****/**** Image D Sound D Extras B
starring Hiroyuki Sanada, Rie Miyazawa, Nenji Kobayashi, Ren Osugi
screenplay by Yôji Yamada, Yoshitaka Asama, based on the story of Shuuhei Fujisawa
directed by Yôji Yamada
by Walter Chaw Unforgiven for veteran director Yôji Yamada and the jidai-geki genre of samurai pictures, The Twilight Samurai is quiet, assured, a masterpiece of contemplative understatement. Its connection to Eastwood's film is more than just cosmetic, though, more than just another "Old West" film about an aging, widowed warrior called into action for something so quaint as the honour of a woman. No, The Twilight Samurai seems an apologia for the romanticization of violence and, moreover, for the elevation of the cult of masculinity out of the mud of bestial muck--where it at least in some measure belongs--and into realms of ritualistic divinity. There's a scene in The Twilight Samurai more powerful than its commensurate moment in Unforgiven that emphasizes this point as unassuming hero Seibei (Hiroyuki Sanada), without comment, steps over the flyblown corpse of a rival assassin in silent pursuit of his own quarry. The romance of end-of-era pictures like this (and literature as well; The Twilight Samurai and Unforgiven heavily remind of Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing) is that they can be pulled into a discussion of the passing away of youth as a man goes from early manhood's heady intoxication with the concept of chivalry to the more sober appreciation that true grit comes with providing constancy for your children in a world forever tilting towards alien territory. Though Seibei's nickname, "Tasogare" ("Twilight"), is a jab at his rushing home after clerk-work to tend to his demented mother and two young daughters, there's poetry in it as a description of a liminal magic hour where change looks not only more possible, but weighted with a lovely, gilded melancholy besides.
It's also a good description of the feeling of the picture itself. Yamada (seventy at the time of filming, with over eighty films under his belt) gives The Twilight Samurai a tremendous amount of dignity. It's paced like a careful consideration as Seibei, a samurai alive at the dawn of the Meiji Restoration and during a period, where his village is concerned, of relative peace, has made himself destitute throwing his wife a funeral that convention demands but that he is hard-pressed to afford. The gossip is that he's ill-kempt without a wife, that his clothes are tattered and that he's had to pawn the implements of war simply to keep his little family housed and fed. But it's enough for Seibei, and just as Kill Bill is at its heart the story of a mother who finds fulfillment in motherhood, The Twilight Samurai is a story of a father who finds fulfillment in being a father. A rarity in and of itself, credit the movie, too, for making the case for the average man struggling against the relentless banality of trying to make ends meet in the day to day. The sundry details of Seibei's life are lightened by the reappearance of childhood sweetheart Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa), married to an abusive man and restricted by her society from correcting both of their situations. For as much of Unforgiven as there is in the film, there's also a touch of Japanese/British author Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day. Maybe blue regret is embedded in the Japanese character.
The violence, when it arrives, has the feeling of the inevitable attached to it--a weariness that suggests duty first when Seibei defends, surreptitiously, his love's honour, then when his clan demands that he dispatch its personal Kurtz, "long sword master" Zenemon Yogo (Min Tanaka). The exchange once Seibei tracks down Yogo is miraculous: Ensconced in his broken-down home, delirious from exhaustion and drink and occasionally munching on bits of his cremated daughter's remains, Yogo seeks common ground with his would-be assassin. ("You've seen hard times, too," he says.) Yet because mercy is viewed as an affront to the Bushido code, when Seibei attempts to show him some, Yogo initiates one of the more excruciating duels in the genre. Protracted, brutal, often clumsy, it's the reality of lovemaking versus the "Hollywood" version of the same. I've seen The Twilight Samurai three or four times, but I've watched this sequence about a dozen. The kind of thing that inspires Quentin Tarantino's dense dialogues and bursts of cathartic, stylized violence, it deserves inclusion in the same conversation. It's the film's payoff for all that careful character building, all that meticulous period detail, and, like the rest of the picture, it's amazing.
A pity that Empire Pictures' DVD release of The Twilight Samurai is so lacking. Begin with the burned-subtitles and a 1.85:1 non-anamorphic video transfer that appears as though it were ported over from a VHS screener. The colours are murky and black level is so dreadful that at key moments in the action, I ran around killing every light source to no avail. It's poetic to speak of shadows against shadows, but it's aggravating to see something I remembered as being beautiful and bright in the theatre relegated to this hell of indistinct shapes. No better, the attendant DD 2.0 stereo sound is every bit as murky and indistinct. Technically speaking, the presentation for this fine film is a disappointment in every regard--and pretty unforgivable, considering that various companies in other regions have released The Twilight Samurai in 16x9-enhanced widescreen and DTS.
An interview with Yamada (11 mins.) is a nice, audio-translated (read: not dubbed) interview that clarifies the director's desire to faithfully adapt the short stories of Shuuhei Fujisawa for the screen. The gravity of the toll of violence on the perpetrator is a key topic, as is the general unreality of the Toshiro Mifune/Akira Kurosawa samurai warrior who dispatches dozens of foes with nary a scratch. It's an exceptional interview. Likewise, a talking-head with Sanada (17 mins.) has the actor, in English, exhibiting a good deal of the humility of his character--going so far as to praise Ed Zwick, his director on The Last Samurai, for the care with which Zwick researched details of Japanese culture for that film. Trailers for The Twilight Samurai, Almost Peaceful, and The Three Marias round out the disc. Originally published: May 29, 2007.