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 nearing 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.
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.
It is not just drama though as there are duels at key points in the story. Although not as 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 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.
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!