After reviewing a few romance films for valentines, I thought I should look at more action films and watched 'The Twilight Samurai'. It turned out to be a very different kind of samurai film however, depicting the grim reality of the samurai class at the end of the Tokugawa reign. Rather than glorify the samurai way, the film criticises it.
The Twilight samurai (たそがれ清兵衛) is a 2002 film directed by Yoji Yamada (山田 洋次) which was nominated for an academy award for best foreign language film. Yamada is a very respected director in Japan and spent some time as the president of the Japanese Director's Guild. After seeing this film, it's easy to see why. I'm really excited to watch the two other films ('The Hidden Blade' and 'Love and Honor') which form part of a samurai trilogy (though all are separate stories) with 'The Twilight Samurai', because I haven't seen many samurai films which have made me think so critically about the lives of samurai and the system they worked under before.
I guess most people go into samurai films expecting blood and gore and unwavering honor. They probably wouldn't expect to find a film about a sensitive single father living in poverty who would rather sacrifice his honor than kill a man and who believes in educating his daughters more than the way of the warrior. The film is actually called 'Twilight Seibei' in Japanese (Seibei being the name of the main character) but for some reason it seems to have been to changed to samurai in translation, probably because of the hype surrounding samurai in the west. This film certainly puts a dampener on that hype though and I love that about it.
The film's gentle pace sucks you into what may not at first seem like a very compelling story. The film establishes a cohesive world with it's own particular atmosphere and is beautifully, yet subtly shot. At some points in the film it seems like the plot is heading in a predictable manner towards a happy outcome for the characters but every time that happens there is an element of darkness which creeps in giving you a sense of the reality of the period in which it is set.
Seibei is not your usual samurai hero. He is poor and let's his appearance grow shabby, caring little for how others perceive him. Over the course of the film however he shows his own particular kind of honor in other more concrete ways, like sticking up for his friend and treating the female lead Tomoe (played by the stunning Rie Miyazawa/ 宮沢 りえ) with kindness and respect. At the same time he is a clever and skilled opponent in battle.
The dialogue in the film is restrained in most parts but there are a few notable scenes where Seibei's lines are as beautiful as well crafted poetry. The love between Tomoe and Seibei is shown to the audience (more than it is told) through beautiful, subtle movements; she pauses when combing his hair and looks forlornly at the cup he drank from.
I loved 'The Twilight Samurai' and will definitely be seeking out any other Yoji Yamada films I can get my hands on.