Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The Twilight Samurai

Directed by: Yôji Yamada
Written by: Yôji Yamada; Shuhei Fujisawa; Yoshitaka Asama
Starring: Hiroyuki Sanada; Rie Miyazawa
Music by: Isao Tomita
Release date(s): November 2, 2002
Running time: 129 min
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese

While watching The Twilight Samurai, I was constantly reminded of another samurai picture, which looks like its long-lost twin. Both The Twilight Samurai and When the Last Sword is Drawn are set in the same time in the changing history of Japan in late 19th century when the feudal system was slowly giving away to monarchy, a world where the samurai code was becoming redundant.

Both the films focus on protagonists who are master swordsmen but cynical of the code. This is perhaps due to their poor social standing. When you spend much of your time worrying about food, where’s the time to think about code and honour. Another striking similarity between the films is how, at the end, the protagonists display their skills and the true meaning of honour, as they die for the samurai code to prove that being a true samurai means maintaining integrity above all else.

While When the Last Sword is Drawn narrates the story of the protagonist in the context of the changing socio-political scenario in Koyoto and elsewhere, The Twilight Samurai assumes a narrower narrative approach and focuses its energy on a single man, Seibei, the Twilight of the title. And the film glows in its details, be it the house where widower Seibei lives with his two daughters and ailing mother, or the warehouse where he works.

Unlike the other film, The Twilight Samurai was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 76th Academy Awards, losing to the French Canadian (Québec) film Les Invasions Barbares.

THE PLOT: “Seibei Iguchi, a low-ranking samurai, leads a life without glory as a bureaucrat in the mid-XIX century Japan. A widower, he has charge of two daughters (whom he adores) and a senile mother; he must therefore work in the fields and accept piecework to make ends meet. New prospects seem to open up when Tomoe, his long-time love, divorces a brutal husband. However, even as the Japanese feudal system is unraveling, Seibei remains bound by the code of honour of the samurai and by his own sense of social precedence.”

Writes film critic Roger Ebert: “The closing third of the film is magnificent in the way it gathers all we have learned about Seibei, and uses it to bring depth to what could have been a routine action sequence, but is much more. We see Tomoe shyly preparing him for battle ("Allow me to comb your hair"), and after a crucial conversation, he leaves her and goes to Yogo's home, where the body of an earlier emissary lies in the courtyard, covered by a swarm of flies.” Read the full review here.

PS. Since the earthquake and tsunami in Japan last month, I have been seeing a lot of Japanese films, some even twice over, like Rashomon, I really love the look of the Kurosawa classic — to the very recent Confessions, which I could not finish watching, it was so emotionally draining. The time wasn’t right.

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