The Twilight Samurai (2002) – A Touching Drama on the ‘Samurai’ Legend

By Arun Kumar

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews
Twilight Samurai, Movie Poster, Oscar nominated film
The Twilight Samurai (2002) By Yoji Yamada

Japanese film-maker Yoji Yamada, in the fourth decade of his film-making career, made his best feature-film “The Twilight Samurai” (2002). It is a story of a non-glamorized samurai, whose daily existence, desires and dreams are threatened to be trampled by the volatile decisions of ‘big’ men. I was not aware of Yoji Yamada’s works before “The Twilight Samurai”. Even now, I have only seen three of his works made before 2000 (Yamada was mostly popular for launching Tora-san series – a longest running film series about a endearing drifter). What I liked about this film and the subsequent “The Hidden Blade”, “Love and Honor” (along with “The Twilight Samurai”, these three stand-alone films are known as ‘Samurai Trilogy’ -- not to be confused with Hiroshi Inagaki's 'Samurai Trilogy' of the 1950's) is how Mr. Yamada takes the traditional samurai character and views them through their everyday social life, transformed and trampled by the ever-changing political environment. There’s wealth of domestic details in here; the characters rise from being ‘types’ and become utterly convincing ‘personalities’.  The infusion of themes like female emancipation, single parenthood, submitting to superior order, etc would also strongly resonate with modern viewers, who is on the look out for enriching, humanistic movie experience. The most unforgettable aspect of “Twilight Samurai” for me is the unexpectedly brilliant third act, where we witness an aural-visual elegy that instills hope as well as incites few tears to shed for the human condition. 

Our Rating: 8.0
IMDb Ratings: 8.1
Genre: Comedy | Crime | Drama
CastHiroyuki Sanada, Rie Miyazawa, Nenji Kobayashi
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Runtime: 129 min
Color: Color

The film opens with the death of Seibei Iguchi’s wife, on one wintry day, in the 1860s Japanese. It was the era of volatile political/military situations and waning days of Edo period (Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai was also set in this era). Samurai Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada) isn’t at a prominent position to do make any sociopolitical decisions. He is a low-ranked samurai, who gets only an annual stipend of 50 koku rice. The economic hierarchy within the samurai order is intriguing. The day-to-day work they do in their clan offices is as dull and boring as our desk jobs. The workers laugh to their worn-out jokes from boss and plan together to visit the local pub after work. After his wife’s death, Iguchi juggles between the low-paying accountant job (maintains inventory for the Lord’s stores of grains) and takes care his two sprightly young daughters (10 year old Kayano and 5 year old Ito) and the old, senile mother. He makes insect cages to make ends meet. And, despite the self-absorbed, thoughtful nature, Iguchi is a wonderful father, who encourages his daughters to learn books for thinking on their own. His commitment to family which makes him rush back to home, immediately after work, has brought him the nickname ‘Twilight Samurai’. Iguchi’s robes are tattered and the innumerable duties don’t even give him time to take care of personal hygiene. One day, clans’ Lord notices Iguchi’s grimy state and he becomes a laughing stock among his peers.
Hiroyuki Sanada as Samurai Iguchi making Insect cages with his eldest daughter to make ends meet
Hiroyuki Sanada as Samurai Iguchi making Insect cages with his eldest daughter to make ends meet
A chance conversation with a wealthy, old friend brings him news about old childhood friend Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa), who has recently got divorced from an abusive samurai husband Koda (with an annual stipend of 1200 koku rice). Despite being a pacifist, Iguchi is forced to defend Tomoe’s honor as her divorced husband, one day causes a ruckus. Iguchi does have a past of getting trained to be master swordsmen, but as he says at one point in the narrative: he has lost the desire to yield the sword. But, situation forces him to take the challenge of Koda. Iguchi only goes with a wooden sword and wins Koda with one perfect knocking blow. The news reaches Tomoe and through her brother, she tells about the desire to remarry Iguchi. He rejects the marriage offer, out of fear that she could never live in such impoverished conditions. And, once the news the fighting prowess of Iguchi reaches the high orders of clan, it brings him more problems. He is pulled into participate in life-threatening confrontations as clan rebellion looms in the near-future.

