Fall on your sword
Twilight Samurai seeks peace in dark expanse of frustration, poverty
Samurai often prove to be soulful warriors, prone to introspection between bouts of swordplay. Their moral and existential quandaries provided the basis of an entire oeuvre of films made by legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa.
But while Kurosawa's samurai live by a special code of justified killing that places them outside society, The Twilight Samurai's revisionist hero questions the very idea of violence.
An artful, heavy-hearted film, Twilight centers on reluctant warrior Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada) living under the law of the sword in 19th-century feudal Japan. Twilight immediately establishes its unusual, somber tone in voice-over narration, provided by 5-year-old orphan Ito (Erina Hashiguchi), who observes her "petty samurai" father Iguchi's poverty and shame following her mother's death from tuberculosis.
Deeply in debt and paid a pittance for his samurai duties, Iguchi must take in piecework to support his two young daughters and senile mother. The other, macho samurai in his clan commune over drinks after each workday and resent Iguchi's refusal to join them, cruelly dubbing him the "Twilight Samurai" for his nightly disappearances.
With his humble manner and searching, caged-animal expressions, Sanada gives a brilliantly physical read on a man nurturing a deep wound. It soon becomes clear that more than his wife's death has set Iguchi apart from society. Multiple characters, including a vicious father-in-law, affirm that Iguchi has always been a man apart. Uninterested in moving up in the samurai ranks, Iguchi prefers the pleasures of home and family.
Besides the love of his daughters, Iguchi's one respite from a life of struggle is the return of his childhood playmate and now a beautiful young woman, Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa), to his village. Recently divorced from an abusive samurai, Tomoe becomes a substitute mother to Iguchi's daughters. Tomoe also resists the gender and class barriers of the age and proves a heroine equal to Twilight's hero.
But a fog of doom seems to hang over Iguchi. He refuses to marry Tomoe and drag her into poverty. Director Yoji Yamada (who has ample experience in directing some 46 Japanese romances) creates an almost unbearable atmosphere of frustrated love, all the more painful for how much Iguchi deserves the happiness Tomoe offers.
As seems inevitable in masculine genres like Westerns and samurai films, Iguchi must face a life-threatening crucible at the film's end. The clan forces the peaceable Iguchi to employ his renowned swordsmanship to murder a rogue samurai. As Tomoe combs Iguchi's hair in preparation for battle, the incomparably skilled Yamada gives us a painful glimpse of the kind of romantic tenderness the couple might have shared had fate not intervened.
Twilight Samurai contains a powerful pacifist message about a hero free from the supposedly innate male taste for violence. The film provides a timely antidote to the copious bloodletting and cavalier approach to death that peppers Kill Bill, Quentin Tarantino's samurai-influenced takes on action heroes.
Death crops up in a shockingly subversive way in Twilight. A great famine plagues the land, and on several occasions, Iguchi watches as peasants find the starved corpses — of children and young girls — floating in the local river. Instead of a delirious spectacle meted out to the deserving, death strikes with an insidious, quiet cruelty.
Though Twilight ends with an uncharacteristically maudlin coda in which Yamada unfortunately feels the need to spell out the film's themes, his deeply affecting drama otherwise cuts to the quick.