Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Twilight Samurai (2004)

Directed by: Yoji Yamada
Written by: Yoshitaka Asama, Yoji Yamada
Starring: Hiroyuki Sanada

Color, 129 minutes

Grade: A

Wait a second. A samurai movie that focuses on relationships and family? That’s right. Yoji Yamada’s The Twilight Samurai is unlike any samurai film I’ve ever seen, and that’s a good thing. The story is set in mid 1800’s Japan, and the focus is a man named Sebei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada), a former master swordsman who is now scraping to get by. He works as a low level accountant and must support his two young daughters and his senile mother by also working in the fields and making insect cages. His wife has recently died from consumption, and because of the funeral, he is in debt up to his ears. His co-workers invite him out for drinks everyday after work; Sebei humbly refuses because he has to get home to his daughters. His colleagues make fun of him behind his back, calling him Twilight because he rushes home before dark, and they complain about his smell. Sebei doesn’t have time to take a bath, doesn’t have time to care for himself, only his family. He is not a pathetic man, and he is content with his life. When his great uncle scolds him and tells him he needs to find a new wife, Sebei disagrees. He enjoys being able to watch his children grow old, even though he sometimes gets angry that his mother doesn’t recognize him.

One day, Sebei runs into his childhood friend/sweetheart Tomoe. Tomoe is recently divorced from a cruel man that abused her. Sebei and Tomoe spend the evening enjoying each other’s company, and reminiscing about their childhood. When night falls, Sebei accompanies Tomoe back to her brother’s house, only to find that Tomoe’s ex-husband is there, drunk and trying to start a fight. Sebei restrains him, and the drunkard challenges him to a duel. Sebei reluctantly agrees, and the fight is scheduled for the following day. At home, Sebei tries to sharpen up on his old tricks. He’s rusty and he knows it, but he honors his agreement and shows up for the fight. Instead of a sword, Sebei shows up with large stick. He doesn’t want to kill his opponent, only teach him a lesson, and that he does. The word spreads about the fight, and one day Sebei is called upon to assassinate a rogue samurai. He is offered a handsome reward for his service, but Sebei doesn’t want the task. He has too much to lose, and he’s not as quick as used to be. After realizing that he has no choice in the matter, he reluctantly agrees, and the audience is lead into one of the most unique climactic battles I’ve ever seen.

Now if it sounds like I’m giving too much away, I’m not. The plot line is almost inconsequential; this film is about character, not action. Over the course of two hours, director Yamada pulls us in slowly and gives us a character that we completely believe. Sebei is a normal everyman. He is not the typical Kurosawa samurai; he is completely human. He loves his family, and they love him. He pines for Tomoe, even though he believes she is too good to be with a petty samurai like himself. This is a man with real life, everyday problems that happens to be good with a sword. Hiroyuki Sanada is absolutely brilliant in the role of Sebei. American audiences may know Sanada from The Last Samurai, and Danny Boyle’s upcoming Sunshine, but Japanese audiences have had the chance to see this man’s talent for years. This actor has displayed more range in one film than any recent American actor has shown throughout their career. He has the dramatic chops to pull off the humility in Sebei, and he can wield a sword well enough to give us a hint of what this character may have been in the past.

Sanada’s performance is reason enough to recommend this film, but Yamada’s direction is a marvel in and of itself. The dramatic scenes are just as good as anything Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story) ever dealt out, and the action scenes, although there are very few, would make Kurosawa proud. The climax itself is one of the most brilliantly timed action set pieces ever put on film. High praise, you say? You better believe it. Now, I know nothing about Yamada. His biography on the DVD says that he has directed over 80 films, and that by now he is about 76 years old. Evidently, this is the only film of his to get any sort of release in the U.S., and I’m here to tell you, that’s a shame. This is a remarkable film that only a master could make. It has been compared to Unforgiven, and while I can see the comparison, I would venture to say that this film may be better. Eastwood’s Will Munny was a stone cold killer. Sure, he cleaned up for a while, but in the end he came full circle. In this film, Sebei is not a bad man, he is a respectable man, a man of honor - the Jimmy Stewart of samurai, if you will. The last thing he has ever wanted was to take a life, and this is where The Twilight Samurai succeeds. We see ourselves in Sebei, and all we can do is hope that everything turns out alright for him.

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