The plot description of “The Twilight Samurai” would make it like an overly sentimental tale of the lost era. There are little doses of melodrama, but Mr. Yamada’s writing & direction makes it a most meditative film about samurai lifestyle. Unlike, many historic films, Yamada isn’t singing paean for an era or its heroes; he is lamenting for the protagonist who was born into a wrong era, filled with violence and blood-lust. But that doesn’t make it an entirely revisionist or deconstructive samurai film. There is some romanticism diffused in the depiction of samurai, although for the most part it also humanizes them. Samurai aren’t just seen through the stricter framework of Bushido codes. We get to know their dilemmas and the urge to escape before they set out to follow or thwart the rigid hierarchical orders. The story’s narrator Ido (as an old lady she recalls her childhood days) exhibits a sense of nostalgia, which is not for the land or the era, but only for the love and hope Iguchi bestowed upon them. The landscape awaits bloodshed, while the rivers carry the corpses of famine-afflicted farmer families. This unforgiving political and economical structure is used perfectly to intensify the turmoils of a common-man like Iguchi.
Samurai Iguchi seeks Miss Tomoe's help to prepare his hair properly before fighting off deranged Samurai Zenemon
Samurai Iguchi seeks Miss Tomoe's help to prepare his hair properly before fighting off deranged Samurai Zenemon
The name ’twilight’, although mocks at Iguchi’s plight, mourns for the fading glory of a progressive man, born to a relentless setting. Yamada uses wide shots of Iguchi, standing before backdrops of sunsets and golden-hued sky to convey that feeling. At the end, samurai Zenemon, who is about to take his final journey also talks about a ‘twilight’, indicating the samurai way of life. In one scene, Iguchi comments on the beautiful blossom of azaleas, only to foreshadow the arrival of luminous Miss Tomoe. The fishing scene between Iguchi and his friend also offers a fine visual symbolism, where the friend talking about the Tomoe’s marriage offer isn’t able to make the fish take its bait. The old mother, towards the end, picks up egg in the yard, wondering why the chicken laid it in the wrong place, where the egg could have easily got trampled. This may symbolize the present and near-future events of the era, where simple folks got crushed under the Lord’s vicious scheme to attain great positions. There are many such unsubtle as well as subtle metaphors and visual references in the narrative. Nevertheless, Yamada’s fantastic achievement is not just the diffusion of symbolism, but the utterly convincing manner he details the people’s life. Like the masterful film-maker Ozu, director Yamada has the eye to make ordinary, mundane life look so beautiful and relatable.

Those who are expecting a gritty, violent samurai picture would be immensely bored by “The Twilight Samurai”. There is violence, but the central character is quite aware that none of his problems could be solved by little bloodshed. It is what makes the final conversation and sword fight engaging and profound. The final fight, within the close quarters, starts with an elegant conversation which touches upon the inhumane afflictions, faced by Samurai (exhausted samurai Zenemon’s face reminded me of the humanist samurai we saw in the Mr. Kobayashi benchmark works). A momentary slip of information, on the part of Iguchi, suddenly leads to the fight. It wasn’t much of cinematic fight, where you precise blows. Both of them bumble like drunken men on the dance floor, while fighting for mere survival than for honoring the ‘codes’. It is this incredibly moving sequence transcends some of the previous, predictable narrative beats. Yamada’s approach in staging the long, ending sequence is totally lacks heavy-handed nature. There’s also enough gentle humor to upend the rising distresses. I particularly liked the way Yamada treats Tomoe, as a woman questioning things and looking for a change. While her character is restricted by the era’s societal values, she isn’t simply depicted as agent of love or element changing protagonist’s fate. There’s a mutual respect between them than just blinding love and as much as Iguchi saves her honor, she too help Iguchi to uphold his honor (of course, the interplay between them doesn’t totally break the traditional mold, but I liked the slight fine-tuning of the routine characterizations). Sanada is one of the best contemporary Japanese actors and he plays Iguchi with amazing restraint (he played Ujo in “The Last Samurai”). When faced with dire situations, the surface of his face shows perfect, little strain to demonstrate the inner pain rather than relying on loud histrionics.  
Swords drawn in close quarters, Iguchi faces Zenemon in the movie's pivotal scene
Swords drawn in close quarters, Iguchi faces Zenemon in the movie's pivotal scene
“The Twilight Samurai” (129 minutes) is a moving elegy about simple individuals swept up by unkindly hierarchies, politics and economics. It doesn’t say that ‘love conquers all’, but it does insinuate that nothing is more important than love. 

About Author - 

Arun Kumar is an ardent cinephile, who finds solace by exploring and learning from the unique works of the cinematic art. He believes in the shared-dream experience of cinema and tries to share those thoughts in the best possible way. He blogs at Passion for Movies and 'Creofire'.

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The Twilight Samurai (2002) Trailer (YouTube)

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