dir: Yoji Yamada
The Twilight Samurai is a deceptively simple, measured Japanese film about a low-ranked samurai with no ambitions in life apart from looking after his children and senile mother in peace and quiet. If every character aspiring to a life of peace and quiet ever got their wish from the start, these flicks would never get made.
Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyada Sanada) is the derisively-named Twilight Samurai, so named by his workmates because when dusk comes around and their daily labours end, instead of boozing and whoring it up with his colleagues, he scurries home in the increasing dark to see his daughters and mother. Seems like a strange thing to insult a guy over.
Seibei’s wife has recently died of consumption, which used to be the pretty way of saying tuberculosis. As such, he is flat out working and taking care of his remaining family, and doesn’t have the money or time to look after himself or fix up his clothes. In that light, he is unwashed and unkempt, and his kimonos are dirty and torn.
He is loyal to his clan, but plays no part in their interactions and machinations with / against the local Lord. He is of the lowest ranks of samurai, as measured by his miniscule stipend of 50 koku. I don’t know what a koku is. But it doesn’t sound like much.
The story is set in the late 1800s, before the old ways and structures were swept away by the new order. A people in decline who don’t even know it continue doing what they do every day until they no longer can.
Around Seibei’s clan there is stuff going on, but he isn’t privy to it and isn’t likely to play any part. He lives his life in as noble and quiet a way as possible. But, like all protagonists, he gets dragged into situations he has no control over.
A childhood friend, Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa), returns to her samurai brother’s home, and tries to rekindle her ‘friendship’ with Seibei by doing his laundry and helping out with his kids and mother. Nothing says love like cleaning and cooking, apparently, at least in feudal – Meiji era Japan. Personally I think nothing says love like someone giving you very enthusiastic head, but what do I know.
Seibei is conflicted, because though he shows emotion probably about once throughout the flick, he feels something for Tomoe, who is fleeing a drunken violent prick of an ex-husband. He would like to be with her, but is determined to not have her live in the extreme poverty which he is used to and blames for the death of his first wife.
His interactions with Tomoe lead to a confrontation with the drunken ex-husband in the form of a duel, where Seibei surprises us by his proficiency with a sword. For reasons we do not understand yet, he brings a wooden short sword (a wakizashi, I think) to the duel, and still bests the much bigger guy with the very real steel sword. There are undercurrents even to the simple things that we see, and complexities that we initially assume are above Seibei’s head, until we realise that there’s more to Seibei than meets the eye.
The duel and the flick’s conclusion shouldn’t imply that the film has a concerted plot. If anything because of its meandering style, it doesn’t seem like you’re watching a flick with a plot. It feels like you’re watching a slice of life drama about a guy (which you are) to whom some stuff happens to down the track. It creeps up on you to the point where when the plot kicks in, it’s something of a surprise.
We want, of course, Seibei to be all right. Being so lowly and downtrodden, and derided by most of the people around him, he’s got the noble underdog thing going on. But the meanness of his circumstances is contrasted with the nobility of his character and the love he has for his daughters. In a strong scene he explains to his daughter, who questions the utility of her learning the Confucian Analects compared to learning a practical skill, that knowledge itself will help her to think and give her a better chance of survival in a harsh world. It’s not overplayed as if it’s an after-school special kind of message, and indicates the hidden depths to his character.
His poverty is a combination of unfortunate circumstances more than anything else. The cultural importance of expensive burial rites for family members has put him even deeper in the poverty hole, enforced upon him by his clan. To satisfy the clan’s dictates, he makes life harder for himself and his family, because he has no choice.
It’s the system, man: a common theme in Japanese flicks and well realised here without being strident. When he is called upon by the clan to fulfil some duty towards the end of the flick, he tries to resist it with all his might, and tries to say everything he can think of to avoid it. The clan leaders brutally indicate to him how little choice he has in his own fate. Thus, he is forced into a deadly confrontation that he never needed to be in.
The times are difficult all round, with people starving across the land. Emaciated bodies wash down the river, and are noted and pushed back into the water’s flow by farmers and fishermen in an almost casual way. It emphasises the precariousness of Seibei’s and his family’s continued existence in these troubled times, which would only get worse for Japan before they got better.
Seibei’s mum, who has lost her marbles, or whatever the Japanese equivalent is, often asks people what clan or family they are from, clan identification being the paramount way of working out where people stand in this society. She often asks this of her own son, not recognising him or comprehending where he fits in, in the scheme of things. Perhaps a not-subtle way of showing how it was a changing society whose volatility rendered life confusing for all concerned, but an effective one.
Hiroyada Sanada, who’s been in flicks as diverse as the original Ring film, the Tom Cruise Dances with Wolves parody The Last Samurai and the exquisite The White Countess a couple of years ago, puts in a very low-key but desperate performance as the lead. He does a masterful job of looking like a shabby but determined guy just trying to do the right thing be everyone. Of course, whether it’s 19th Century Japan or 00s Australia, you can never do the right thing by everyone without a shitload of money, a gun or heaps of lies, but it still resonates. He really matches the requirements of the character by deceiving us the way he unintentionally deceives the people around him who assume because of his poverty and filthiness that he is a total mook. When they find out that he is not entirely as he appears to be, well, people treat him with a bit more respect, especially his co-workers.
He has a sweet but bloodless relationship with the adorable Tomoe, who, let’s face it, is damaged goods. In the one moment where he speaks from the heart to Tomoe, before going off to do battle; in the one moment where the strictures of society fade away and he speaks his hopes with naked honesty, the situation works out differently than we expect. It’s a beautiful scene in a film replete with good scenes, but to single them out implies there are a series of highpoints, when it is in fact a very low key film.
When it builds to the ‘final’ battle, in the form of a duel, all the romanticism and stylishness is deliberately missing, to give the scene a level of messiness and desperation that enhances it and the story’s credibility.
No-one should be expecting big action set pieces or ninjas flying around the place throwing shuriken stars and cutting off people’s heads. It’s not even anything like that recent Takeshi Kitano millionth remake of Zatoichi, which is a very violent comedy of sorts. It a low key flick about a low key guy who gets into situations not of his making. It won a slew of awards in Japan when it came out, and probably deserved them, who knows.
8 ways in which this is a good film if you like slow, meditative flicks with dirty, dirty samurai in them out of 10
“A serious fight, the killing of a man, requires animal ferocity and calm disregard for one's own life. I have neither of those within me now.” Seibei, The Twilight Samurai.