nature when tested is examined and the mundane relationships people hold dear with others and themselves are as important as sword swinging.

The Twilight Samurai Seibei (Sawaa) at Work

Both Seibei and Tomoe are characters we root for as they struggle to retain their happiness when duty threatens to strip it away. They appear almost liberated when compared to those around them which links into the way that Japan is modernising and things like duty which demand a person subsume their identity into archaic social roles are seen as problematic.

This feeling is reinforced through Seibei’s relationship with his daughters, which is heart-warming and healthy, even modern as he backs their education and growth as individuals while older samurai dismiss them on the basis of their gender. As the story becomes more personal you root for Seibei and Tomoe as the fruitless clan politics which they have avoided threaten to sweep them away and you respect them because, despite their obligations, they try to hang on to their values. Seibei especially has a tough time as a samurai, balancing duty with his samurai code and his family and trying to pursue happiness with Tomoe. There is a parallel story for women as Tomoe battles against outmoded thinking over the way women act. Tomoe’s battle adds a great feminine energy to the film which could have been hyper-masculine.

The Twilight Samurai Tomoe(Miyazawa) and the Girls at a Festival

It is not just drama though as there are duels at key points in the story. Although not as The Twilight Samurai Seibei(Sanada) Faces Off Against Toyotaro (Osugi)blood-thirsty or elaborate as 13 Assassins they have the startling feeling of reality. There is the calm focus and believability which makes them feel gripping as the combatants feel believably skilled. Everybody wielding a sword convinced me they were samurai! It is thrilling watching close combat in a crowded house with combatants performing desperate dodges and crashing into furniture or the stop start battle by a riverside. Yamada knows how to shoot a scene as the latter fight is preceded by a tense moment of stillness, the sound of birds being the only noticeable thing before silence as samurai square off. Just thinking about it again makes me clench my jaw!

The Twilight Samurai Tomoe (Miyazawa) in Lantern LightThe film is expertly shot by Yamada as he utilises natural light. It is both subdued and dramatic. The naked flame of a fire throws light on faces making things mysterious, romantic and menacing. Tomoe and Seibei’s moonlit walk where the two both seem vulnerable, almost swallowed by the dark. Seibei’s training as the only thing we see is the light along his arm and the glint of steel as he swings and thrusts his katana, the shine of metal along blade.

To get the most out of the elaborate and beautiful sets, we witness the action through lots of medium and wide-angle shots allowing us to see actors performing amongst villages made up of houses with thatched roofs and fields, tight cluttered homes. It is all gorgeous. When we do get close-ups it is to show the passing of emotions which leads me on to the acting.

Sanada (Ryuji Takayama in Ring) as Seibei gives a muscular performance both emotionally and physically despite the quiet acting. He easily pulls off the physical aspects of the samurai with his stern presence but what really won me over was a small scene when he first met Tomoe and gave the irrepressible grin of a guy in the presence of the object he desires and the inevitable fumbling as he becomes aware of his awkwardness. As Tomoe Miyazawa is saintly exuding nothing but good nature and a little rebelliousness. Heck, I’d step up to defend her honour! Even the familiar Mitsuru Fukikoshi (Cold Fish) and Ren Osugi (Exte) looked like samurai of the age.

Overall I enjoyed The Twilight Samurai a lot. It won 12 Japanese academy awards in 2003 including the ones for lead actor, actress and director and picture as well as lighting an cinematograph. Those awards are richly deserved. It is a very well made film which tells a simple but rich and gripping story. Its power is down to the acting and the effective way the story unfolds through the script and direction.

4/5

This is a review written as a double review with Novroz over at bokunosekai. She loved the film as well since it starred Hiroyuki Sanada, one of her most favourite Japanese actors, and has a good story with a lot of heart. I’m definitely with her when she rates Sanada’s acting skills highly and I totally agree that this film is different from most samurai flicks out there. As far as listening to the language used goes… I have to say that some of the language was a bit beyond me but then I got huge swathes of it because I have been doing it in a recent lesson! A real punch the air moment and grin! Check out her review to get her full perspective and a cool trailer!

14 thoughts on “The Twilight Samurai たそがれ清兵衛 (2002)

    1. I’ve been giving too many things 5/5! It is technically brilliant and emotionally moving and I liked this film a lot but not as much as something like Mai Mai Miracle or Cure which really struck a deep chord for me.

      Don’t let 4/5 stop you, that’s still a good score!

      1. I know – I’m just getting super choosy. If somebody says they ‘like’ a book instead of ‘love’ it – that’s it. It’s not getting read!
        Lynn😀

      2. Ah, well. I respect that. There’s only so much time in the world! I would suggest Mai Mai Miracle but it’s hard to get in the UK…Looks at ticking clock, gets back to writing anime article/FFTactics post

    1. From the title I was expecting lots of sword swinging action but what I got was a brilliantly created drama with great action… Oh my, I should have mentioned the title during the review! Twilight years of the samurai!

  1. Pingback: The Twilight Samurai -たそがれ清兵衛 (Tasogare Seibei) « Polychrome Interest

  2. I love your review, Jason🙂
    It’s way more thorough than mine. I like the way you highlighted every aspect of the movie. I really like the plot and somehow over look the cinematography but you still captured that part in your review.

    I like the love story between Seibei and Tomoe…it’s not overdone but we can see their feeling transparently.

    Thank you for doing this double review Jason🙂 maybe we can do it again next time (and have a closer publishing time…we need to calculate the time zone next time😉 ).

    Will you be watching the other 2 movies?

    1. Thanks🙂

      I was worried that I went a little overboard with the review. Lately I’ve been writing around 1000 words but it’s because a lot of the films I see I end up loving and want to highlight everything I like about them!

      I really liked the story of Seibei and Tomoe as well. I cared about what happened to them throughout the film which showed that the film and its actors had me gripped!

      I had a lot of fun doing this double review. I will definitely watch the two other movies. In fact, I’ll watch The Hidden Blade this Saturday. Let me know when you want to do it again and we can arrange times (maybe I can schedule the post or post a day early)🙂

      1. I think you didn’t write too much…it covers all in just the right number of words.

        Me too! I want to know where it all went…I am glad Ito told us what happened with them, otherwise I would be wondering. Their love was deep but kept so tight inside.

        I couldn’t find the other two😦 I will keep trying to find it tho.

        I so want to do it again🙂 have you seen Detroit Metal City?

      2. Ito’s final narration was the perfect ending for the film. As a whole the story left me satisfied.

        I haven’t watched Detroit Metal City but I can order it🙂

      3. Agreed! Without it, there’ll be a huge hole in the story. We got the whole picture of what happened to Seibei only in those few sentences Ito shared with us.

        Let me know when you are ready to watch DMC🙂

    1. Hey, thanks for the comment!

      I tend to veer towards films with more contemporary settings but lately I’ve watched a lot of titles set in Japan’s past – one of my aims this year is to do a jidai-geki season. The Twilight Samurai was impressive and leaves me hankering for more historical tales. I’ve got The Hidden Blade ready for a viewing on Saturday although your comment has me interested in whether I will find it as good as The Twilight Samurai! Definitely tough competition!

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