In 19th century Japan, Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada) ekes out a meagre existence as a low-ranking samurai. As a widower, he has to rush home at the evenings to care for his family rather than dining and drinking with his clan - hence his nickname of "Twilight Samurai". In truth, despite his skill with a sword he has no taste for fighting and would prefer to be a farmer. But for all his woes he is not unhappy, taking pleasure in nature and in bringing up and educating his children.
Review by Jake Wilson:
From childhood, readers may recall the story of Ferdinand the Bull, an early pacifist role model who refused to fight in the ring and preferred to lie around and smell the flowers. Twilight Samurai is roughly the same story: the warrior who just wants a quiet life at home. Though neither the script nor Hiroyuki Sanada's performance are crassly anachronistic, maybe it's too easy a bid for audience approval to plant a sensitive new age guy, with a sympathy for azaleas and woman's rights, in the middle of a traditional warrior culture. Particularly as this gentle family man still proves a master swordsman when the chips are down. Still, as wish fulfilment fantasies go, you could do worse.
Reportedly, Yoji Yamada directed seventy-six films in Japan before this one, while still managing to remain an unknown quantity in my book. Aside perhaps from the prolonged climax - with its surprising transitions from talk to action and darkness to light - Twilight Samurai lacks the element of surprise that would identify him as a strongly individual filmmaker. Still, he pulls off the difficult feat of keeping his style visually and dramatically mobile enough to please a modern audience who might be expecting an action flick, while still communicating Seibei's calm enjoyment of simple pleasures.
One of the few fight scenes takes place on a riverbank, accompanied by rushing water and the twitter of birds; on this occasion, much of the swordplay occurs in a single long take, inviting us to view the contest sub specie aeternitatis rather than get caught up in suspense. Though Yamada isn't shy about moving the camera, he sets a contemplative tone with a muted (almost sepia) colour scheme and formalised long shots like oil paintings of domestic life, homely and idealised at the same time. An early high-angle image of the family cottage could stand as a frontispiece, with one figure chopping wood, another pumping water, and a grey gleam of sunset in the upper right corner of the frame - the "twilight" which has prompted Seibei to return home and which gives the film its title.
By implication, the title has another meaning as well. Despite its revisionist perspective, the film, like many in its genre, is ultimately an elegy for a heroic era. Humble, shabby and lacking in bloodlust, Seibei may be viewed by his fellow samurai with scorn. But in his selfless loyalty to a code of honour he also represents the samurai ethos at its highest and best - just before it passes away.
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TWILIGHT SAMURAI (M)
CAST: Hiroyuki Sanada, Rie Miyazawa, Nenji Kobayashi, Ren Osugi, Mitsuru Fukikoshi, Kanako Fukaura
PRODUCER: Hiroshi Fukazawa, Shigehiro Nakagawa, Ichirô Yamamoto
DIRECTOR: Yoji Yamada
SCRIPT: Yoji Yamada (novel by Shuuhei Fujisawa)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Mutsuo Naganuma
EDITOR: Iwao Ishii
MUSIC: Isao Tomita
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Mitsuo Degawa
RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Madman
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: Melbourne: August 26, 2004; Sydney: September 30, 2004