The Twilight Samurai
Slow-paced and subtle in presentation, The Twilight Samurai captures a side of the famed samurai that is rarely seen. Set in a northeastern province (Shonai) of late nineteenth century Japan, the film tells the story of Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada)—a low-ranking, debt-ridden samurai who, after losing his wife to consumption, struggles to care for his two young daughters and senile mother. Emphasizing the conflicts between duty and family, and love and class rank, director Yoji Yamada has created a film that is deeply engaging on several levels: a classic tale of honor, love, and courage. Winner of 12 Japanese Film Academy Awards, as well as an Academy Award Nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, The Twilight Samurailives up to its billing. But don’t expect an action-packed, samurai-fighting film, or you will be sadly disappointed (there are only two modest fight scenes). —Joel Berman Product Description NOMINATED FOR 2004 ACADEMY AWARD FOR BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM 12 Wins in the Japanese Film Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Film, Best Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Actress. Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada) is a low-ranking samurai living in the fading days of the Shogun period in Japan. His wife has died of tuberculosis, and with two daughters and an elderly mother to support, he and his family must survive in austerity. The divorce of his childhood friend Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa) leads him into a confrontation with her violent ex-husband, a high ranking samurai, and Seibei triumph against all odds. Just Seibei as begins to dream that despite his impoverishment he might win the hand of the long loved Tomoe, he is caught in the shifting turmoil of the times. His superiors, having heard of his sword-fighting prowess, order him on a dangerous mission: kill a renowned warrior who is on the wrong side of a clan power struggle. (Amazon.com)
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Review of: The Twilight Samurai (2002), contributed by Barbara Litt, NCTA seminar participant (2010)
Review of: The Twilight Samurai (2002)
Review by Barbara Litt, Adjunct Faculty, Department of Modern Languages, Carnegie Mellon University; formerly taught Japanese as a foreign language in the Pittsburgh Public Schools
The Twilight Samurai, winner of the 2003 Japan Academy Prize, directed by Yoji Yamada is based on the short novel by Shuhei Fujisawa. It portrays a low ranking samurai eking out a living in a northern castle town (in present day Yamagata Prefecture, with beautiful mountains as a backdrop) during the final years of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The lives of samurai of that era are accurately portrayed as more like bureaucrats and less like warriors, although they must still follow strict codes, and be ready to commit seppuku, for example, when ending up on the losing side in a political dispute. The hero, Iguchi Seibei, is given the derogatory nickname, Tasogare Seibei (tasogare means twilight), because he never goes out drinking after work with colleagues, instead rushing home to care for his sick wife, two daughters, and senile mother. For a comprehensive plot summary, please refer to Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Twilight_Samurai
In the interest of full disclosure, let me admit right here that I love this film. It is moving, and has stayed with me, in its quiet, sincere way, for several days since I watched it.
The Twilight Samurai differs from most jidai geki (period films) in both its quiet, domestic focus, and its relative absence of violence. The film is realistic in many ways, focusing on domestic life, and the small struggles of its protagonist, culminating in a dangerous assignment to kill a renegade samurai who has refused to follow the order to kill himself, followed by a happy ending, tempered by a wistful denouement. While the possibility of violence looms, there are only three violent scenes in the film, all of which are essential to the plot. First is a duel that the hero wins with a wooden stick, to avoid killing his opponent. The second is a brief, mild, scene of domestic violence, with a drunk ex-husband coming after his ex-wife. Finally there is the climactic fight to the death, again, a private affair, inside a dark house, between two people. I cannot judge the accuracy of the fighting scenes, but the emphasis on the relative merits of fighting with a single long sword (Itto-ryu), versus the short sword (kodachi) and the choice of Seibei for the dangerous assignment due to his prowess with kodachi, show impressive attention to detail. These details are necessary for the plot, not simply for action. Based on my limited practice with bokken, the fight sequences look to be realistic and well done.
For a Japanese language class, this film has some significant attractions. Much of the language is clearly spoken, and it is often simple enough to be understood by learners. It is a mix of standard Japanese (the narration by the youngest daughter, looking back on her father’s life) and dialects, mainly the Shonai Dialect. The dialect is relatively transparent, and having students listen to some exchanges from the dialogue and map the dialect to known forms in standard Japanese would be an interesting way to expose students to the existence of regional dialects in Japan in the past and today.
This film brims with Japanese cultural values, both traditional values that existed during the period portrayed, and modern values of its 2002 production. I list some here: modesty, diligence, out of office socialization, nemawashi, obedience, respect for education, cleanliness, status consciousness, family ties, traditional methods of learning (e.g. schools of martial arts), and the priority placed on maintaining harmony. A simple analysis of what characteristics of the hero and heroine make them appealing to Japanese viewers of the present time give insight into Japanese culture.
The film is quite historically accurate, as for its setting and the plausibility of its events. It does not cover many historical events, but it clearly illustrates what life was like for samurai and some commoners in the provinces at the end of the Tokugawa Era.
From both a literary and cultural analytical perspective, if one could take the time to watch two long films in class, it would be very interesting to compare and contrast the US film, The Last Samurai, with this film. Both address the changing role of samurai during Japan’s mid-nineteenth century turmoil, but they are like night and day. One is a Hollywood production, while the other is a Japanese cultural text, made in Japan, about Japanese people, for a Japanese audience. But that would most likely be an ambitious term paper for a high school student.