Twilight Samurai

on April 23, 2004 by Wade Major
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For Japanese filmmakers, the samurai film is a cultural rite of passage rivaled only by the American western and the Hong Kong kung fu film. It is a genre that claims some of the best work by the likes of Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Kobayashi, Teshigahara, Inagaki and Oshima. Until recently, one who had resisted the trend was Yoji Yamada, the famed director of the long-running "Tora-San" film series. Between 1969 and 1996, some 48 of the offbeat romantic-comedies were made, all but two directed by Yamada. By all accounts, he should have been the least likely to embrace something as serious and artful as samurai cinema. And yet, with the powerful period fable "The Twilight Samurai," he not only reinvigorates the genre, but quite nearly reinvents it.

Based on a novel by Shuhei Fujiwara, the Oscar-nominated film waxes surprisingly philosophical for most of its more than two-hour running time. The central figure is a low-ranking samurai of meager means and many woes named Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada), recently widowed and left to raise his two young daughters alone. Consequently, he must head home each day at twilight just as other samurai are starting to party it up, earning himself the nickname "twilight Seibei." Unfortunately, he doesn't manage his dilemma very well, growing unkempt and allowing personal hygiene to suffer. But when a childhood love, Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa), reenters his life, a new hope begins to grow. Unfortunately, political strife between rival clans is beginning to reach critical mass, potentially putting Sebei's happiness and duty at cross-purposes.

In making "The Twilight Samurai," Yamada has said he meant to create a more honest portrait of samurai life, less glamorous than that which has typically fascinated filmmakers both Japanese and American (as seen most recently in "The Last Samurai"). Indeed, he has succeeded marvelously, largely steering clear of the genre's most familiar staples--epic battles, ferocious swordfights and feudal intrigues--in favor of earnest human drama. In place of spacious battlefields, audiences are treated to the emotional battlefields of Sanada's and Miyazawa's faces as they wrestle with fate, honor and love. Only two scenes, in fact, feature anything resembling a swordfight--a relatively minuscule part of a poetic, pensive film.

Its revisionist aspirations notwithstanding, there is much in "The Twilight Samurai" that is also familiar, recalling the best of the Japanese New Wave which, throughout the 1960s, embraced a melancholic humanism that helped reconcile Japan's imperial past with its uncertain postwar future. Like those earlier classics, it's both technically proficient and dramatically satisfying, evocative, honest and profoundly passionate. Starring Hiroyuki Sanada, Rie Miyazawa, Min Tanaka and Tetsuro Tamba. Directed by Yoji Yamada. Written by Yoshitaka Asama and Yoji Yamada. Produced by Hiroshi Fukazawa, Shigehiro Nakagawa and Ichiro Yamamoto. An Empire release. Period drama. Japanese-language; subtitled. Unrated. Running time: 129 min

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