‘Twilight Samurai’: Bound by the blade
Written by: Yoji Yamada
Starring: Hiroyuki Sanada, Rie Miyazawa
In mid-19th century Japan, petty samurai Seibei Iguchi slaves in a lowly profession as an accountant, peaceably performing his menial duties to provide for his two precious daughters and his senile mother. Condescendingly dubbed the “twilight samurai” by his coworkers for his pension for calling it a night after a hard day’s work, Seibei’s unkempt appearance and deplorable hygiene is his most external sacrifice in the name of family. Having lost his wife to consumption a few years before, Seibei has fashioned a domestic life more copacetic with his placid personality than with the false glory of the waning samurai way. That is until a former childhood friend (and unrequited love), Tomoe, incurs the wrath of her alcoholic lout of an ex-husband. Sensing that she needs protection, Seibei dispatches the abuser in a duel with nothing more than a bamboo training stick.
Hiroyuki Sanada’s modest hero is a stoic character tailor made for the revisionist crowd. Despite the film’s sympathy toward this civil servant rendered obsolete by a disloyal system, Twilight Samurai is hardly a revisionist samurai picture. But whereas the archetypes of classic samurai pictures (think the Toshiro Mifune brand) masked their silence with boisterous bravado, Seibei remains a devoted family man, one who never explodes even under immense duress. Rather he channels his destitution into an indomitable will that earns him respect within his village in addition to unwanted attention from the remaining Shogunate, who forcibly recruit him for his skills with a shortblade.
Short on action but long on lyricism, Twilight Samurai benefits from its classicist style of filmmaking, which is measured though never dull, plain though always rich. Nonetheless, we are treated to two swift sword fights of which are framed wide and shot steadily and give the viewer a terrific sense of warriors using space to their strategic advantage. It is in these two moments where Seibei becomes not just a samurai fighting out of desperation but a samurai fighting for his honor–the honor to live a humble, ordinary life as a humble, ordinary man. Alas, his specialized abilities prevent him from fulfilling his obligations to his children as well as his love for Tomoe. Seibei, like the stately film around him, is only ordinary on the outside.