Director Yoji Yamada
Written by Yoshitaka Asama and Yoji Yamada
Based on the novels Tasogare Seibei, Chikkou Shiatsu and Iwaibito Sukehachi by Shuhei Fujiwara
Although the title Twilight Samurai brings to mind an action film, it is actually a wonderful tale about the love between a man and woman, between a man and his family and even the love of life.
The story is set in northeastern Japan during the late 1860s at the end of the Edo period and the start of the Meiji Restoration. Seibei, a lowly samurai of the Unasaka clan, works as a clerk. His coworkers mock him because he goes home straight home after the workday is over. He has no time for carousing because of his responsibilities at home: a sick wife, an elderly mother and two young girls. His wife eventually dies of consumption and Seibei sells his samurai sword to help pay for the costs.
Seibei runs into childhood friend Iinuma and learns of the strife Iinuma’s sister, Tomoe, a former childhood sweetheart, has gone through with her husband Toyotaro, who she has recently divorced. Seibei and Iinuma run into Toyotaro, who is angry about the divorce and wants satisfaction. Seibei accepts the challenge of a duel because Iinuma isn’t as capable with a sword and he is still fond of Tomoe. The next morning Seibei shows up to the duel with a wooden stick since he no longer has his samurai sword. He dominates Toyotaro handily, eventually knocking him out cold. Word gets around about Seibei’s fighting prowess and he is seen in a slightly different light.
Tomoe is thankful to Seibie for defending her honor and spends a lot of time at his house, becoming a surrogate mother by helping with the family and the chores. Iinuma suggests to Seibei that he and Tomoe should get married. Although Seibei would like nothing better, his first wife grew unhappy and resentful over the fact that she lowered herself class-wise to be with Seibei. Tomoe’s family is of an even greater status, so Seibei is worried the same thing might happen. Seibei’s love for Tomoe stops the relationship before it has a chance to develop any more.
A transfer of power in the clan’s leadership leaves some on the outside and defiant of the new successor. Because of his newly renown fighting ability, Seibei is ordered to deal with the drunken Zenemon Yogo, who claims he isn’t coming out of his house alive.
When samurais fight in battle, their code requires their personal appearance to be immaculate. Even though Seibei and Tomoe haven’t spoken in some time, he requests her to come and assist him in making his clothes and hair presentable. They both know this could be the last time they see each other, but they make no mention of it or their feelings. It’s a wonderful scene that expresses their love for each other to the audience without the characters revealing to each other.
When Seibei enters Zenemon’s home, he finds a man very much like himself, a samurai in a society that no longer needs him, a man who has lost a wife and daughter to consumption. Seibei sympathizes, but still must carry out his task armed with only a short sword.
All aspects of the production of this film are of a very high quality and accolades should be lauded on the director, Yoji Yamada. His time spent in the company of Akira Kurasawa has certainly paid off. Yamada and Asama do an amazing job with the script by taking parts of three different novels and melding them into one coherent story. The plot is well paced and takes its time revealing the characters to us, who are believable in their actions and emotions.
Even though the film is a period piece, the story is topical with its themes of love, commitment and responsibility. The fight sequences are realistic in their portrayal, both the actions and their outcomes, instead of the usual cartoon violence with zero-G acrobatics.
Twilight Samurai was Japan’s entry for Best Foreign Film at the 2004 Academy Awards and could easily have taken a Best Nomination away from Mystic River if the Academy wasn’t so ethnocentric.